I don’t really have any well-formed thoughts on this yet, so I’m just throwing it out there. Maybe someone can help me decide how comparable these two phenomena really are.
I had a job interview last week. During the scheduling of the interview, I was given the name of the person who was going to interview me, as doesn’t seem to be uncommon. Being the curious sort, I found my way to this person’s LinkedIn profile the night before, and I noticed that he had attended the Phillips Exeter Academy. I had heard of this school before, but I didn’t really know anything about it. I suppose I fixated on it, though, because of the awfully highfalutin’ name. So in the spirit of killing time, I went to the above Wiki link, where I learned, among other things, its graduates are known as “Exonians”. “Hmm”, I thought, as I often do when filling the nooks of my brain with useless trivia from Wikipedia.
The next day, this trivia emerged from my mental ether at the interview, and I brought it up as small talk during that brief, slightly awkward period between the time the interviewer comes in and when the two of you “get down to business”. He mentioned that any resume with that school’s name on it always catches his eye. This isn’t surprising; I would take special notice of the name of any one of the unremarkable schools that I attended. However, my interviewer’s alma mater was obviously a different story. A resume bearing its name would’ve garnered additional attention from almost anyone because it’s an elite institution. By sheer coincidence, while I was waiting for my interviewer, I was staring at my phone reading this article, about disappearing work opportunities for all but the most skilled of workers. Hence, sitting in my brain’s cache was all of the talk over the recent years about the emergence of a bifurcated society where all the lower-skilled jobs are outsourced or (ultimately) obviated by automation and the few remaining high-skilled jobs command a wage premium and are dominated by an upper class of high-IQ, super-educated Ivy Leaguers who transmit (through genetics or environment or both) this good fortune onto their children, creating a new kind of perpetual, STEM-trained royal lineage. His remark linked up with these ideas and so lingered a little longer in my brain.
Anyway, the upshot of this meandering tale for my present purposes is that, regardless of political affiliations or beliefs about the above rising upper-class theory, I think very few people would criticize an interviewer, HR, etc. for paying special attention to a resume that claimed a Harvard, MIT, or Caltech pedigree. Even if you think that opportunities to attend such schools are unequally distributed and that all sorts of government interventions to change that are justified, you probably still think that it’s OK to “statistically discriminate” in favor of graduates of those schools. That is, most people condone this kind of discrimination because they believe that, on average, graduates of these elite schools really do perform better.
Thinking about resumes and discrimination reminded me of the now widely-known chapter in Freakonomics about black names. To quickly summarize, take identical resumes, put “Roshanda” on one and “Jane” on the other and send them out, Jane will get more callbacks. Suppose a similar experiment were carried out with college names, taking two otherwise identical resumes and putting “Harvard” on one and “LSU” on the other. Although I could be proved wrong with data, I feel comfortable hypothesizing that the Harvard resume would get more callbacks. With somewhat less confidence, I’d also theorize that the positive effect of “Harvard” would be larger than the negative effect of “Roshanda”.
Now, my guess is that a lot of people who would defend discrimination based on Harvard attendance would decry discrimination based on name ethnicity. Also, I don’t think it would be similarly well-received if HR departments defended themselves by saying that, on average, people with “urban” names performed more poorly.
Do you think I am right that most people would display this apparent contradiction? Is it indeed a contradiction, or is there a good reason why one should be OK and the other not, especially if the first kind of discrimination really is having bad sociological and economic effects?
I re-read a post by Bryan Caplan the other day that asks the more general question that considerations like the above lead to. I originally considered making a similar post, but I thought it might be useful to focus on two scenarios to which the median person is likely to have extremely opposite opinions. The post and comments over at EconLong are worth reading.