By Graham Peterson
Ask just about any economist if she believes economic growth trumps the concerns people have about relative inequality, and she will say yes. Why is that? Well, no matter how big the difference between your slice and my slice of the pie is, if the pie is growing — both of our slices are getting bigger. So pull up to a low-cal sliver of GDP!
Now that doesn’t stop economists from studying relative inequality (no, they don’t just legitimate neoluburil hegermany). And so too for other social sciences, paying attention to the difference between absolute outcomes within-group (slice expansion) shouldn’t stop us from paying attention to the difference between relative outcomes between-group (slice envy — try some slice Viagra?).
Take an example. The Huffington Post has reliably delivered another sex survey, and found that Australian men lie in bed more than Australian women. It’s a cute finding. We’ll leverage this cuteness to reason over the differences between relative and absolute social outcomes — without the distracting ethical baggage — because these outcomes get a lot more important when we approach matters like relative racial outcomes.
So check this out: 25.4% of Australian men admit to fibbing the “I love you” during sex versus 6.1% of women. Eek. Men lie when they say a sweaty “I love you” MORE THAN FOUR TIMES as often as women (the relative difference). But don’t forget to evaluate the absolute occurrence of the behavior, which is quite low: 74.6% of men, and 94% of women, are being honest in bed. That’s the great majority. This is a check one should always perform as they evaluate their ethical and political feelings about a social fact. More importantly, it’s a crucial check for evaluating the social scientific significance of studying X.
If relative differences between groups are large, but the absolute occurrence of that outcome is small — there are just bigger fish to fry. Lots of relative-variation studiers, like sociologists say, report on how “blacks end up in Y at two times the rate of whites.” Sure, if 2% of blacks end up in Y, against 1% of whites, that’s certainly true. But that still means we’re picking fights and investing resources into the study of something that 98.5% of the entire population don’t struggle with.
Every relative difference between groups is not born equal. So no, the mere existence of one or another troubling social phenomenon does not deserve equal attention. That is, unless, you would jump onto a subway track to save both a mouse or your son. Think about it: “Today NBC 5 reports that a clerk was shot to death on the 1400 block of Milwaukee Ave. [and billions of people all over the world had a mostly peaceful day with one another].” Successful social coordination, progress, and the often times strikingly low incidence of malevolence and misery, deserve our attention.