How to measure societal contributions

In the Federal Eugenics thread I offered that

“IQ is a TERRIBLE indicator of future societal contributions.”

To which Shodan responded with a number of cites pointing to a correlation between IQ and work success and lack of criminality.

He ended with, “Unless you are defining “societal contributions” as something other than work success and abstention from crime.”

To avoid derailing the other thread, I thought I’d take this over here.

Desiderata, I do not think that work success is an entirely valid indicator of societal contributions. In fact, I believe that basing the measure of societal contributions on such a factor is alarmingly shortsighted. That would discount contributions from stay-at-home moms or just homemakers without kids. They have no work success.

Similarly for the contributions of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh. During his career he made very little money on his artwork. It was the savvy marketing of his heirs that made him the famous artist that he is today. Did VVG contribute or his sister?

I would offer that the soft contributions from non-work success persons far outclass the societal contributions of those who show success in one specific marketplace (that of the working world). Certainly earning money is good, but to think of such success as the overall indicator of contributions is too shallow for me.

I concur with your point about non-work success. I would also take issue with “lack of criminality” as a measure of a person’s contributions to society. It’s true that some crimes, such as murder, rape, and robbery are anti-social. On the other hand, there are plenty of crimes that are not anti-social, such as using marijuana or gambling. It’s also worth remembering that many of the history’s greatest individuals were criminals: Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther, Henry David Thoreau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela, just to name a few.

There really is no way to measure societal contributions, because society is such a complex, dynamic thing. We can generalize what makes society better - productivity, obeying the law, treating others with dignity and respect - but even those vague rules have exceptions.

I agree, and I don’t think I’d even want to try. What would you do with that information? I understand why a Eugenicist might want it, but who else?

The van Gough example is an interesting one in that maybe we’re best not trying to predict who is going to contribute more to society. Each of us is an individual, with rights the same as everyone else.

What about a utilitarian definition? If an individual helps someone else make or save more money/energy/time than that person would have otherwise AND this benefit offsets all the costs associated with that individual, then that individual positively contributes to society.

So if a guy is unemployed and just stays at home and watches Jerry Springer, forcing his elderly parents to work extra hard to pay for his groceries and contribution to the light bill , this guy is a leach. However, if the guy shovels everyone’s sidewalks in the neighborhood for free, offers free baby-sitting services, cleans his parents’ house every day so that his parents can relax more, then he is a net positive to society.

However, “happiness” is a real component to utilitarianism. How can this possibly be quantified? There are many families caring for profoundly disabled children who in every objective sense are “burdens” on society. But they bring happiness to the people who love them–many who’d swear their lives are more enriched. How do you tell these people they are wrong? And the disabled also provide employment and business opportunities for others. Sure, a caretaker who’s watching over a specific handicapped child would be able to get a job somewhere else if that child wasn’t there. But maybe caring for that particular child benefits that caretaker in a unique way. In an alternative universe, maybe she is an incompetent salesperson who ends up going on a shooting rampage over being fired. Or she is an awesome attorney, but she ends up having a heart attack at an early age due to stress and ends up on long-term disability. Watching Jerry Springer all day for the rest of her life.

So it’s not really easy to answer the question.

The advantage of work success, or absence of a criminal record, is that both are measurable, and (nearly) everyone agrees that they are valid. They aren’t and don’t have to be the only ones, but they are ones that can be made the basis of a consensus.

The problem is when one suggests trying to maximize a societal contribution (whatever it might be) thru social policy, like eugenics (in the other thread). I want to see more X, so I implement policy Y, which costs $Z. How do I know that Y is working, and thereby that Y is worth spending $Z on it, instead of some different policy?

Of course there are other ways to measure societal contributions. But, as monstro points out, it is hard to agree that public money ought to be spent if one will never know if it is working, and especially if it is working better than if we spent the same money somewhere else.

