All else being equal

Our culture has moved, without anyone really talking about it, from a culture in which “all else is never equal” to one in which “all else is always equal”—and it’s really harmed our equality. Let me unpack that a bit.

It used to be that there were many, many gradations between individuals. Take academics: one person might have A’s, another B’s, and another C’s. Similarly, personality might vary a lot—one person might be brainy and lazy, another contentious and methodical.

In that world, it’s easy to ignore more minor differences. Sure, the boss might rather hire a friend’s child, or someone of the right race, or with the right politics—and, all else being equal, I’m sure they would make decisions on that basis. But having the right family/race/politics wasn’t enough to overcome the difference between being an A student and a B student; even if certain characteristics were advantageous when all else was equal, all else was so rarely equal that it didn’t much matter.

But what happens when all else is equal, at least a much larger fraction of the time? What happens when a there are 72 validictorians in a high school and 222 in a district?

Well, you can say a lot about a town with 222 valedictorians, some of it good and some of it bad. But one thing you can say for sure is that an employer trying to distinguish between those 222 grads can’t do it on grades. When making their hiring decision, grades are literally equal.[FN: Ok, not exactly literally—part of the explanation for the abundance of valedictorians is that the school was awarding the prize to anyone with a stratospheric GPA rather than to only those students literally tied for first. But still, anyone who tries to draw GPA-based distinctions between valedictorians clearly doesn’t have their head screwed on quite right.]

Even when grades aren’t an exact tie, they’ve clearly gotten much closer over the years—grade compression is a real and ongoing problem. For more and more jobs, “grades” have become one of the things that might well be equal.

As have many other standard metrics. As students have gotten savvier about what employers and admissions committees are looking for, it seems to become harder and harder to tell them apart. And the predictable consequence of this is that employers are more likely to make decisions based on those “tiny” things that only matter “when all else is equal.”

One particularly pernicious consequence of this shift can be seen in the increasing polarization of government agencies. Many government agencies are, to a larger or smaller degree, “mission driven”—for example, the EPA has a mission of protecting the environment, the Department of Justice has a mission of protecting people from criminals, and the Federal Public defenders have a mission of providing justice to the indigent.

And, when looking for a job at one of those organizations, it’s always provided a bit of leg up if you are a True Believer. If you really buy into the mission, you’ll have an edge on a similarly qualified person who views it a just a job, no better or worse than any other.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this—that “similarly qualified person” business is just another way of coming at the “if all else is equal” issue. It used to be that all else wasn’t equal, and thus that ideology played only a minor role in hiring; they couldn’t find enough similarly qualified people to need to break a tie. Now, however, there are so many nearly perfectly qualified candidates that ideology is pressed into frequent service as a tiebreaker. And there have never been more ties.

Spend some time around one of these groups and you’ll see what I mean. If you look at people who were hired 20 or 30 years ago, you’ll find a real mix of ideologies—and that’s after accounting for the effect of decades of acculturation. Indeed, it was once common for people to be deciding between offers from organizations on the opposite end of an issue—a prosecutor’s office and a defenders office, for example.

But if you talk to the youngins, a very different picture emerges. Not only are most of the younger employees more ideologically pure, you’ll also learn that they committed to a particular ideology very early on—frequently years before their formal association with the organization in question. And it’s becoming rarer and rarer for people to cross over to the other side (for Federal Prosecutors to become Federal Defenders, say).

All of this represents a real loss. It’s a loss, of course, to those caught in the middle, without strong ties to either extreme. But it’s also a loss to the people on either side, as the organizations ossify and become ever more impervious to “attacks” from the other side (to say nothing of genuine understanding).

And that’s just on the politicization side. The issue is just as bad—maybe worse—when it exaggerates the impact of family connections, or networking skill, or ability to perform in an interview in ways that aren’t relevant to the job.

The bottom line is that, more and more frequently, we force people to make distinctions without a solid basis to do so. And we shouldn’t be surprised that, as a result, they make those distinctions on pretty flimsy ground. But we should be dismayed at the consequences.

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2 thoughts on “All else being equal”

  1. I’d sum this up as: When legitimate forms of discrimination are no longer available, the only option left is illegitimate discrimination.

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