I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s latest book, the Coddling of the American Mind. Although I’ve enjoyed his books in the past, this book has been, for me at least, a bit of a mixed bag. In fact, it reminds me of some of the problems with liberal allies who are blind to their own privilege. They are certainly better than enemies, but they often talk over the smarter arguments of those directly affected.

To understand my critique, let’s dig into the arguments they are putting forward in this section of the book, what’s good about their arguments, and why they fall short of grasping the whole picture.

The chapter starts by talking about two types of justice that humans seem hard-wired to demand:

  • Distributive justice: people are getting what is deserved, based on their contribution
  • Procedural justice: the process by which things are distributed and rules are enforced is fair and trustworthy

Violating these principles of justice results in outcry and pushback. However, the other inherent problem is that elements of these are subjective and personal experience for someone in a minority group will often differ greatly from someone in a majority group. There is also some question about how different contributions are valued. Ultimately, the underlying problem is that existing systems favor status quo. You have to make a case to change what currently exists, and to do so, you have to convince those in power who currently benefit from the status quo. That’s a tough pull.

“Humans naturally favor fair distributions, not equal ones; when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.”

The book then moves on to talk about where the left goes too far to succeed against the status quo: in dictating equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity (or fair process). The example cited is pressure placed on universities in 1996 by the Clinton administration to clarify that federal funding would be contingent on Title IX compliance, and that compliance would be evaluated based on outcomes, including demonstrating that sports programs mirrored the gender balance of the student body (which skews female across American universities at this time).

One result of this shift was a school with two rowing teams, one (the women’s team) fully funded by the school, but the other (the men’s team) not funded at all. Outrageous! This is why conservatives decry the loss of white male privilege and state that women are being coddled while men have insurmountable obstacles, right?

Well, taking a slightly closer look, the funding for male sports at the school in question is still significantly higher. Why? In a word, college football which is a very expensive sport in terms of equipment, uniforms, and coaching, more than most other sports. It is also a sport that has had little interest for female students. As the book points out, there is a disproportionate interest between men and women in playing team sports. Women enjoy exercise and athletics in equal amounts to men, but they don’t gravitate toward the same (often expensive) team sports men do.

“The men’s football team is gigantic and costly, and there is no women’s football team. The university as a whole is still spending far more money on men’s sports than on women’s sports, and if you endorse equal outcomes social justice, you’ll say that the unequal treatment of rowers is necessary to compensate for the money spent on male athletes elsewhere. But when you leave campus, that argument is not going to convince many people. . . . This is why quotas generally produce such strong backlash: they mandate a violation of procedural justice (people are treated differently based on their race, sex, or some other factor) and distributive justice (rewards are not proportional to inputs) to achieve a specific end-state of equal outcomes.”

The authors concede that it’s clear that some kind of bias is operating here, but they are slow to draw conclusions that question the supremacy of football and male interests. Instead, we veer into correlation not equaling causation.

Here’s where they lost me on two fronts.

Is Football Sacrosanct?

There are a lot of unstated assumptions in this whole mess of university athletics.

  • That the desired outcome is an equal number of participants (this was behind the Clinton Title IX instruction).
  • That the dollars spent (by the university) per student is not the measure of success, although this is the economic benefit the participating students receive, without which they have to self-fund.

It’s possible that football, which is so expensive, should actually be given credit for the revenue benefit it brings in. Any sports program can do this, but football is uniquely positioned to do so in current American culture. It shouldn’t be “sacrosanct” as it is seen in general, but revenues should offset costs in evaluating the program.

But if you concede this, which I think you must, you must also allow that the university can increase the return of any sports program through coach selection, recruitment of athletes, and advertising choices.

Do Sports Need to Be a Special Class?

The biggest issue I see with all this reasoning is that the discussion of Title IX is only related to sports. Why wouldn’t we evaluate something that factors in the interests of the student body more broadly?

