Thursday, February 25, 2016
Book 12: How the mighty have fallen.
It wasn't worth the wait. I've been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's since I read The Tipping Point; I liked that and Outliers because the way they used anecdotal evidence to examine hypotheses and make arguments about their premises was entertaining as well as thought-provoking.
David and Goliath, though, suffers from too few examples of Gladwell's premise, or from perhaps his stretching it to try to encompass more than the theory ever could. The book is an argument that what we think of as being an underdog is often incorrect -- that underdogs in fact win more often than the title would suggest. Insofar as that goes, the book's first 1/3 or so is a pretty interesting look at why underdogs aren't really. Gladwell examines the David-vs-Goliath story of the title, noting that not only is David's weapon, a sling, a far more deadly weapon than most people assume (it was about the equivalent of a handgun when used properly) but also suggesting that Goliath himself suffered from various physical ailments that while contributing to his large size left him nearly blind and with difficulty moving.
That sets up what seemingly was the premise of the book: that the superior force often hides weaknesses, and the underdog is often only so on the surface. Gladwell then discusses two basketball teams: one, a girls' team in California, the other a mens' college team. Each team had no real skilled players on it, but each managed surprising victories by playing basketball the way it is almost never played: using a full-court press, defending the field from the throw-in to the other end.
Through those two stories, Gladwell's work is at least interesting: he suggests that being an underdog means finding gaps in the way conventions favor the powerful, becoming a disruptive force by finding another way -- not necessarily better, overall, but powerful in its unexpectedness-- and succeeding in that other way.
Then the book goes off the rails, eventually ending dismally, both in terms of the story and in any coherent examination of the idea. Gladwell walks through a terrible example of a rich man discussing the difficulty he has raising his children because he can't teach them the value of a dollar. As a guy who is not rich and who wholeheartedly believes that we should simply allow the government to take away any income a person earns about $200,000 per year, I am not sympathetic to a guy feeling bad because when his kid asks for something he can't simply lie and say we don't have the money. The argument both trivializes the problems poor parents have and completely fails to fit the theory Gladwell spent a few chapters setting up.
Gladwell uses the rich man's dilemma to set up what he calls the "U Curve" of advantage, arguing that as something increases, it eventually hits a point where the advantages level off and eventually fall back to being disadvantages: the rich man finds wealth an advantage, as he gets richer and richer -- but when he gets too rich, it becomes a disadvantage because it poses an impediment to not giving in to his children.
Before getting to why the U-Curve is such a dumb idea, it should be pointed out that Gladwell uses this example to develop his "U-Curve" without explaining what is curving, and with changing the argument. Gladwell did not set up the story in any way that would suggest that the man had an easier time disciplining his kids about money as he got richer, until he hit a point where he couldn't anymore; Gladwell can't, because the man didn't have kids (it seems) until he was already rich. So how would he know whether it's harder or easier to raise kids if you have no money, or a million dollars, or a billion dollars? He's only done it one way -- and Malcolm doesn't provide examples of a poor person who finds it pretty darn easy to teach kids the value of a buck.
The "U Curve" theory is just a bell curve, and the "Bell Curve" theory is one of the dumbest theories that exists. The "Bell Curve" or something similar has been used (in addition to Gladwell's strangely confusing argument here) to artificially lower people's grades, and to alter American economics forever-- among other ill effects.
Grading on a "curve" is terrible: it makes people failures simply for not being as smart as the other people taking the test. In a "curve" grading, you take the best performance and artificially label that an "A." From there you simply spread people down, marking the next lowest a "B" and so on. The problem with this is that it presupposes that everyone cannot get an "A", and also that the best work is an "A."
Consider: 5 people take a 100-question test. Person A gets 100% correct. Person B gets 99, C gets 98, and so on to D (97) and E (96). All of them got fewer than 5 questions wrong -- but Person E fails the test.
What if A gets an 80, B a 75, C a 70, D a 65, and E a 60? Person A still gets an A, down to E, who fails -- even though A did 20 points less in this example.
As the numbers of participants go up the "bell" gets more pronounced, as this theory tries to lump as many people in the middle as possible -- confusing a median that exists naturally with one that is forced into creation.
Grading on a curve isn't as bad as the "Laffer Curve," which continues to infect policy today. Laffer was the one who drew a napkin curve for Ronald Reagan and convinced policymakers that taxes can be too high on the rich and that higher taxes are a disincentive for wealth accumulation. Tax rates were promptly cut for the rich and today the economic imbalance is poised to destroy society.
The highest marginal tax rate in the US in 1979 was 70%; in 1979, a wealthy person would have paid 70% taxes on the very uppermost of his income. In 1979 there were one billionaire and 450,000 millionaires in the United States.
In 2016, the highest marginal tax rate is 39.6%, and applies only to income above about $400,000 per year; the rich pay 39.6% of every dollar they earn above $400,000. There are 536 billionaires in the United States, and 10,100,000 millionaires.
In that time, inflation has about tripled, so a million dollars in 1979 is the equivalent of $3,000,000 in 2016. In other words, thanks to the Laffer Curve, the increase in billionaires has been accelerated by a factor of 536.
I can't think of anything that actually DOES work on a bell curve -- at least not in social policy or psychology. Nobody should argue that a "bell curve" actually makes sense, in any way. Gladwell's is particularly hard to work with. Throughout the book I kept trying to picture the graph a particular 'bell curve' would fit on -- what would be the X axis? What would be the Y? If the X axis is, say, parental wealth, then the Y Axis would be "ease of disciplining children," but how are you going to measure that? Gladwell doesn't explain, and probably can't because "Bell Curves" are not something that actually exist and should not be used to try to explain anything.
