A little bit of me feels sorry for Toby Young. I say so because of something Dan Davies tweeted:
Find a brand and stick to it. Don't try to be jack the lad when poundshop Clarksons are in fashion, then pull on the leather elbow patches as soon as you think there's more of a market for Serious.
The point here is that we can be trapped by our brands: Young’s reputation as cheap controversialist disqualifies him from a serious job even if he might be otherwise equipped to do it.
His is not an isolated case. Sam Allardyce has earned a reputation for playing effective but ugly route one football. He objects that he’s had to do this because of the limited ability of the players he’s managed and that he could get a team to play attractive football if he had the chance. But except for a brief period at Bolton, he’s never had that chance.
Similarly, my reputation means I’m unemployable elsewhere: who wants to hire someone who seems to mix dull technocracy with class hatred?
Much more seriously, ex-prisoners and the long-term unemployed find it hard to get work because employers don’t believe they can change.
Our histories, then, limit our options.
This isn’t wholly unreasonable. What we have done in the past is at least some guide to our abilities and character. Mr Young has forgotten that if a man acts like a cunt, a good Bayesian will increase the probability he attaches to the prior belief that he really is a cunt. Many of us are one-trick ponies: for example, I really am unemployable elsewhere. Just as societies are created by their past, and companies cannot easily change their core competences, so too do individuals struggle to change. This is why the decline of old industries is so traumatic: unemployed steel-workers or miners don’t become coders.
But, but but. It’s also possible that employers overstate the extent to which abilities and aptitudes are fixed, and exaggerate the correlation between what somebody has done and what they can do. People are often terrible at judging correlations: why shouldn’t they be so in this case?
I can’t prove this, simply because we don’t see what doesn’t happen: if you don’t hire a guy, you never find out how good he is. One factoid, however, lends it credence – that Timpsons, which does try to employ ex-cons, does OK by doing so.
What seems clearer, though, is the obverse of this. As Marko Tervio has shown, hirers place a premium upon revealed talent – those with the right CV. This is one reason why I advise youngsters to work in finance: an investment bank looks good on your CV.
Revealed talent, however, is scarcer than actual talent. It’s for this reason that Premier League teams tend to hire the same old faces as bosses; why some folk hoover up lots of non-executive directorships; why talking heads current affairs shows have a limited roster of guests; and why there’s a management merry-go-round with a few people jumping from job to job.
And because revealed talent is so scarce, those who have it earn fortunes even if they are only just above a threshold of basic competence.
Which raises a nice paradox. Those people who think that Young’s past disqualifies him from a serious job are doing the same thing that companies do when they refuse to hire the ex-con or when they pay gazillions to mediocre bosses. They are using the same mindset that gives us gross inequalities.