The Lawn Mower of Equity

Often, we hear the word equity. Aside from the financial meaning, it is typically used to describe a more fair and desirable society. It is, however, a trojan horse and should be examined carefully at the gates before it is allowed to enter any conversation. When you challenge people to describe what equity is, they might show you a popular graphic of three people of different heights trying to peer over the fence at a baseball game. They will say “equality” means that all three people are given the same size box to stand on. The graphic shows it is enough for the two taller people, but not quite enough for the shortest one. In the next frame, it purports that “equity” means that everyone is given enough of a boost that allows them to see into the game.

That seems fair, so what is hidden within this trojan horse?

Let’s say that you want to grow a lawn in front of your house. You have a nice square plot that gets sunlight all day, and you head to the store to pick up what you need: topsoil, grass seed, and fertilizer. You lay down the topsoil, spread the seed and fertilizer, and spray the plot with water to get the germination process started. You head inside and rest for the next 24 hours (it was a hard day’s work).

Upon emerging from your home, you examine the progress of your lawn. You are pleased to see a green fuzz has sprouted all over the plot, however there are still some patches that are bare. You decide to give those areas a bit more fertilizer and water to help them grow. Upon completing your lawn care, you go back inside and carry on with your week. You continue to apply special care to the areas that need help.

After a week, blades of grass have sprouted all over the lawn. Things are going great, but you squat down to look more closely and notice that all the blades of grass are roughly different sizes. This is true even among regions of the plot that have been receiving the same amount of water and fertilizer. A group of 10 blades that have all received the exact same inputs can all be different heights! You decide it is time to apply care to each blade individually. You mix water and plant food together and put it in a turkey baster. You treat each blade, one by one, allocating the resources based on how tall the blade of grass is in comparison to the others. It takes all day, but you feel as if you have done a good job and done right by the grass.

After a week of applying this intensive individualistic care on each blade of grass, you are frustrated to observe that each blade of grass is still a different height. It seems that your efforts were futile. You walk to your back yard, open the shed, and wheel out your last recourse. You yank on the cord and hear the roar of “fairness” as you push the lawn mower onto your irrepressible front lawn. The whirring blade neatly chops each blade of grass down to the proper size, and after applying it to every part of your lawn and using a leaf blower to get rid of the clippings, you observe a perfectly neat and uniform lawn. It is quite a bit shorter than it was and if you look at each blade of grass you see the wound from the whirring blade, but it is uniform.

After another week, the blades of grass have healed their scars and have grown upwards once more in their unruly and uneven fashion. It doesn’t stress you out this time though as you walk back to the shed to retrieve your tool for the culling.

We all mow our lawns because we want each blade to look the same. Imagine wanting the same thing for humans. The conversation on equity is usually hiding the assumption that equality of opportunity can be measured by outcome when, in reality, equality of outcome is quite unnatural. Just like our example with the lawn, those who seek equality of outcome will try to engineer opportunity. They will discover that even when they apply great effort to tailor opportunity to needs, there will still be inequality of outcomes. This is because we are living in a world of complex systems which interact with each other and create even larger complex systems. Each human body is a complex system, a group of friends and family is a complex system, a country is a complex system, even our lawn is a complex system (though it may simpler than most). Upon realizing that equality of outcome is impossible through the engineering of opportunity, those who believe equality of outcome is desirable will seek to achieve it by other means: the lawn mower.

We can see the precursor to this behavior taking place. People are so desperate to achieve equality of opportunity, they have begun to remove opportunity from talented children in schools. They use the fact that our schooling system has been failing students for decades as an excuse to remove programs without creating suitable replacements. Here is a quote from an article about the University of California, San Diego removing its consideration of SAT/ACT scores in its admissions process:

“The [school’s] stubborn insistence over generations upon usage of the SAT and ACT, despite indisputable evidence that these exams only measured family wealth, cost hundreds of thousands of talented students of color a fair opportunity to matriculate in their state’s system of higher education,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the attorneys representing students in the case, to EdSource.

It is such a perfect example. He observes the disparities in test scores across racial demographics, and assumes inequality of opportunity, and he also assumes wealth is the only source of opportunity. According to his hypothesis, we should not be able to find any students who perform well regardless of their socioeconomic status. Observe this statistic from a Daily News article about admissions in Stuyvesant High school, a public specialized school in NYC:

While 75% of current students are Asian-Americans, they also, according to Department of Education statistics, constitute over 90% of students qualifying for free or subsidized lunch, the measure of poverty used in educational circles.

It seems like these students somehow made it into the most renowned public high school in NYC even though they were poor. This is exactly the opposite of what is predicted by Rosenbaum’s implicit hypothesis. I am going to go out on a limb and say that most of these students also will perform exceptionally on their SAT (yup, average 1480-1550).

Those who believe equality of opportunity should yield equal outcomes will find that the quickest, easiest way to equalize opportunity is to take away everyone’s opportunity. By getting rid of a consideration of standardized test scores, UC removes an imperfect pipeline for impoverished people to ascend in our society and replaces it with nothing. There are plenty of examples of people who observe unequal outcomes in testing and admissions, and their solutions are to remove the tests or alter admissions, rather than trying to find out what made some students more qualified than others (here is a clue: standardized test scores are correlated to time spent on homework according to a study referenced in this Washington Post article).

Upon removing opportunity, those equity commissars will observe that inequality of outcome still exists. People will find/create opportunities even when opportunities are not given to them. When their games are taken away, they will create new games. When this happens, you will hear the yank of the cord and the blade of “fairness” whirring above your head.

P.S. This is not a cautionary tale for engineering opportunity. Maximizing opportunity for everyone is critical to creating a better society. I will paraphrase Jordan Peterson and say that there are just not enough geniuses in the world. We cannot afford to miss these people because they were brought up in an environment that stifled their ability to develop their genius. This stifling can come in many forms, and I’m sure we can all list a few. The UN has some interesting metrics for rating countries and one of the things they measure is how many children have a quiet place to work. Whenever we find a way to help people reach their potential, we should, to the best of our ability, make it available to as many people as possible. The goal is to maximize potential outcome for everyone, not to equalize it.

P.S.S. If the goal was purely to equalize opportunity we would end up in a weird place. Let’s take an extreme example: the opportunity for a blind person to become a pilot. Impaired vision is a serious detriment for anyone wishing to become a pilot. How could we equalize that person’s opportunity? Aside from coming up with some cure for blindness or creating technology that creates “vision” using their other senses, the only way we could create equality of opportunity is by making everyone else in the world blind. That is silly, and so is the obsession with equality. Equality is a great guiding principle, but a strict adherence to it can look very strange.

P.S.S.S. I am aware that in a capitalist system, outcome creates opportunity. Those who achieve better outcomes then have more opportunity. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be kept in check. We are seeing right now that it has not been kept in check and we have people with indescribable wealth while many are struggling to get by, and this was exacerbated by the pandemic. This post-script is brought to you by Comrade Vince.

P.S.S.S.S. I only took care of a lawn when I was in high school, so please don’t fact check me on my technique.

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