As Luck Would Have It

[ Lottery balls telling who won this time ]
[ ]

From Nursery School to the White House, More of Life is Left to Chance....

[T]he Federal Aviation Administration... us[ed] a fishbowl borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution and the capsules once used by the Selective Service System [to] conduct... a good old-fashioned lottery. At issue? The distribution of precious La Guardia Airport landing and takeoff slots, ending a moratorium on new flights that had been put into effect to combat overcrowding and delays. The idea of the lottery was to make things perfectly fair. So, new airlines -- and those with only a small presence at La Guardia -- had a shot at 159 new slots.

"It was so odd to hear on the radio about the lottery for takeoff space at La Guardia," said Yolanda Vega, a k a "The Face of the New York Lottery," who has been trumpeting the winning numbers on television for the last 11 years. "It's like the world is full of lotteries these days." [/] And lately seemingly everyone and everything has been at risk. Just consider the coin-toss elements of the presidential contest in Florida: a Millennium Millions game of butterfly ballots, wild-card judges and the festival of indeterminate chads.

The question must be asked: In an age where so much of life has been reduced to a fine science, why entrust something as important as, say, admission to a nursing home to such a primitive selection method as chance? "Because lotteries are supposed to be fair," said Martin R. Frankel, professor of statistics at Baruch College. "But it depends on what you mean by fair."

O.K. So shouldn't there be some criteria here? Shouldn't scarce resources be allocated by need or merit? Wouldn't standards be more fair than a lottery? "That raises the question of whom we trust to make the criteria," said Stephen Gillers, vice dean and professor of legal ethics at New York University School of Law.

In considering a calculus for comprehending the lotteries of the world, Professor Gillers of N.Y.U. Law School quoted Justice Felix Frankfurter of the United States Supreme Court as saying, "if you can't be fair, be arbitrary." [/] "That means that if you think you have identified the right rule, or the best possible solution through a process of reasoning, don't pretend that there will be a single right answer," he added. "In some situations there is no right answer, given the limitation of human knowledge or the practical circumstances involved." [/] For example, in Florida, "If we were omniscient, or if time were of no moment, we could probably do the fair thing and ascertain with near certainty how everyone voted," Professor Gillers said. "But we don't have the time or the means. So we need a rule that game theorists call a tie breaker -- we need to identify a stopping place. You can pick one of several arbitrary solutions that people can acknowledge as being fair." Including flipping a coin.

(--Glenn Collins, "As Luck Would Have It", NYT, 16Dec00, pp.L.57,60)

Massive consequences

The problem seem to me deeper than this New York Times article suggests. Suppose that we did get 100% complete and accurate Florida vote tallies for the 2000 Presidential election. And suppose that one candidate -- let's pick Bush, at random -- came out the winner by 193 votes out of over 5,800,000 ballots: a margin of victory of less than 1 vote in each 30,000 votes cast. Is it reasonable and fair to award a big prize on such an infinitessimal difference? The Olympic Organizing Committee's recent change to its rules, to time races only to 1/100ths of a second, after new timing equipment enabled someone to win a race by 4/1000ths of a second, suggests a precedent. The OOC did not think a few parts of 1/100th of a second should be enough to make a difference, so, now, yes, Olympic races can end in a tie, even though the timing equipment could have determined a winner.

[ Go to Nov 2000 U.S. Presidential election! ]I think that even if the Florida vote was known, if one candidate's lead is less than 1%, that is clearly a tie, and we need a tie-breaker. A flip of a coin, a duel, a new election, etc. A new election might indeed be best, since that would give the people who created the issue a chance to deal with the consequences of their original choices, instead of leaving the outcome to chance. It would keep the political process in the political (human) realm, instead of abandoning it to the stochastic (which latter -- the indifferent flux of nature -- is something society -- the political order -- is supposed to protect us from!).

It seems to me that the bureaucratic procedures for modern life are becoming increasingly and ever more perversely complex and fraught with risks of consequential loss if one makes a mistake in following the procedures. And then, as the Times article (above) said, the final outcome often is in large or even full measure determined by chance rather than some humanly accountable and reasonable decision procedure. To drop a slip of paper on which you scribble you name in a fishbowl, in hopes of winning a prize that you would like but don't really need or expect, makes sense ("Buy a $1 raffle ticket for a free vacation to DisneyLand", etc.). To invest a lot of effort in applying for something where, the better your application, the better your likelihood of getting it, and where "it" is something important enough to be worth the effort, makes sense, also.

Going through complicated, time- and resource-consuming application procedures for something which, because there will be so many applicants, will ultimately be decided by a random selection among all those whose prep-work was above some more or less arbitrary "cut off point", does not make sense: making a big effort for something where the quality of your effort has little to do with the outcome. Many persons waste a lot of time and effort, "for nothing". But if you don't put in the time and effort which you know in advance will likely be "for nothing", then you are assured of not getting what you need. Is this any way to motivate persons? Is Lady Luck the body to which "the invisible hand" belongs? Is this really the best we can do?

We seem to be living what might be called: McLuhan's nightmare. Marshall McLuhan said that the meaning of any new technology is the change it effects in the pace, pattern and scale of life. We are seeing an intensification of "science" (bureaucratic procedures, etc.) and an intensification in chance (unpredictablilty, uncontrolability), together! The variable being maximized is: stress (the NYT article used the word: "agita").