  • Women may be less interested in competitive sports. What else are they interested in that requires funding?
  • Women may be discouraged from participating in competitive sports. What is the university doing to encourage women to participate more? Does the discouragement predate university? When does it start? How does it need to be combated at university level if it started in childhood?
  • Is the team sports environment anti-women somehow? Is it a hostile environment? What is the university doing to fix that?
  • Are team sports sufficiently valuable that all this effort to get women to join is worth it or are the things women are already interested in equally valuable? How do we know?

If women are less interested in team sports, but more interested in individual sports like track or gymnastics, why not add programs that appeal to women in proportion to the student body size? Are there other programs women might be interested in that are similar to sports in terms of funding needed (e.g. choir, theater, arts, literature, science competitions, chess tournaments, debate, newscasting programs)? Why are these not considered toward the ratios desired? Why are team sports a special case?

I suspect these are discussions universities are having. The book just didn’t tee them up.

Conclusion

Ultimately, something’s wrong when outcomes aren’t equal. That doesn’t bother those whose needs are being met. They have every reason to ignore it and preserve the status quo. If we concede to conservatives that unequal outcomes are just a byproduct of fairness, then we have missed glaring issues in both distributive justice and procedural justice.

This is the same reason that it matters that women on the whole are making only 77 cents on the dollar, although income equality is closer (usually 92 cents on the dollar) when considering like jobs. The 77 cents problem points to undervaluing the contributions of women in two key ways that have largely been absent from the male-dominated debate:

  • Underpaying for work that women are traditionally encouraged to do like child care, teaching, nursing, cooking. Our economy disproportionately rewards fields that have largely excluded women or created barriers to entry for women.
  • Expecting women to do disproportionate unpaid domestic work in their own homes (and even each others’ homes) that puts them at a disadvantage in the workplace (e.g. more sick time to care for others, less availability, emotional labor costs).

But these are harder problems to solve. The only way we solve them is when we acknowledge them, and measure outcomes.

When I was an executive at American Express, we had Affirmative Action quotas to be sure we had a robust pipeline of minority (women and racial minority) candidates for all positions. If we didn’t, we had to re-post a position. But we could hire the person we felt was most qualified. Without tracking outcomes (which we did), it would be very easy to see the same results over and over. Just because you interview more minorities (potentially against your will) doesn’t mean you hire more minorities. We had to discuss and defend our decisions. Until you measure outcomes, you don’t know how you’re really doing, but many would defend their hiring by saying they just didn’t have the right candidates because not enough minorities had the qualifications being sought.

But how do you enforce actions when it’s across the entire system? Who is responsible for determining how much teachers and nurses are paid vs. engineers and programmers? How do you hold an executive responsible when minorities didn’t get the education or work experience being sought for their open position?

Universities are in the unique position of having an administration responsible for placing a value on both sports and theater, science and arts. Limiting the evaluation of outcomes to team sports is a male-centric viewpoint.

This is one reason I have never really found the priesthood interesting. It’s a male program, created by men for men. If women had been involved in it, it would look very different than it does. It’s more hierarchical and less collaborative than organizations women tend to create. Involving more women going forward will doubtless alter how decision making occurs in the church, and that’s worth anticipating. But barring all women from decision has many significant downstream impacts. Decisions made without the input of women are much weaker than those with more diverse input.

And that’s the core problem with this book. It’s written by two men about problems with the left’s approach to solving problems, and the main criticism is that it’s not convincing conservatives.  That’s an important problem to solve, but the key to changing that is to have diverse perspectives sitting at the table, and the GOP is overwhelming white and male. The book acknowledges the disincentives for those in power to listen to those who are not, but doesn’t apply its own logic to solve it.

What do you think?

  • How do you create fairness when those making decisions are getting what they want and setting a higher value on their own contributions?
  • Are equal outcomes important or just equal opportunity and fair process? Defend your answer.

Discuss.