Disparate impact and the irrationality of white-collar employment
Conservative type James Taranto writes in the Wall Street Journal:
The same is true of the higher-education bubble. As we’ve argued, college degrees became increasingly necessary for entry-level professional jobs as the result of a well-intentioned Supreme Court decision that restricted employers from using IQ tests because of their “disparate impact” on minorities.
This quote reflects several conservative fallacies about hiring. These include:
- Employers are hyper-rational when making hiring decisions.
- The Supreme Court is preventing employers from hiring whom they want.
- Requiring a college degree is the hyper-rational response to the alleged Supreme Court ban on objectively evaluating the job applicants.
All of these are WRONG.
First of all, when are humans hyper-rational about anything? And when you consider that we see a lot of top-level-management types going from business to government and back to business, how is it that they become irrational when they are in politics or government and then become hyper-rational as soon as they are back in a business role? Did you know that Al Gore is on the board of directors of Apple and is a senior adviser to Google?
In Griggs v. Duke Power Company, the Supreme court was interpreting a statute and not the Constitution. That means that Congress could have easily overridden the Supreme Court if it had disagreed with the statutory interpretation. But Congress did exactly the opposite. Congress ratified Griggs by making disparate impact the statutory law of the United States. And this happened in 1991 when a Republican was president.
Let’s also remember that in addition to finding that an IQ test illegally discriminated against blacks, the Supreme Court in Griggs also held at the same time that requiring a high school diploma discriminated against blacks! So people who think the holding of Griggs that IQ tests are bad but educational credentials are good have obviously not bothered to read the opinion (or even read a synopsis of the opinion)!
If one reads between the lines of Griggs and all other disparate impact type cases, one may intuit that the real holding is that any moron can do prole jobs such as repairing electrical power lines, and therefore any type of hiring criteria that tends to discriminate against blacks is going to be illegal. But the rarefied world of upper-middle-class jobs are obviously not included. The very same Supreme Court Justices who frowned upon Duke Power Company for requiring high school diplomas would never, themselves, hire a law clerk who didn’t have a law degree, and from a top school at that. Good luck trying to apply for that job and explaining that you’ve studied the law on your own and can do just as good legal research and writing as a Harvard Law School grad.
Objective tests are routinely used when hiring computer programmers, and I’ve never heard of any disparate impact cases involving computer-programmer hiring, even though you rarely see a black computer programmer. Some time ago when I was applying for jobs doing computer programming and finally got one, it was a huge PITA. I had to spend weeks studying computer stuff before I could start interviewing, and each interview I’d be bombarded with questions that I’d get wrong, and then I’d have to go back to the books and memorize more stuff, and finally I was able to answer enough stuff correctly so that I could get a crappy $67/hour job doing .NET programming.
I don’t think the emphasis on rote memorization is really the best most hyper-rational way to hire computer programmers. Was I really that much better a programmer after memorizing the correct answers to the typical questions they ask on these technical interviews? I don’t think so. If I were hiring, I would make the process more g-loaded, emphasizing problem-solving rather than memorizing stuff you could easily look up in the help text that comes with Microsoft Visual Studio. But nevertheless, it’s an objective test, and they do screen out the hopelessly incompetent, and it also explains why you occasionally see people without college degrees doing computer programming and other IT work; it’s because of the more rational hiring process. IT hiring is probably more rational because nerds control the hiring process, and nerds are more rational. This is why I’m not surprised about Edward Snowden having a good-paying job in IT with just a GED and no college. As I said, of all white-collar fields, it’s IT where you are most likely to find people without college degrees. In fact, I now understand why John T. Molloy called engineers “upscale blue collar.” If anything, the fact that you are objectively evaluated makes these jobs more prole, and certainly makes the job application process a lot more demeaning. In contrast, applying for a job as a legal associate, there were just a lot of pleasant conversations, no one ever asked a single question to try to figure out if you knew any law. They left that to your law school transcript.
Outside of the IT world, if companies don’t use objective measures of job skills to evaluate white-collar job applicants, then what do they use? The answer is social proof. That someone else was willing to pay you $X/year doing Y, that’s solid social proof that you are able to do Y and are worth at least $X/year. This is why it looks much better on your resume if you worked at a well-known company than at an unknown company. The well-known company provides better social proof. That Apple thought you were worthy of working for them is much better social proof than if Joe’s Smalltime Company thought you were a worthy employee.
The conservative types think that employers value college degrees because they’re a substitute for an IQ test. This is nonsense. College degrees can be seen as a sort of social proof. That Harvard thought you were worthy of being admitted and getting degree is powerful social proof. College degrees, like employment history, are both examples of how employers need to be convinced that other institutions thought the job applicant was a worthy person.
This goes back to the issue of rationality. People are generally not rational, and they value social proof a lot more than they value rational investigation. People attend a Christian church not because they rationally investigated all religions and determined Christianity to be the most worthy. No, they attend the church because other people they know are also Christian. People believe in global warming not because they understand the physics of heat retention, but because everyone else they respect believes in global warming. Just as beliefs like global warming or low-fat diets spread by information cascade, a job applicant gets hired for a high-level prestigious job because his resume is a mini-information cascade, showing a series of prestigious institutions valuing the person more and more.