Rory Sutherland

What if Oxford PPE graduates on TV were made to wear pink conical hats?

What if Oxford PPE graduates on TV were made to wear pink conical hats?
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You can’t discuss racial inequality without using the N-word. And you can’t debate social justice without adding the C-word and the F-word as well.

In this case the N-word is Nepotism, the C-word is Credentialism and the F-word is Favouritism.

What is often overlooked in the debate about social justice is that inequality of opportunity need not arise from the exercise of negative preferences but from a mildly positive, unintended bias operating in reverse.

Q. What is, at birth, the best predictor that you will become a doctor? A. Having a parent who is a doctor. Hence there are very many doctors from BAME backgrounds, but not in the expected ratio of B, A and ME. This inheritance bias will drive continuing disparity even if no actual racism is involved, through homophily rather than xenophobia. Role models matter. As someone who grew up on the South Side of Chicago told me: ‘You can’t be what you don’t see.’

The world does not work in practice the way it works in theory. In practice, whether you need a fork-lift truck driver or a TV interviewee, there is often no formal selection process. Instead, someone goes to the warehouse/research department and asks: ‘Anyone know someone who could do this?’ Unless the social networks of your staff are miraculously representative of the population, a kind of network-nepotism kicks in. Even if the bias is small, the multiplicative effects can be very strong.

There are rational reasons for filling jobs through networks. We trust people we know, and few employees will risk their reputation by knowingly recommending a kleptomaniac fork-lift driver. Nevertheless, as Thomas Schelling demonstrated with his chessboard experiment (Google it), extreme outcomes can emerge from a combination of mild forces. It is hence simplistic to see every bad outcome as the result of evil actions. To do so makes you a kind of ‘social creationist’ — someone who attributes every outcome to deliberate intent.

At its worst, the 21st-century social justice movement resembles ancient medicine, in attributing all society’s ills to a small number of ‘bad humours’: making racism, sexism and homophobia the big three causes of dyscrasia. A large level of racial inequality can only be explained by a corresponding level of racism in society. Hence the patronising of the ‘uneducated’ by the ‘white woke’.

Yet the very people who are most eager to condemn one kind of discrimination are often strangely content to exploit the other. Journalism and Hollywood are both exceptionally woke, while at the same time operating mostly as closed, nepotistic networks. It would be slightly easier for an outsider to break into, say, BBC radio comedy than to become a made man in the Gambino family, but not by much. And many of the consequences are invisible: if Oxford PPE graduates were made to wear pink conical hats whenever they appeared on TV, there would be a run on pitchforks. Universities, instead of fostering social mobility, may even lend extra entitlement to the well-connected.

When Claud Cockburn’s uncle set out for Canada in the 19th century to take up an entry-level job with a bank, a friend of his father’s took it on himself to write to a director of that bank whom he knew, asking him to make the young man welcome. When his father caught wind of this letter, he insisted his son resign immediately, lest he enjoy an unfair advantage.

Can anyone imagine someone doing this today? Seriously? I checked Cockburn’s Wikipedia page to see how to spell ‘Claud’. Fascinatingly, eight of his descendants also became journalists.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.