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  • Victor C. Bolles

Understanding Diversity

I have been writing a lot recently about diversity, equity and inclusion programs (DEI) and have been highly critical of such programs. However I know that many people are passionately in favor of such programs. Recently, my local television station was discussing Texas Senate Bill 17 banning DEI at the University of Texas and the reporter interviewed a UT student of Indian descent who said, “diversity in itself is a good thing.” But is diversity actually a good thing? Or is it one of those other things that can be good or bad depending on how it is used? I think most people who are talking about diversity have not really studied diversity and don’t really know how diversity can be applied to help humanity or how it can be misapplied to harm people.


First, we have to realize that people do not particularly like diversity. Diversity is uncomfortable. We are more comfortable around people similar to ourselves. That’s why we have places like Little Italy and Chinatown. We need a good reason to associate with someone that is different. Trade and business might be one reason to engage with someone different – diverse people may have interesting products to sell. But after the deal has closed, most people want to settle down in comfortable, secure surroundings. People self-segregate in order to feel secure and comfortable, not necessarily because of racial animus.


This self-segregation was confirmed mathematically by the Schelling segregation model that I read about in A Crude Look at the Whole ,a book by John H. Miller, a professor of economics and social sciences specializing in complex systems at Carnegie Mellon University. The model places different colored squares in a random order but included a slight preference for each square to be next to squares of the same color. In subsequent iterations the squares are allowed to relocate, quickly forming segregated areas of the same color. Of course, human beings and the society we live in are much more complex. We have to deal with schools systems, transportation networks, mortgages and even redlining. But the tendency to self-segregate remains.


Interestingly, I spent my high school years in Dearborn, Michigan. The mayor at that time was Orville Hubbard who was re-elected time and again for 36 years because he kept blacks out of the city. His favorite saying was, “the sun never set on a Negro in Dearborn.” (Don’t blame me I couldn’t vote) He, apparently, didn’t have such qualms about Arabs. There was an Arab community in East Dearborn back then and I competed against Arab kids when I was on the wrestling team. Dearborn is now home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita as well as the largest mosque in North America according to Wikipedia. The mayor of Dearborn is Muslim and its representative in Congress is Rashida Tlaib. A great example of self-segregation.


So, if people, all people, are predisposed to self-segregate with others that are similar to themselves, what would motivate people to seek diversity? Diversity must bring something to the table. It must be a benefit to society. The progressive left would say that diversity is a social justice right and a moral imperative. But if diversity doesn’t benefit society as a whole and only benefits designated groups, then many people would be opposed to diversity. If the economy is a zero-sum game, as many on the left believe, then diversity would benefit designated groups at a cost to other groups. To be widely adopted in a democratic society diversity must prove its value to the entire society.


Scott E. Page, a professor of complex systems as they relate to economics and political science at the University of Michigan, asserts in his book The Difference, that diversity trumps ability. In solving problems. In achieving societal goals. This might seem counter-intuitive. Prof. Page uses the analogy of a diversity toolbox that shows that each person has a toolbox that they bring to a task or a problem needing a solution. That toolbox includes the person’s intelligence, education, experience, work ethic, ideas and theories, etc. In other words, their human capital. For diversity to work you need a person (or several) that says, “What happens if we try this?” not someone who says, “There is no debate. That science is settled.”


For example, I am not very handy around the house but as a homeowner I often have to fix something or install something to make the house run better. I have a toolbox and usually my tools are sufficient to the task even if the tool is not the perfect tool. I can usually finish my task but I can’t help but believe that it took a lot longer to accomplish than it should have and I worry if I did it correctly. For complex machinery I call in my appliance repair guy (whose name actually is Guy). He has a different toolbox than me and always has the right tool and, what’s more, a lot of experience so he can fix my problem quickly.


If you have a complex problem you might want to put together a team of people to solve the problem. Let’s say it’s a physics problem. You want a team with diverse toolboxes so you include a white physicist, a black physicist, an Asian physicist and a Jewish physicist. They all have different toolboxes because they are very diverse. But if they all went to Caltech they might all have the same physicist tools even though they possess many other diverse tools that are not relevant to the task. They may all be brilliant but might approach the problem the same way and fail to resolve the situation. But if you included a physicist from Caltech, a physicist from MIT, an engineer from the University of Michigan and a mathematician from Harvard you would have a team with a wide range of tools to address the problem at hand and have a better chance of solving the problem.


