Editorial: Mathematics, Merit, and FICO: Are Some People “Better” than Other People?   (Archive, from July 2005)


A free society is supposed to be a meritocracy. It’s a competitive game. Whoever is best at doing what other people want makes the most money. Numerous episodes of Donald Trump’s hit NBC show The Apprentice prove that point. That’s provocative. A lot of people don’t like the sound of it.  It doesn’t seem to be always true. A lot of people cheat. A lot of people start out ahead in line, licking “silver spoons.” But the “what other people want” part provides an important clue. Some people seem much “better” at everything than others.


Actually, a mathematician probably can model the notion of personal worth. We can propose ways to “measure people.” Besides net worth, a major mathematical model of interest would be the Credit Score, or FICO score, from a model developed and maintained by Fair Isaacs. I had my first contact with this concept in 1986 when I was working for Chilton, a credit-reporting company that today has (after a couple of mergers and divestitures) become Experian. We called the system “Alerts” and then “risk predictor” then. But the FICO score could be interpreted as a measure of worthiness. Of course, it’s probably not “fair” (despite the name of the company that runs it). Many people have bankruptcies and low scores because of medical problems and lack of health insurance. But, health is a sign of worthiness isn’t it?


So you can see where this is heading. Life is not “fair” and personal sacrifices and burdens are not shared very equitably. Race is not as important today as it once was, but it still matters, as school test scores show and as the affirmative action debate and court rulings back up. Liberals usually propose group remedies, such as redistribution of wealth or public programs aimed at targeted groups. But why not model the rules so that sharing of burdens is part of what makes one personally worthy? A mathematician can certainly bring social justice down to an individual level, so that the basic goals of individualism are preserved but that persons (in an era where biological families are less important) still have to share caretaking and sacrifices, in effect, “pay their dues.”


Suppose you define a function F(z) of all complex numbers (z = x + iy) as a new set of complex numbers Z = X + iY.  Let X=f(x) where f is some function that measures a person’s economic success (money, net worth, FICO scores, or some combination). Let Y=g(y) be a function that describes the person’s citizenship performance (public service, volunteer work, ability to provide for others, raising children or eldercare, down-to-earth skills, good faith in business relations). Elsewhere on this site is a discussion of how that might be done. Of course, traditional marriage and parenthood do help one contribute to shared citizenship goals, but they should not be viewed as ends in themselves.


Then a person’s composite score could be defined in various ways. It could be the magnitude (sqrt of X**2 + Y **2) or it could be product (which would penalize people with a very low or zero score on one of the components) or some kind of dot product. You could well-order this function by saying Z-1 > Z-2 if X-1 > X-2 or (X-1 = Y-1) and Y-1 > Y-2.  That makes the set reflexive and antisymmetric. I’m not sure how you would construct a measure (Borel, Lebesgue, on this set).  You could break this analysis up into more dimensions (break the citizenship part into family and non-family).


It is becoming apparent that shared hardship is becoming an increasingly divisive issue. People raising kids and people without kids have different cultural expectations and values. This idea is a way to map group responsibilities for sharing back onto individuals. Because of mathematical concepts like vector basis and linear independence, this personal evaluation scheme (allocating shared responsibilities back upon individuals) does not refute the basic goals of individualism. This is, after all, a discussion of our way of thinking about social justice. You can have a social system predicated on individualism (as modified by families) and still have people share common responsibilities. But you want to measure how well they share them.


©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use


On Dec 1, 2006, major media sources reported that Homeland Security was assigning individual travelers “terror scores”. Blogspot entry.

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