Monday, September 27, 2010

"Making a Difference:" A Foolish Fad

Everyone's trying to "make a difference." Even right-wing advertisers like American Express are jumping on the "make-a-difference" bandwagon.

Sounds good, right? Not to me. "Making a difference" is code for redistributing fiscal and human resources from the haves to the have-nots. Still sounds good, right?

Not to me. For example, let's say a financial or intellectual "have" decides to devote money and time to a "make a difference" initiative, say, to the cause du jour: environmentalism: trying to cool the globe or restore some swamp (oops, wetland) to a more pre-human state. Do you think he'd make more of a difference doing that or devoting his time and money to providing a program for intellectually and/or emotionally gifted kids: those with the greatest potential to cure our diseases, create an ever more helpful iPhone or Google, or revolutionalize (finally) education? For me, it's not even close--especially when most funds for gifted programs have been redistributed to programs for special education and other at-risk students.

Another example: Let's consider a literacy program. Its students, by definition, have long struggled in learning to read. Even extensive, expensive, one-on-one tutoring will raise their average reading score only modestly--at best, say from a third to a fifth grade level. That will have only a minor impact on that person's ability to be even self-sustaining. Even assuming that government-run literacy program were run efficiently (dubious,) a have who invested time and money on that would likely be of less benefit to society than if he had invested the money and time in high-ability kids.

Let's turn to career. Let's say there's a pair of identical twins. One chose a "make-a-difference" career like social work, teaching the at-risk, or administering a government or nonprofit program for the have-nots. The other twin chose a career, for example, developing a better search engine, car engine, disease cure, or even something more mundane, more accessible to more people, like selling items that offer good value to the consumer: Whirlpool appliances, Toyota cars, or even no-iron cotton. Do you honestly believe the "making a difference" twin would actually have made a bigger difference?

No doubt, this essay evokes an "ugh" response, especially from liberals (oops, "progressives.") That visceral response will likely be followed by a slightly more intellectualized version of "ugh," labeling me "elitist," "mean-spirited," or some such.

I challenge such readers to put aside their reflexive response and instead try to be really honest with themselves: If your goal is really to make a difference, wouldn't you--beyond a humane level of investment in all humans--invest your time and money not on those with the greatest deficit but on those with the greatest potential to profit?

Alas, most of us cannot resist fads--we'll feel compelled to "make a difference."


e said...

I find myself in complete agreement with you. This is something I have struggled to ask others for years on end, and has long been a source of frustration for me.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why the federal government is spending millions and millions of other people's money on special education, and essentially nothing on gifted education. For most of the kids in the former group, the most you can hope is that they will be marginally more functional, and can get a job as a janitor in addition to living in a group home. For the latter group––even the sky's not the limit.

At bottom, I think it's an emotional weakness. It's very hard to empathize with a Rober Oppenheimer, Michelangelo or Ovid. Nobody, present commenter included, likes to be reminded that certain people are inherently superior to them. But inferiors are inherently sympathetic, and people can feel better about themselves if they feel like they've helped some poor sod. Whereas if you help someone who's smarter/more attractive/more creative than you, you have to face that life isn't fair from the opposite direction.

Anonymous said...

The turning point for me came reading a lab catalog in the mid-90s.

I was looking at the price Sigma charged for fluoxetine. My memory is that it was about 50 dollars in ten gram lots. (It was no longer available from most chemical suppliers by the following year.)

My sister had just been prescribed this as prozac, at a cost of about $6,000 per year. The dosage is 20-40 milligrams per day, so a year's supply would have cost 50-100 dollars.

The jobs I was being trained to do would have been variants on that: developing a drug using a little of one's own knowledge and an immense reservoir of other people's knowledge, much of it funded by the NIH. (How do receptors work? Most of the fundamental work was paid for by the NIH. How do DNA splicing enzymes work? A mixture of NIH and NSF funding of truly blue-sky work on how bacteria defend themselves against one another.)

The only possible explanation for that materials cost is jovial collusion between the pharmaceutical and insurance industries -- if neither ever really opens their books, they can both make a mint.

It's illegal - the laws that founded the NIH explicitly stated that studies done using public shouldn't be used to facilitate this kind of robbery - but there's no one out there with the ability to even slow them down.

Now and again some new grotesquerie is reported on, as when a branded drug manufacturer bribes a generic maker to keep a product off the market, or withdraws an earlier, excellent drug after adding an oxygen and a hydrogen to a "new" and still patented drug, or suddenly discovers health risks in an older variant. (A game that was played with the earliest generation of nonsedating antihistamines, the drugs developed a few years before Claritin.)

