Friday, January 29, 2010

Life is not a zero-sum game.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel is well known for teaching his Justice course, which covers a number of thought provoking philosophical and moral issues. This past semester, Professor Sandel decided to record his lectures for widespread consumption, and I must say that these lecture videos are an absolute delight to watch.

It's beyond the scope of Professor Sandel's course, but one flaw in his discussions is that they all seem to be implicitly assuming some kind of zero-sum game (i.e., the prosperity pie is relatively static, and our chief concern should be on how to fairly redistribute wealth). For some issues, this hardly matters and is mostly beside the point. But in many other cases, I see this as a major limitation.

Take Episode Eight, for example. This episode deals with issues such as getting a "fair" start to life and proper taxation levels of the wealthy. Policies made based on these issues clearly have ramifications regarding how quickly we as a society can make progress and grow the aggregate prosperity pie for everyone.

After all, what's the point of expending a great deal of effort in enforcing fairness (for a static society) when (for example) a relatively poor person 10 years from now could be as wealthy as a relatively rich person from today? Maybe we should be more focused on figuring out how to get that 10 years down to 8 or 5 years.

As an engineer and technology enthusiast, I view this issue through a much different lens than people with backgrounds like Professor Sandel. Technology levels the playing field by making it easier for those who start off disadvantaged to catch up. For example, with the magic of YouTube, even the poorest among us can now watch lecture videos of Michael Sandel's Justice course at the esteemed Harvard University.

Furthermore, once you take raw materials and natural resources out of the equation, technology is then the SOLE driving force behind increasing prosperity (socio-political issues notwithstanding). In light of this, maybe enforcing static fairness shouldn't be the focal point, but rather figuring out how to grow the prosperity pie for everyone as quickly as possible. Keep in mind also that the rate of technological development is now faster than ever, and is expected to increase in the years to come.

In short, it's a good time to be an engineer =)


ff said...

Though haven't watched Episode 8 yet, never the less i think a 'fair redistribution' mechanism is somewhat more important. Technology mostly only enlarges the pie, thus poor people could get more than before.

Taking your example, yes, poor people can watch youtube, but still need fees to access WSJ. And what if youtube charge fees based on the usefulness etc. of the information?

In a near future, I can't imagine information can be all free, financially or not. It's probably why you're a better engineer than I do. =D

Yisong said...

I guess I should've been more clear about this in the blog post. But I certainly think the issues covered in the Justice class are very important. I was simply highlighting what I think is a limitation of the scope of their discussions.