Another key factor is that all the members of our team are trying to solve the same problem using their diverse toolboxes to complement the efforts of the other team members. If they were all trying to solve different problems they would lose the benefits that diversity can provide. This is called preference diversity and it can sabotage many projects.


Professor Page’s book goes into a lot of detail to illustrate how his toolbox analogy works to support his theory that diversity trumps ability. He further asserts that diversity is not just additive but superadditive because when a person understands the benefits of the different tools in the other person’s toolbox, they can think of additional applications for those tools. That’s superadditive!


The superadditive quality that diversity provides is the reason diversity trumps ability. That superadditive power helps diversity solve problems, whether that be a physics problem, a business problem, an economics problem or a public policy problem. But that diversity is based on the individual not a group. And the diverse person must have a toolbox with tools complementary to the task at hand, what Professor Page calls a cognitive toolbox. Thus adding a Harvard mathematician might help solve the physics problem above, but adding a cosmetician from Boston might not.


A case could be made for some form of affirmative action in order to increase diversity but it would likely be more class-based than race-based as recommended by Ian Rowe in his book, Agency. The goal of resorting to affirmative action in this scenario would be to get more diverse toolboxes not to atone for past misdeeds or to compensate for systemic racism. A black person who grew up in a middle-class suburban family and attended a state university might have a toolbox very similar to a white person who grew up in similar circumstances. A black kid who grew up in the Bronx in an impoverished single parent household would have a very different toolbox.


The DEI movement doesn’t care about toolboxes. It cares about identity groups because identity groups yield political power. But political power requires group solidarity so different opinions within the group are not tolerated which is like saying everyone in the group must have the same toolbox.




There is further proof that diversity trumps ability, although our friends on the progressive left will be shocked to find out what it is. The best example of the statement that diversity trumps ability is the free market economic model that we have in the United States. We have millions of economic actors making millions of economic decisions every day. They determine what products and services will be successful and which will fail. They determine which prices well sell a product or service and which price won’t.


What’s more, these economic actors are not even acting rationally. Daniel Kahneman showed in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that most of peoples’ economic decisions are determined by the fast-thinking instinctual brains of human beings, and not their slow-thinking rational brains. Why in the world would a rational person buy a red convertible?


But the super-smart apparatchiks of the Soviet Union’s State Planning Commission (Gosplan) never figured out how to price things correctly. They could never balance supply and demand. And the citizens of the old USSR had to plan their day around standing in line to get butter or eggs (just like Venezuelans do now). They knew they had to accept the work boots that were available instead of the running shoes they wanted (and then go to the black market to exchange what they had for what they wanted).


And all those millions of American economic actors reflecting all the diversity within the country can balance supply and demand without thinking. Their problem is not that they have to accept work boots instead of running shoes, it’s trying to decide which of the thousands of varieties of running shoes meets their specific needs.


And it is the superadditive quality of our diverse economy that drives innovation and economic growth that has made America the most prosperous country on Earth.


But if diversity works in economics, why doesn’t it work in politics? In the past, the presidency, the House and the Senate were dominated by old white men. Not very diverse but they got a lot done. Nowadays, the political leadership of our country consists of a very diverse group of Americans, but they can’t seem to get anything done to save their lives. What gives?


Our study above indicates that diverse people working together toward a common goal can provide superior results compared less diverse groups no matter their expertise. The reason that our political leadership is so ineffective in accomplishing things for the good of the American people is that they are not working toward that common goal but are working toward different goals (what Dr. Page calls preferential diversity). Their goal is power, not the common good. I know, I know. They spout continuously about how they are working so hard for our benefit. Nonsense. They are working to get reelected and for their party to be the party in power. That’s why former president Trump is urging Republicans to reject any proposal from the Biden administration to resolve the border crisis. All the potential benefit that diversity could provide in our government is dissipated in constant wrangling.


So diversity for diversity’s sake serves little use. But diversity in the service of finding better solutions to common problems can be helpful. Even superadditive.

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