We take this concept for granted; there are “entry-level” jobs, and then you can get “promoted”, until perhaps you’re lucky enough or talented enough to rise to the “top”. Jobs that are “higher” on this “ladder” pay better, offer superior benefits, and also typically involve more pleasant work environments and more autonomy, though they also typically require greater skill and more responsibility.
But I contend that an alien lifeform encountering our planet for the first time, even one that somehow knew all about neoclassical economic theory (admittedly weird, but bear with me here), would be quite baffled by this arrangement.
The classic “rags to riches” story always involves starting work in some menial job like working in the mailroom, from which you then more or less magically rise to the position of CEO. (The intermediate steps are rarely told in the story, probably because they undermine the narrative; successful entrepreneurs usually make their first successful business using funds from their wealthy relatives, and if you haven’t got any wealthy relatives, that’s just too bad for you.)
Even despite its dubious accuracy, the story is bizarre in another way: There’s no reason to think that being really good at working in the mail room has anything at all to do with being good at managing a successful business. They’re totally orthogonal skills. They may even be contrary in personality terms; the kind of person who makes a good entrepreneur is innovative, decisive, and independent—and those are exactly the kind of personality traits that will make you miserable in a menial job where you’re constantly following orders.
Yet in almost every profession, we have this process where you must first “earn” your way to “higher” positions by doing menial and at best tangentially-related tasks.
This even happens in science, where we ought to know better! There’s really no reason to think that being good at taking multiple-choice tests strongly predicts your ability to do scientific research, nor that being good at grading multiple-choice tests does either; and yet to become a scientific researcher you must pass a great many multiple-choice tests (at bare minimum the SAT and GRE), and probably as a grad student you’ll end up grading some as well.
This process is frankly bizarre; worldwide, we are probably leaving tens of trillions of dollars of productivity on the table by instituting these arbitrary selection barriers that have nothing to do with actual skills. Simply optimizing our process of CEO selection alone would probably add a trillion dollars to US GDP.
If neoclassical economics were right, we should assign jobs solely based on marginal productivity; there should be some sort of assessment of your ability at each task you might perform, and whichever you’re best at (in the sense of comparative advantage) is what you end up doing, because that’s what you’ll be paid the most to do. Actually for this to really work the selection process would have to be extremely cheap, extremely reliable, and extremely fast, lest the friction of the selection system itself introduce enormous inefficiencies. (The fact that this never even seems to work even in SF stories with superintelligent sorting AIs, let alone in real life, is just so much the worse for neoclassical economics. The last book I read in which it actually seemed to work was Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone—so it was literally just magic.)
The hope seems to be that competition will somehow iron out this problem, but in order for that to work, we must all be competing on a level playing field, and furthermore the mode of competition must accurately assess our real ability. The reason Olympic sports do a pretty good job of selecting the best athletes in the world is that they obey these criteria; the reason corporations do a terrible job of selecting the best CEOs is that they do not.
I’m quite certain I could do better than the former CEO of the late Lehman Brothers (and, to be fair, there are others who could do better still than I), but I’ll likely never get the chance to own a major financial firm—and I’m a lot closer than most people. I get to tick most of the boxes you need to be in that kind of position: White, male, American, mostly able-bodied, intelligent, hard-working, with a graduate degree in economics. Alas, I was only born in the top 10% of the US income distribution, not the top 1% or 0.01%, so my odds are considerably reduced. (That and I’m pretty sure that working for a company as evil as the late Lehman Brothers would destroy my soul.) Somewhere in Sudan there is a little girl who would be the best CEO of an investment bank the world has ever seen, but she is dying of malaria. Somewhere in India there is a little boy who would have been a greater physicist than Einstein, but no one ever taught him to read.
Competition may help reduce the inefficiency of this hierarchical arrangement—but it cannot explain why we use a hierarchy in the first place. Some people may be especially good at leadership and coordination; but in an efficient system they wouldn’t be seen as “above” other people, but as useful coordinators and advisors that people consult to ensure they are allocating tasks efficiently. You wouldn’t do things because “your boss told you to”, but because those things were the most efficient use of your time, given what everyone else in the group was doing. You’d consult your coordinator often, and usually take their advice; but you wouldn’t see them as orders you were required to follow.
