Inequality and Skin in the Game

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

There’s inequality, Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, and then there’s inequality:

The first is the inequality people tolerate, such as one’s understanding compared to that of people deemed heroes, say Einstein, Michelangelo, or the recluse mathematician Grisha Perelman, in comparison to whom one has no difficulty acknowledging a large surplus. This applies to entrepreneurs, artists, soldiers, heroes, the singer Bob Dylan, Socrates, the current local celebrity chef, some Roman Emperor of good repute, say Marcus Aurelius; in short those for whom one can naturally be a “fan”. You may like to imitate them, you may aspire to be like them; but you don’t resent them.

The second is the inequality people find intolerable because the subject appears to be just a person like you, except that he has been playing the system, and getting himself into rent seeking, acquiring privileges that are not warranted — and although he has something you would not mind having (which may include his Russian girlfriend), he is exactly the type of whom you cannot possibly become a fan. The latter category includes bankers, bureaucrats who get rich, former senators shilling for the evil firm Monsanto, clean-shaven chief executives who wear ties, and talking heads on television making outsized bonuses. You don’t just envy them; you take umbrage at their fame, and the sight of their expensive or even semi-expensive car trigger some feeling of bitterness. They make you feel smaller.

There may be something dissonant in the spectacle of a rich slave.

The author Joan Williams, in an insightful article, explains that the working class is impressed by the rich, as role models. Michèle Lamont, the author of The Dignity of Working Men, whom she cites, did a systematic interview of blue collar Americans and found present a resentment of professionals but, unexpectedly, not of the rich.

It is safe to accept that the American public — actually all public — despise people who make a lot of money on a salary, or, rather, salarymen who make a lot of money. This is indeed generalized to other countries: a few years ago the Swiss, of all people almost voted a law capping salaries of managers. But the same Swiss hold rich entrepreneurs, and people who have derived their celebrity by other means, in some respect.

Further, in countries where wealth comes from rent seeking, political patronage, or what is called regulatory capture (by which the powerful uses regulation to scam the public, or red tape to slow down competition), wealth is seen as zero-sum. What Peter gets is extracted from Paul. Someone getting rich is doing so at other people’s expense. In countries such as the U.S. where wealth can come from destruction, people can easily see that someone getting rich is not taking dollars from your pocket; perhaps even putting some in yours. On the other hand, inequality, by definition, is zero sum.

In this chapter I will propose that effectively what people resent — or should resent — is the person at the top who has no skin in the game, that is, because he doesn’t bear his allotted risk, is immune to the possibility of falling from his pedestal, exiting the income or wealth bracket, and getting to the soup kitchen. Again, on that account, the detractors of Donald Trump, when he was a candidate, failed to realize that, by advertising his episode of bankruptcy and his personal losses of close to a billion dollars, they removed the resentment (the second type of inequality) one may have towards him. There is something respectable in losing a billion dollars, provided it is your own money.

In addition, someone without skin in the game — say a corporate executive with upside and no financial downside (the type to speak clearly in meetings) — is paid according to some metrics that do not necessarily reflect the health of the company; these (as we saw in Chapter x) he can manipulate, hide risks, get the bonus, then retire (or go to another company) and blame his successor for the subsequent results.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Right through Korea, the sons of our Ruling Class, and their fathers and forefathers before them, fought in our wars. Joseph Kennedy lost one son and had another badly wounded in WW II. But starting with Vietnam, the Ruling Class opted out of the fighting, and nowadays they opt out of (actually benefit from) all the evils of globalization, free trade and open borders that they inflict on the rest of us. As Peter Turchin points out, a bloody civil war is a possibility.

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