New World Same Humans #3
Vaporflys, fairness and the liberal elite. Ethics 101. Iowa and the cult of innovation.
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a new weekly newsletter by TrendWatching’s Global Head of Trends and Insights, David Mattin.
This week a pair of shoes got me thinking about the race to the top of our societies, who gets to win, and how we reward them.
Also: thoughts on ethics and business, and Iowa. Let’s go.
Vaporflys, Fairness and the Liberal Elite
The Tokyo Olympics is less than six months away. World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field sports, have ruled that competing athletes can wear the controversial Nike Vaporfly shoes, a prototype version of which helped Eliud Kipchoge run a marathon in under two hours last year.
Vaporflys combine carbon-fibre plates and a thick foam sole to produce a 4–5% increase in running efficiency. That means an advantage of at least 90 seconds for an elite male athlete over marathon distance. Unsurprisingly, some have argued that the shoes constitute an unfair advantage. World Athletics disagree. Expect records to be shattered in Tokyo.
The subject of fairness in sport is perennially fascinating; probably because it helps us to see more clearly what we think about fairness in life. Everyone agrees, for example, that when an athlete takes EPO to increase red blood cell count, that is not fair. Meanwhile, the fact that some people have genes that cause higher levels of EPO and so more red blood cells is fine. Look closely, and it’s clear that these evaluations of fairness often come down to judgements over which characteristics are intrinsic to a person (we say good EPO genes are) and which are not (we say use of EPO is not). It turns out we want sport to be a test of intrinsic advantages plus hard work. These days most of us want life to be like that, too.
I read the news about Vaporflys alongside a new essay in The Atlantic. Questions of fairness hovered over that essay just as they do over the Tokyo Olympics. ‘How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class’ argues that the world’s most famous consulting firm helped forge the class structure we now inhabit by encouraging big corporations to purge tiers of middle management, and instead be run by a small technocratic elite. Gripped by a mania for shareholder value, big companies complied. Wage bills fell; corporate profits rocketed. But the traditional middle class – which was compromised largely of corporate middle managers – was erased.
This essay feels a sister piece to another that was published in The Atlantic recently. ‘The 9.9% Is the New American Aristocracy’ says that while we tend to obsess over the 1%, it’s actually the 0.1%, the 9.9% and the rest we should talk about. Across the last three decades in the US the 0.1% have claimed almost all the gains of economic growth, while the 9.9% have held their share of wealth level. Meanwhile, the rest have seen theirs fall: from 35% of the nation’s wealth in 1985 to 22% in 2015. In other words, the top 0.1% have been claiming a lot more, and they got all of it from the bottom 90%.
How are the two pieces related? The 9.9% are the technocratic elite that we see coming into being in ‘How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class’. The lucky few who still hold on to management-level jobs or equivalent, and the salaries that go with them. Today, this elite is easy to recognise. They live in big cities, marry exclusively among one another, tout a liberal mindset, and toil relentlessly under burdens of knowledge work once carried by three or four people. You’re reading this email so you probably number among them, or plan to do so soon.
The liberal elite – that is their most common designation – are also a uniquely hypocritical bunch in one important respect. Sit one of them down and they’ll almost certainly tell you they don’t believe in elites at all, but in merit. All the while, as a collective they work furiously to protect their elite status. At the sharp end of that project is one imperative: do not let your children fall down the social scale. Across the last three decades, the west’s elite technocrats have become expert in the fulfilment of that goal. Measurements of inequality show that in the US the race for top jobs is half over once the runners have chosen their parents. The liberal elite bathe their children in a cocktail of performance aids: think expensive educations, bedtime stories, social networks, internships, confidence and poise, the right accent. Even at their most controversial these practises are grey-area extrinsic advantages: no one thinks they should be illegal, but they do combine to make the children of upper-middle class parents extremely hard to overtake, whatever their level (or lack) of intrinsic talent and hard work. Look at the race of life in 2020 across the affluent west, and it’s easy to see who is wearing the Vaporflys.
These circumstances help fuel a widespread disaffection. Here in the UK, for example, look at the finding that IPSOS Mori calls ‘the loss of the future’: a full 45% of Britons now expect their children to have a worse life than they did, up from 12% in 2003. That’s an astonishing shift in the national consciousness of the UK. A system that labours under such a deep and widespread pessimism surely can’t be sustained indefinitely.
So what to do? It’s a massive question, and one we’ll return to in future instalments of this newsletter.
