Why is there a “corporate ladder”?

JDN 2457482

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.

Is America uniquely… mean?

JDN 2457454

I read this article yesterday which I found both very resonant and very disturbing: At least among First World countries, the United States really does seem uniquely, for lack of a better word, mean.

The formal psychological terminology is social dominance orientation; the political science term is authoritarianism. In economics, we notice the difference due to its effect on income inequality. But all of these concepts are capturing part of a deeper underlying reality that in the age of Trump I am finding increasingly hard to deny. The best predictor of support for Trump is authoritarianism.

Of course I’ve already talked about our enormous military budget; but then Tennessee had to make their official state rifle a 50-caliber weapon capable of destroying light tanks. There is something especially dominant, aggressive, and violent about American culture.

We are certainly not unique in the world as a whole—actually I think the amount of social dominance orientation, authoritarianism, and inequality in the US is fairly similar to the world average. We are unique in our gun ownership, but our military spending proportional to GDP is not particularly high by world standards—we’re just an extremely rich country. But in all these respects we are a unique outlier among First World countries; in many ways we resemble a rich authoritarian petrostate like Qatar rather than a European social democracy like France or the UK. (At least we’re not Saudi Arabia?)

More than other First World cultures, Americans believe in hierarchy; they believe that someone should be on top and other people should be on the bottom. More than that, they believe that people “like us” should be on top and people “not like us” should be on the bottom, however that is defined—often in terms of race or religion, but not necessarily.

Indeed, one of the things I find most baffling about this is that it is often more important to people that others be held down than that they themselves be lifted up. This is the only way I can make sense of the fact that people who have watched their wages be drained into the pockets of billionaires for a generation can think that the most important things to do right now are block out illegal immigrants and deport Muslims.

It seems to be that people become convinced that their own status, whatever it may be, is deserved: If they are rich, it is obviously because they are so brilliant and hard-working (something Trump clearly believes about himself, being a textbook example of Narcissistic Personality Disorder); if they are poor, it is obviously because they are so incompetent and lazy. Thus, being lifted up doesn’t make sense; why would you give me things I don’t deserve?

But then when they see people who are different from them, they know automatically that those people must be by definition inferior, as all who are Not of Our Tribe are by definition inferior. And therefore, any of them who are rich gained their position through corruption or injustice, and all of them who are poor deserve their fate for being so inferior. Thus, it is most vital to ensure that these Not of Our Tribe are held down from reaching high positions they so obviously do not deserve.

I’m fairly sure that most of this happens at a very deep unconscious level; it calls upon ancient evolutionary instincts to love our own tribe, to serve the alpha male, to fear and hate those of other tribes. These instincts may well have served us 200,000 years ago (then again, they may just have been the best our brains could manage at the time); but they are becoming a dangerous liability today.

As E.O. Wilson put it: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

Yet this cannot be a complete explanation, for there is variation in these attitudes. A purely instinctual theory should say that all human cultures have this to an essentially equal degree; but I started this post by pointing out that the United States appears to have a particularly large amount relative to Europe.

So, there must be something in the cultures or institutions of different nations that makes them either enhance or suppress this instinctual tribalism. There must be something that Europe is doing right, the US is doing wrong, and Saudi Arabia is doing very, very wrong.
Well, the obvious one that sticks out at me is religion. It seems fairly obvious to me that Sweden is less religious than the US, which is less religious than Saudi Arabia.

Data does back me up on this. Religiosity isn’t easy to measure, but we have methods of doing so. If we ask people in various countries if religion is very important in their lives, the percentage of people who say yes gives us an indication of how religious that country is.

In Saudi Arabia, 93% say yes. In the United States, 65% say yes. In Sweden, only 17% say yes.

Religiosity tends to be highest in the poorest countries, but the US is an outlier, far too rich for our religion (or too religious for our wealth).

Religiosity also tends to be highest in countries with high inequality—this time, the US fits right in.

The link between religion and inequality is quite clear. It’s harder to say which way the causation runs. Perhaps high inequality makes people cling more to religion as a comfort, and getting rid of religion would only mean taking that comfort away. Or, perhaps religion actually makes people believe more in social dominance, and thus is part of what keeps that high inequality in place. It could also be a feedback loop, in which higher inequality leads to higher religiosity which leads to higher inequality.

That said, I think we actually have some evidence that causality runs from religion to inequality, rather than the other way around. The secularization of France took place around the same time as the French Revolution that overthrew the existing economic system and replaced it with one that had substantially less inequality. Iran’s government became substantially more based on religion in the latter half of the 20th century, and their inequality soared thereafter.

Above all, Donald Trump dominates the evangelical vote, which makes absolutely no sense if religion is a comfort against inequality—but perfect sense if religion solidifies the tendency of people to think in terms of hierarchy and authoritarianism.

This also makes sense in terms of the content of religion, especially Abrahamaic religion; read the Bible and the Qur’an, and you will see that their primary goal seems to be to convince you that some people, namely people who believe in this book, are just better than other people, and we should be in charge because God says so. (And you wouldn’t try to argue with God, would you?) They really make no particular effort to convince you that God actually exists; they spend all their argumentative effort on what God wants you to do and who God wants you to put in charge—and for some strange reason it always seems to be the same guys who are writing down “God’s words” in the book! What a coincidence!

If religion is indeed the problem, or a large part of the problem, what can we do about it? That’s the most difficult part. We’ve been making absolutely conclusive rational arguments against religion since literally 300 years before Jesus was even born (there has never been a time in human history in which it was rational for an educated person to believe in Christianity or Islam, for the religions did not come into existence until well after the arguments to refute them were well-known!), and the empirical evidence against theism has only gotten stronger ever since; so that clearly isn’t enough.

I think what we really need to do at this point is confront the moral monopoly that religion has asserted for itself. The “Moral Majority” was neither, but its name still sort of makes sense to us because we so strongly associate being moral with being religious. We use terms like “Christian” and “generous” almost interchangeably. And whenever you get into a debate about religion, shortly after you have thoroughly demolished any shred of empirical credibility religion still had left, you can basically guarantee that the response will be: “But without God, how can you know right from wrong?”

What is perhaps most baffling about this concept of morality so commonplace in our culture is that not only is the command of a higher authority that rewards and punishes you not the highest level of moral development—it is literally the lowest. Of the six stages of moral thinking Kohlberg documented in children, the reward and punishment orientation exemplified by the Bible and the Qur’an is the very first. I think many of these people really truly haven’t gotten past level 1, which is why when you start trying to explain how you base your moral judgments on universal principles of justice and consequences (level 6) they don’t seem to have any idea what you’re talking about.

Perhaps this is a task for our education system (philosophy classes in middle school?), perhaps we need something more drastic than that, or perhaps it is enough that we keep speaking about it in public. But somehow we need to break up the monopoly that religion has on moral concepts, so that people no longer feel ashamed to say that something is morally wrong without being able to cite a particular passage from a particular book from the Iron Age. Perhaps once we can finally make people realize that morality does not depend on religion, we can finally free them from the grip of religion—and therefore from the grip of authoritarianism and social dominance.

If this is right, then the reason America is so mean is that we are so Christian—and people need to realize that this is not a paradoxical statement.