That doesn't deter Gladwell from stretching his theory far beyond the breaking point. He examines, cleverly, the difference between smart people at good schools and smart people at what are considered "poor" schools, to note that you have a better chance of getting a good job and a degree if you are a reasonably smart person at a state school than if you are a very smart person at a 'good' school. Gladwell argues that this is due solely to what he calls the "little fish big pond" theory: the very smart are little fish in a big pond at places like Harvard, but are big fish in a little pond at state schools. As a theory, it's too simplistic: it supposes that everyone reacts to competition in the exact same way, with too little evidence of that. It also does not make clear which is the Goliath here: Harvard? Very smart people?
(The assumption that all people react the same way is prevalent throughout the book: Gladwell supposes that all rich kids would not value money, and assumes that all good basketball teams have no way to play against a full-court press. But anyone whose spent time around people, or on Earth, knows that how an individual person reacts is dependent on hundreds, if not thousands, of individual traits. People are unpredictable, as anyone who looks at what Trump supporters actually believe can tell you.)
From there it's even more downhill: Gladwell suggests that people with dyslexia, people who lose a parent, or who lose a child, are all examples of underdogs who owe their successes, in part to the 'disadvantage' of the one big problem in their life. But taking dyslexia and noting that many successful people have it is the same as noting that most US Presidents have been left-handed: So what? The sample size is too small, and by hand-selecting his examples Gladwell deprives them of any scientific worth. He ignores the many successful people who read just fine, and attributes far too many qualities to a simple genesis.
This alone isn't that bad: it's what Gladwell does in his other books, and his articles in The New Yorker: it's more a way of thinking than it is an application of actual science. But here, more than I recall in his other books, Gladwell presents this as gospel. You wouldn't wish your child to have dyslexia, Gladwell says several times in the book Or would you? The book says he doesn't think you should wish that but the impetus of the argument is that, yeah, you should.
It's in the final 1/3 that I lost patience with the book. Gladwell seems to completely abandon David and Goliath and begins talking about power, and whether power can be exercised without legitimacy. He spends chapters on detailed discussions of the Irish troubles in the 1970s and 1980s without any real explanation of why the detail is there. I got the feeling that he was required to hit a certain page count by his publisher, and so he padded it out. The idea of these chapters is that power if exercised without legitimacy is always bad-- but Gladwell provides no true examples of power exercised with legitimacy, and at times confuses the issue with a discussion of people being outsiders. I won't even get into that; it should have been edited out of the book.
Gladwell compares, for his power argument, two families, each of whom had a child murdered. One family, in California, used the event to help spur the famous "Three Strikes" rule in California that imposed a 25-year-to-life sentence on repeat offenders. Gladwell notes that this resulted in a boom in prison population and only a temporary reduction of crime. The other family, a Canadian family, opted not to attempt to do that, instead, making a statement at the press conference when their daughter's body was found to the effect that they were going to try to forgive the man. Gladwell points to the latter family as one that exercised power with legitimacy, but doesn't explain what power they exercised, at all -- or why the same power was exercised illegitimately in California.
Gladwell seems to think that because "Three Strikes" failed as a social remedy, that the man who got it passed had used his power without any legitimate backing from society; that's not true, though: it confuses the end result with the reason for its existence. It's not necessarily correct to judge a decision solely by its outcome. As I like to point out: the decision to go for it on 4th-and-goal in a football game is either a good one or bad one, before the ball is snapped. Making the touchdown doesn't legitimize the call, and missing it doesn't make the call a bad one. Gladwell doesn't explain why "Three Strikes" was an exercise in illegitimate power mongering; he simply compares it to the British overreaction that led to the Irish Troubles without any real linkage.
(The example Gladwell uses of what brought "Three Strikes" to an end is itself an example of fuzzy thinking. The case that led to a public backlash against the policy was one involving a defendant who had stolen a slice of pizza from some kids. The defendant had five prior felony convictions and so was sentenced to 25-to-life. The story was widely reported with such headlines as "Stealing One Slice of Pizza Gets Life Sentence." The actual story was more complicated: Very few of the papers printed what the five priors were. They were robbery, armed robbery, drug possession and "unauthorized use of a vehicle." If the defendant had done those crimes in a different order, it's likely that the public wouldn't have cared: suppose the first crime was the pizza one, and the last was armed robbery. Would the headline "Armed Robber Gets 25-years-to-life" draw much attention? I doubt it. It was not the slice of pizza alone that sent the man to jail; it was that it was his sixth crime, at least five of which were very serious. Gladwell doesn't discuss that much.)
(I should note that I am against "Three Strikes" and mandatory sentencing laws, but that's for another day.)
In the end, David and Goliath would have made a pretty interesting magazine article; by stretching his thesis to book length, all Gladwell did was water it down with a seemingly-random set of arguments about how people rose above their circumstances. It's tempting to say something snarky about Gladwell himself; his earlier nonfiction books have made him something of a Goliath in this field of writing, and his book shows all the supposed frailties of what he argues as a typical Goliath -- while also being equally unsuccessful. It's neither a coherent book nor a particularly good one -- and ends up making the basic idea behind it suffer from a similar lack of coherence and validity.