In short, though: two things. First, we should of course act to reignite social mobility. Via early years interventions, better education for all, wider access to internships and more, we can rebuild social mechanisms that sort the talented and hardworking from the rest. We can make the race of life more fair.
But we shouldn’t let our obsession with the race blind us to the other side of all this. The brutal truth is we’re unlikely to ever again see an expansion of the number of ‘top jobs’ comparable to the one that occurred in the decades after WWII. That expansion helped supercharge upwards mobility in those decades. Rather, new technologies mean it’s likely we’ll need relatively fewer elite managers in future. So yes, let’s make the race more fair. But as well as looking at the fairness of the race, we’ll also need to look at the distribution of rewards once the race is won. Let the talented and hardworking reach the top and prosper. But distribute the spoils of our collective success less unevenly. Should CEOs of S&P 500 companies really be paid 287 times more than their median employees?
A more even distribution of rewards would help maintain mainstream consent for a system based on individualism and merit. It would acknowledge that even in a highly meritocratic society (which mine and yours are not) the race to the top is influenced by a good deal of luck. It would signal that your ultimate value as a human being is not a product solely of the value you bring to the economy. And it would help nudge the liberal elite away from the most egregious practises deployed to protect their children from backsliding. Because in a world where the conditions of life in social strata beneath your own are less bad, you are less terrified of your children falling into those strata. Right now the liberal elite are caught in a vicious cycle: they work 12 hour days, corporate profits rise, the 0.1% takes all the gains, the ordinary middle class and working class gets relatively poorer, and the 9.9% become even more terrified about the prospect of their children slipping down. Better start working 13 hours! A more even distribution of rewards might not benefit the 9.9% materially. But it would help alleviate the dread feeling, so common among them, of teetering on the edge of a great height.
Of course, to achieve a more even distribution of rewards means to redistribute money. Where should that money come from? I’ll leave you with the story this week that in the US Amazon reportedly paid tax of 1.2% on profits of over $13 billion in 2019.
A few quick snippets, all related to the collision between business and ethics.
Vaporflys may not be the most consequential pair of shoes that Nike makes this year. This week the brand introduced the Space Hippie, a pair of trainers made entirely from factory scraps. Trainer devotees will be reminded of Adidas Parley, made from recycled ocean plastic; last year Adidas made 11 million pairs.
Meanwhile, in Quartz former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger encouraged corporations to hire a CMP: a chief moral philosopher. CEOs, says Rusbridger, can no longer hide from ethical questions on planetary and social impacts:
These days, pretty much every business has to consider climate change, along with other matters of large-scale social impact, in one form or another. It is no longer enough to simply be responsible for traditional business performance criteria. A business leader is also accountable for a company’s position on the swathes of social issues that are dividing societies around the world.
An article this week in Protocol looked at Silicon Valley’s attempts to bring ethicists on board. The piece features the work of an ‘ethical consultancy’ to Big Tech companies called Doteveryone.
Powerful signals here of an idea we discussed in NWSH #1: the quest to build a more ethical, sustainable capitalism has emerged into the mainstream. I wonder, who will be the McKinsey of this great project?
Here’s a story for the times. The Democratic National Committee used an app to record votes for the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The app was distributed via beta testing platforms; no App Store reviewed needed! Then it suffered a series of technical failures. And the Iowa Democratic caucuses were a mess. The end.
Really, DNC? You entrusted a crucial election to a bunch of tech utopians from an app development agency called Shadow? After everything we’ve been through? After Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and Twitter and Donald Trump, and all manner of other signs that this might not be a great idea? It’s just so 2015 of you. Even Big Tech would not have trusted tech with this election. This is exactly the kind of thing that prompted the Zuck to abandon move fast and break things for the more sensible though admittedly less sexy move fast with stable infrastructure.
It’s tempting to read this story and rehearse any number of now familiar conclusions on inexperience, unintended consequences, and the cult of innovation. Read this New Yorker post-Iowa exposé of whole affair, and rehearse them for yourselves.
Obviously, we at TrendWatching are all about innovation. Done well, it really can Make the World a Better Place. What we need is better and more thoughtful innovation. And that probably means we need to think about who we let be an innovator, too. Smart 20-to-30-somethings with a half-finished Ivy League degree and a plan B to fall back on their trust fund have had a long run in the spotlight. Time to find new superstars.
That’s all for now. May your Vaporflys be fast (but not unfairly so), your Chief Moral Philosopher wise, and your infrastructure stable.
Until next week,
P.S: customary kudos to Nikki Ritmeijer is due for the illustrations in this email.