Consider the following change in the United States Federal Income Tax law:

A couple decades ago, medical expenses were 100% tax deductible. You have the expense, you get the deduction. Now you have to fill out a form in one year, requesting that a certain amount of your next year's wages will be placed into an untaxed fund for paying your next year medical bills. If you fill out the form right, and your next year medical bills equal exactly what you had set aside in the untaxed fund, then you get about the same tax advantage as in the old system. But the old system was "forgiving" and [relatively] easy. In the old system, all you had to do was to add up your medical bills at the end of the year, and subtract them from your taxible income.
[ ]
Who knows what their next year's medical expenses will be? One might suffer a serious but entirely unanticipatable illness. Or a condition which has been costing you a lot of money may finally cure itself. It's a "crap shoot" (Lady Luck, again) what any individual -- and, a fortiori, what a whole family's -- next year's medical costs will be. So you have to guess: you have to take a chance. If you guess low, you end you with medical expenses for which you get no tax deduction. If you guess high, you forfeit the unused money you set aside. Furthermore, you have to collect all the receipts and fill out forms for the Administrator of the Fund to approve before they will release your money back to you. And so long as they don't approve the documentation you have submitted, you have to keep dealing with their bureaucracy. The net: Something relatively simple that seemed to work fairly well and reasonably, has been replaced with something both less reasonable and more complex. Both more bureaucracy and more "luck" factor.

Is spending ever more time and energy trying correctly to fill out increasingly complicated forms (etc.), in processes where the outcome will likely be determined by chance (i.e., lottery drawings supervised by representatives of major accounting firms, etc...), the best we can do? Is this how we want to allocate what little "free time" is left to us in the "new economy"?

[ Go to Nov 2000 U.S. Presidential election! ]In the case of the November 2000 United States Presidential election, I think a flip of a coin might have been the best solution, if there indeed had to be a winner and a loser (a hasty change in the structure of the Executive Branch of the Federal government to adapt to this situation might not have been prudent): But a gentlemanly toss of a real coin, by the two contestants. Then everyone would see that there was no real winner, in a situation where the rules said there had be one and only one winner, and that the winner would take all. Everyone would see that the new President was "chosen" to lead neither by popular mandate, nor by legal machinations and/or interpretation or suppression of unclearly marked ballots. Similarly, the loser could not blame his adversary's using dirty politics for his loss. The loser's self-respect should be about as intact as the winner's. There is no shame in losing a coin-toss among equals, nor does winning the toss make you somehow superior -- the winner was just "lucky", and the loser not. The only way the outcome of the coin toss could have been truly "gentle-men-ly" is if the winner had vowed not to take any important decisions without the advice and consent of the loser, who, in his turn, would have vowed not to use his veto power to block the winner's proposed courses of action for light and transient reasons.

A coin toss would show that neither candidate really deserved to win. Hopefully it would start America working on ways to minimize situations in which conflicts over allocation of scarce resources need arise at all. It should also start us working on more humane and reasonable ways of figuring out how to allocate scarce resources, when despite our best efforts to prevent them, such situations do arise (as inevitably they shall!). I think one step in this direction is to analyze the seemingly increasing role of competition in American life (including the ever bloating value of the prizes), and to see where more cooperative patterns of social intercourse might produce better outcomes.

Humiliation and discouragement

The social structures which wilfully and unnecessarily increase the amount of chance in our lives, and which thereby wilfully and unnecessarily lessen our control over our life ("help" make us more helpless...), can also more directly teach us to submit to external social power, thus humiliating and discouraging us -- they can "help" make us see ourselves as supplicants instead of as peer citizens of a truly democratic society.

To get back my own money from the pre-tax medical expenses account into which it is extracted before I get my paycheck, I have to submit a request for reimbursement to the company that holds my money (ADP Benfeit(sic!) Services, in my case). If whatever employee(s) there do not deem the documentation I submitted acceptable, they have power to deny my claim (example reason: the doctor did not give a specific date of service for each procedure but just wrote something like "saw patient 6 times in 2003, at $60 per visit"). When my request for reimbursement is disapproved, I can make an "appeal" to them to reconsider their judgment....

I have already earned the money. Why do they have power to withhold it from me? Why can't I use my money as I see fit and then, perhaps, have to justify my action to the government after the fact? This is how it used to work, when medical expenses were 100% tax deductible, and one "simply" collected the bills all year, and submitted the bills as part of one's Federal Income Tax return. This previous way of handling the situation was not autochthonous self-respect enhancing and self-confidence building, but I think it was significantly less intimidating, humbling and discouraging than the new way.

I seem to recall that, when I was a child, my father did not have his Federal Income Tax pre-withheld from his paycheck, but instead he had to write a check for the full amount when he submitted his tax return. Might this have been a more respectful way than the "withholding tax" mechanism which we today take for granted instead of questioning its appropriateness to free men and women?

[ Lottery balls telling who won this time ]
[ ]
[ See hand recount of Florida votes! ] See hand recounting Florida votes! (O! say can you see...)
Don't like taking your chances? Try competing!
Before there was man-made [socially engineered] chance, there was ("Es gibt")....

George W Bush: "Never did I dream we'd have the trifecta. (Laughter.)"
Life  doesn't have to be like this: Learn to eat well, enjoy and stay thin -- the French way.
[ ]
  [ Learn to eat well, enjoy and stay thin -- the French way! ] [ ] [ Have a leisured lunch at a French cafe! ] [ Have a leisured lunch at a French cafe! ]
What's new on this website?
Go to website Table of Contents.
Return to Brad McCormick's home page.
Return to site map.
[ ] [ Go to Site Map! ] [ ] [ Go to website Table of Contents! ] [ ] [ Go home! (BMcC website Home page!) ] [ ] [ | ] [ ] [ Click me to learn more about American middle-class 21st century folkways! ] [ ]
[ ]

[ Go to: The duty of communicators! ]
[ ]
Copyright © 2000 Brad McCormick, Ed.D. [ Email me! ]
19 March 2005CE (2005-03-19 ISO 8601)
[ HTML 3.2 Checked! Test me! ]
[ ]
[ Dicey situation ] [ ]
[ ]
[ This way to the egress! ]
[ ]