I'd rather be the chemist in Breaking Bad, making high quality meth and charging what the free market will bear.

Now, I work in public health, helping to be sure that kids on the lower end of the income ladder have as good a shot at growing up healthy as they can.

Of course I can't prove it, but I'd bet the reason fluoxetine was delisted by Sigma and the others was twofold: lots of people with good scales were buying it and pilling it themselves, and the fact of the real cost of the chemical was a huge PR problem just waiting to happen.

Jeffrie said...

Who doesn't want to "make a difference"? That means different things to different people. To many people (likely most of my neighbors), kids in special ed need the most help, while gifted kids can figure it out themselves, or can even try helping some of those special ed kids catch up. (I was asked to do this twice myself as a student. I refused both times; I was a student, not a teacher.)

People who "have" didn't earn what they "have" or work to maintain what they "have" in the minds of some of these people. They simply got lucky or fortunate. So they need to spread their "fortune" with those "less fortunate." They do not see gifted kids trying to learn in a class of mostly slower children as "less fortunate" (even though they are because while their classmates are sufficiently challenged in school, they are not).

I work at a nonprofit. They talk about the mission a lot and the need to communicate it to the public. But I push papers. I'm not making a difference pushing papers or donating a little money here & there.

I'm only good for pushing papers because that's all I've ever done. I don't have the intellectual firepower to create something that would improve or change the world, or even help a gifted kid or adult who does have the firepower to do so. But if I did, I would. It sounds a lot better than most people's ideas for "making a difference."

Marty Nemko said...

Jeffrie, I am convinced you have enough "intellectual firepower" to make a difference. You just haven't found that place yet. Keep trying to find it.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful post and good points raised. Funnily enough, a friend of mine had written a minor rant about this very same phrase, for a very different reason: she heard it used on Christian radio and feels that it's a useless platitude, since 'making a difference' does not necessarily equate to doing something good for those around you.

A. Roberts

Anonymous said...

This article by Steve Sailer, about the "Waiting For Superman" movie, describes exactly the things you've mentioned in this article:

Try to read it without boiling over; if you manage you're a cooler head than I am.

Seraphim said...

I agree with your complaints. But I don't agree that this is what "making a difference" means.

I work in the semiconductor industry, and every company I've worked for has prided itself on "making a difference" - changing lives in practical and positive ways.

I also volunteer as a precinct committeeman -- and have seen first-hand how a little footwork can make a positive difference, both in changing the public dialogue and in getting people elected.

Anonymous said...

Someone just sent me a link to the Pepsi Refresh Project that funds projects from $5K to $250K. Some of the projects are rehabbing animal shelters and setting up a food bank for dogs. Those things are making a difference. Of these, do you "Sounds good, right? Not to me"?

MPN said...

You should be pleased at how the DOL is distributing WIA funds. The greatest need is among general population "Adults," the group that is least employable (has least education/work experience). This "greatest need" group gets the smallest grants to improve their lot. The least need is among the "Dislocated Workers," the group that is the most employable (has recent work experience; is usually better educated). They get the biggest grants (for job training, supportive services). The result is that the "Adults" money runs out quickly and we have to turn people in that group away at the career center while we have trouble making our "Dislocated Workers" enrollment numbers. The DWs don't come to the career center because they're busy networking, getting jobs, using computers at home, etc. The point is that this is an example of wealth not being redistributed from the "haves" to the "have nots." Take heart, sometimes the people with the highest potential get the most money. (Yes, it's an exception.) But... What is the a solution to the problem? How can we attract the high potential people more, I wonder?

ST said...

This is similar to the concept from Gallup in their Strengthsfinder definition of talents and how to manage them. Instead of trying to improve your weaknesses, improving your strengths will derive much more benefit. In fact one of the 34 talents defined is called a "Maximizer" which is a talent for taking something from good to great, instead of something from poor to mediocre.

I myself, go Ugh, to the way the running venue has become this huge beacon for dozens of charities. I guess it was good for the running industry, but when I started running 38 years ago, you ran because you loved to run. You trained long and hard for a race to say you finished it. Now, it's a big push to yet pour more dollars into a cure for cancer (which they've been "curing" for many decades).

Very lucrative, the charity industry. What if all of a sudden an actual cure was found? All the charity would stop and all that money would stop. I've read that all that research has generated immense knowledge about cancer, but few grants actually are looking for a cure. That bothers me. I know it's a complicated disease, but what if they all pushed to find a cure? It would be more efficient use of the money.