Sunday, April 13, 2014

Laugh or cry?

Much has been written about the life and work of Steve Jobs. I enjoyed PBS' Jobs bio, One Last Thing.  Towards the end, one commentator mentions that while Thomas Edison can be credited with three technological revolutions (electric power, motion pictures, recorded music), Steve Jobs can claim four (personal computers, recorded music, animated motion pictures, and smart telephones). Three vs. four. Comparisons and rankings of this sort are difficult but entertaining and tantalizing.

Inequality is the "defining" issue (in some eyes) of our times but much of it is driven by the rewards bestowed on new ideas and the work of entrepreneurs. Aside from hagiographies such as the one I cited and near-riots by consumers when a new gadget goes on sale, this is seldom mentioned. I once heard (cannot recall the source but the idea seems plausible) that about 80% of the fruits of innovation go to consumers at-large while 20% goes to the inventor.  Is that "fair"?  Would I accept that division of spoils from behind a "veil of ignorance?" I surely would.  This is how we get economic growth -- which is the very best we can do for the poor and less well off.

But these simple thoughts are ignored in the feel-good sanctimoniousness of the inequality debate.  Ross Douthat in this morning's NY Times ("Diversity and Dishonesty") calls attention to the suggestions of Sandra Y.L. Korn of Harvard U.
... I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.
Why the hell not? Discourse and ideas diversity is pretty corny these days.