Thursday, January 21, 2021
Kenny Chow was born in Myanmar, and moved to New York City in 1987. He worked for years as a diamond setter for a jeweller, earning enough to buy a house for his family before he was laid off in 2011. At that point, Chow decided to become a taxi driver like his brother, scraping together financing to buy a taxi medallion for $750,000. This allowed him to operate as a sole proprietor, with the medallion as an asset.
For a while, everything went according to plan, with taxi medallions rising in value to more than $1 million. Then the bubble burst, and along came ridesharing apps such as Lyft and Uber. The value of Chow’s medallion plummeted, and it became harder to keep up the payments on his loan. In 2018, he took his own life.
We’d all recognise that Chow’s situation is unfortunate. But, arguably, he took a calculated gamble when he purchased a risky asset, and so some of us might be tempted to blame him for his own misfortune. According to one school of thought, when these sorts of bets don’t pan out, only the gambler is to blame. That might sound callous, but it’s indeed the attitude that many of us seem to hold, at least in the United States: a 2014 Pew Research report found that 39 per cent of Americans believed that poverty was due to a lack of effort on poor people’s part. When ‘effort’ includes an inability to properly weigh up the risks inherent in a decision, this suggests that, in the end, many of us think that people are responsible for their own bad luck.
I disagree with this view. But my reasons aren’t solely political or moral in nature. Rather, insights from complexity science – specifically, computational complexity theory – show mathematically that there are hard limits on our capacity to make accurate and precise calculations of risk. Since it’s often impossible to get a reasonable sense of what will happen in the future, it’s unfair to blame people with good intentions who end up worse off as a result of unforeseen circumstances. This leads to the conclusion that compassion, not blame, is the appropriate attitude towards those who act in good faith but whose bets in life don’t pay off.