Saturday, December 29, 2007
First of all, let me reassure you that I am not unhappy. Indeed, in the immortal words of Mater, "I'm happier thanna tornader inna trailer park!" That said, Paul Caron (via Instapundit) asks why law professors are "edgy," by which he seems to mean discontented. I confess I want to use this observation to float a very general idea I have, which I suspect is so good that it is almost certainly not original. And it may not even be that good. In my defense, I will say that this blog post is much shorter than any law review article.
My observation on the general cause of much discontent not just among law professors, but among humans in general, of which the former are, albeit controversially, a subset, can be presented in two pictures. First, here is a picture of the distribution of intelligence, at least as measured by a standard IQ test, in the US population:
Second, here is a picture of income distribution in the US:
This is not going where you think. I am not going to suggest or complain that law professors, who are so smart, are paid less than real estate promoters or whoever, who are not. (Though this completely irrelevant picture I stumbled upon is interesting.) Rather, I call your attention to the very different shape of these graphs. Intelligence is normally distributed. It is spread out in the population according to our old friend, the bell curve, which smarter people call a Gaussian distribution. Income, on the other hand, is not normally distributed. It is distributed much more like a power law distribution, which is illustrated in the context of web page linkages below (because that's the easiest context in which to find a handy picture to steal on the web):
I like the picture above better because it illustrates the "long tail" webbies are familiar with more clearly. But if you moved the axes around on the income distribution picture, you would see that income distribution also follows a highly skewed (darn skewed!) distribution, much more like a power law distribution than a normal distribution. (See also this dated but still cool income distribution poster.)
Why is this, and why the big difference? The highly skewed income distribution is due to (I simplify of course) the phenomenon popularly rued as the rich getting richer, while the poor just plod along. It ain't just an old wives' tail. Success breeds success, opportunities more opportunities and so on.
Now, compare this to IQ distribution. But do not think about just IQ. Instead, consider all the traits, abilities, blessings, good breaks, and so on, that we think ought to result in rewards. My claim is certainly not that social rewards ought to track IQ distribution. But I do think that the agglomeration of things that we tend to think ought to be rewarded in an academic career and in any other, are statistically much the same. That is, they are the result of the interaction of many, independent, or at least not very closely related factors. For law professors, you have intelligence, interest in the law (not always inversely related), absence of hideously bad looks, a decent speaking voice, and so on and so on. The point is, there are more than a few. Whenever you have a number of independent factors at work producing the results you are measuring, under the central limit theorem you tend to get a normal distribution. I happen to think this is very cool, but that is beside the point.
My overall point then is that there is a deep mismatch between how deserts are distributed and how rewards end up, and that these distributions are as close to inevitable as things get. In any dynamic process where there are repeated games, and success builds on success, and that is certainly true where you have professional reputations or anything similar, you are going to have a highly skewed distribution. On the other hand, the factors that in some sense ought to lead to success are going to be normally distributed. This means in any profession, very broadly conceived of, there are going to be a lot of discontented people, not only in the long tail, but towards of the middle of rewards curve (if you can even say it has a middle). You are also going to have a few people basking in more than they (in some sense) deserve, but this is not to say they are not entitled to it, by the rules of the game, under which you are rewarded for having been rewarded.
I think a lot of discontent among law professors and everybody else results from thinking that we ought in some sense be rewarded according to where we are on the normal distribution (which measures things like talent plus work ethic plus creativity etc.) when instead we are living in a world which produces that long slide of a fat tailed distribution.