Moreover, coordinators would probably not be paid much better than those they coordinate; what they were paid would depend on how much the success of the tasks depends upon efficient coordination, as well as how skilled other people are at coordination. It’s true that if having you there really does make a company with $1 billion in revenue 1% more efficient, that is in fact worth $10 million; but that isn’t how we set the pay of managers. It’s simply obvious to most people that managers should be paid more than their subordinates—that with a “promotion” comes more leadership and more pay. You’re “moving up the corporate ladder” Your pay reflects your higher status, not your marginal productivity.
This is not an optimal economic system by any means. And yet it seems perfectly natural to us to do this, and most people have trouble thinking any other way—which gives us a hint of where it’s probably coming from.
Perfectly natural. That is, instinctual. That is, evolutionary.
I believe that the corporate ladder, like most forms of hierarchy that humans use, is actually a recapitulation of our primate instincts to form a mating hierarchy with an alpha male.
First of all, the person in charge is indeed almost always male—over 90% of all high-level business executives are men. This is clearly discrimination, because women executives are paid less and yet show higher competence. Rare, underpaid, and highly competent is exactly the pattern we would expect in the presence of discrimination. If it were instead a lack of innate ability, we would expect that women executives would be much less competent on average, though they would still be rare and paid less. If there were no discrimination and no difference in ability, we would see equal pay, equal competence, and equal prevalence (this happens almost nowhere—the closest I think we get is in undergraduate admissions). Executives are also usually tall, healthy, and middle-aged—just like alpha males among chimpanzees and gorillas. (You can make excuses for why: Height is correlated with IQ, health makes you more productive, middle age is when you’re old enough to have experience but young enough to have vigor and stamina—but the fact remains, you’re matching the gorillas.)
Second, many otherwise-baffling economic decisions make sense in light of this hypothesis.
When a large company is floundering, why do we cut 20,000 laborers instead of simply reducing the CEO’s stock option package by half to save the same amount of money? Think back to the alpha male: Would he give himself less in a time of scarcity? Of course not. Nor would he remove his immediate subordinates, unless they had done something to offend him. If resources are scarce, the “obvious” answer is to take them from those at the bottom of the hierarchy—resource conservation is always accomplished at the expense of the lowest-status individuals.
Why are the very same poor people who would most stand to gain from redistribution of wealth often those who are most fiercely opposed to it? Because, deep down, they just instinctually “know” that alpha males are supposed to get the bananas, and if they are of low status it is their deserved lot in life. That is how people who depend on TANF and Medicaid to survive can nonetheless vote for Donald Trump. (As for how they can convince themselves that they “don’t get anything from the government”, that I’m not sure. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”)
Why is power an aphrodisiac, as well as for many an apparent excuse for bad behavior? I’ll let Cameron Anderson (a psychologist at UC Berkeley) give you the answer: “powerful people act with great daring and sometimes behave rather like gorillas”. With higher status comes a surge in testosterone (makes sense if you’re going to have more mates, and maybe even if you’re commanding an army—but running an investment bank?), which is directly linked to dominance behavior.
These attitudes may well have been adaptive for surviving in the African savannah 2 million years ago. In a world red in tooth and claw, having the biggest, strongest male be in charge of the tribe might have been the most efficient means of ensuring the success of the tribe—or rather I should say, the genes of the tribe, since the only reason we have a tribal instinct is that tribal instinct genes were highly successful at propagating themselves.
I’m actually sort of agnostic on the question of whether our evolutionary heuristics were optimal for ancient survival, or simply the best our brains could manage; but one thing is certain: They are not optimal today. The uninhibited dominance behavior associated with high status may work well enough for a tribal chieftain, but it could be literally apocalyptic when exhibited by the head of state of a nuclear superpower. Allocation of resources by status hierarchy may be fine for hunter-gatherers, but it is disastrously inefficient in an information technology economy.
From now on, whenever you hear “corporate ladder” and similar turns of phrase, I want you to substitute “primate status hierarchy”. You’ll quickly see how well it fits; and hopefully once enough people realize this, together we can all find a way to change to a better system.