Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Ladder-Climbing Needn't Be A Zero Sum Game


You've probably heard of the term "Keeping up with the Joneses" which is all about living up to the statuses others have attained, or in many cases acquiring a better status than others. Robert Frank, one of the most popular economists in America, has written a book called Choosing the Right Pond in which his central thesis is that ladder-climbing is a zero sum game, because if Tom acquires a better social status than Dick, Dick has acquired a worse social status than Tom, meaning on aggregate there is no gain.

While I agree that being obsessed with prestige is bad for people, to me it's obvious that Robert Frank is wrong (and uncharacteristically off form) in his assumption that ladder-climbing is a zero sum game - it need not be. That is to say, for every win there doesn't have to be a concomitant loss. Tom can acquire a better ladder position than Dick while at the same time seeing Dick acquire a better ladder position than him. The reason why is clear when we see ladder-climbing for what it really ought to be (and often is), not as a world full of people climbing the same ladder, but as a world full of people each with their own ladder and lots of climbing potential. Now, sadly, it is certainly true that people are often overly competitive in trying to obtain prestige - but they are the ones for whom status is an unhealthy thing, because they are more worried about their relative position in a sphere of rivalry and one-upmanship than they are getting to the top of their own ladder of potential.

Once we break away from metaphors and see how this happens in everyday life you'll know exactly what I mean. Suppose we randomly picked seven people from Trafalgar Square this lunchtime - Mary, Hristo, John, Hank, Gabriella, Ahmed and Debra. Each of them values their own skills, talents, interests and achievements, but they also realise that they are in a group in which every member has different skills, talents, interests and achievements, and that no one in the group is particularly worse off because of that.

Hank is a big muscular American doorman. Physically he is the strongest, toughest, and is top of the ladder on machismo. Ahmed is nowhere near as physically tough, but being a theoretical physicist he is top of the ladder when it comes to analytical thinking. Debra isn't as tough as Hank or as analytically smart as Ahmed, but being a teacher she is top of the ladder when it comes motivation, patience and tutelage. Hristo is a painter and decorator, which means he is the expert if you need your living room renovated. Gabriella is a dancer, and is queen in her ballet shoes. John is unemployed, but there are several things at which John excels that the other six do not. No one can touch John on his skateboard, or on the running track. If all seven were having a 400 metre race, John would win hands down.

Everyone in the group has different skills and talents, but here is the other important thing; their individuality means that their skills and talents need not come at the cost of anyone else's skills and talents. Gabriella can be queen of the ballet without having that status in the least bit ruined by the fact that John would trounce her in a race, or that Hristo can artex a ceiling to a higher level.

Clearly, as long as folk are not so terribly insecure that they constantly need validation and reinforcement by being seen as better than others or of a higher social standing, everyone can thrive by being the best that they can be. That is to say, what should matter is doing the best you can do in an absolute sense, not in a sense that's relative to other people's achievements.

You are going to find yourself in many situations where you are top of the ladder in a particular context, but low down on the ladder in other contexts. In one group you'll know the most about history and be looked upon to speak the most wisdom. In another group you'll be the one who can best inspire confidence in people's ability to mentor. In some groups you'll be the best at DIY, in other groups you'd best to delegate these responsibilities to someone better suited.

Here’s the other important thing that stops it becoming a zero sum game. In a group in which literary insight is highly valued, people will value literary insight if you can provide it. But people who don't have any literary interest do not lose any status in the literary circles by being unapprised of Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and Jane Austen. Similarly, people who value having the right 'look' in fashion or sporting prowess or the rarest collection of fine art are going to have kudos in some groups, but their accomplishments will be of little interest to those unaffected by such a milieu, because people outside that milieu wouldn't confer status or prestige on anyone because of fashion, sporting ability or collectable art.

Clearly then, status is not zero sum - there can be multiple winners. Chris wins if he gets to the top of his field in piano playing. But his status imposes no cost on me if I want to get to the top of my field in theological prose. The only people who get despondent about other people's relative success are those who are competing for the same ground - and that's a despondency they can avoid by becoming more rounded people..

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