But then again, I am a conservative, and my default is that the government should not do anything unless they can show that [list=A][li]they are authorized to do it, and it works better than any of the alternatives, including nothing.[/list][/li]
Jonathan Chance, in the other thread you made a blanket statement that IQ was a terrible indicator of future societal contributions. It appears that, for several of the societal contributions on which we agree, like earning money to support yourself, your family, and to pay taxes, and not committing crimes, IQ is actually a rather good indicator.

So I don’t think your argument against IQ and eugenics is a very good one, at least in reference to societal contributions like not robbing liquor stores and paying the bulk of federal income tax. What societal contributions were you thinking about? And are they measurable, so we know that what we are doing is working?


I realize that a great big part of any one person’s contributions to society depends so much on those who have come before- On the shoulders of giants, etc. Nor would many of these successes been possible without those who played supporting roles - the unsung heroes.

But we do credit many individuals with notable and exceptional contributions to society. Example: Nobel prize winners and various individuals throughout history who we recognize as contributing in significant ways.

So, VVG sister may have brought her brother’s work to the world but she’d have nothing to bring had her brother not been a gifted artist.

Again, that is not real measurable, and also not necessarily something the worthiness of whose recipients we all agree with.


So, how do we count the recently convicted insider traders, who are now criminals and who also made a lot of money?

But that’s really the problem. By wanting to define measurable values for societal contributions you’re placing us in a very untenable position vis-a-vis making definitions fit the outcome instead of making some sort of evenhanded approach.

In short, even though I have been a job creator - as a business starter, not an employee - and have made (and lost)(ask me about my divorce sometime) a good deal of money, I don’t use that to establish my net worth to society. Because it strikes me as convenient…as self-congratulatory. “Behold what I have done! Isn’t this how we should be measured?”

I don’t have that in my to say without laughing at myself.

To measure people’s contributions to the group as a whole simply by the money they make is silly. That would put Britney Spears and some idiot fashion model at the top of the heap above other hardworking people who keep the wheels turning.

Or for heaven’s sake, the Kardashians and the rest of the fame is money crowd. To my eye they contribute nothing except to create a toxic environment and yet they’re rewarded far in excess of their contribution. Any Joe Blow garbageman at least makes the world cleaner.

So, along with Mace upthread, I’m taking a shot at the assumption that measuring a person’s contribution by their success in the workplace is prima facie a fallacy.

Doesn’t that run afoul of Goodhart’s Law, though? By making income and law-abidance targets instead of measures, you distort the ‘market’ for other, equally valid and important but less measureable societal contributions, and may well end up worse off for it.

If they are not measurable, how would you know that you were worse off?

How do you know that it is even-handed if it is not measurable?

As criminals. Remember what was said about not breaking the law as a measure?

Still look for suggestions on other ways societal contributions could be determined, and why they are better.


If incentiving income results in fewer stay-at-home moms, or fewer talented people taking jobs in (relatively) low-paying jobs like social work, wildlife stewardship, or teaching, what would the results be? We can only speculate. Not easily measured doesn’t mean non-existent, as there is no control to measure against in this scenario. How do you measure the society you have against the one you could have had?

Society is extremely complex and dynamic, we don’t know what contributions being made now will turn out be the most valuable in twenty or thirty years’ time. Better to let things progress naturally, IMHO, to the extent possible.

You first need to find a common measuring stick. A lot of people use cash value because it’s the only thing you can use to relate multiple, different items in some common way.

So your in-home care of the child in question would cost you $70,000 on the free market. That’s the contribution to society you are making.

Home maker? To some feminist groups, this is worth something like $70,000 - $80,000 a year. So, as a home maker, you are contributing that much to value to society.

We can find other measuring tools but the cash value of your contribution is the most useful, right now, simply because it’s fairly universal. It also damages the “Value” of the wealthy by making your contribution matter and not your income.

For instance, did the Kardashians contribute $0 or $100M to charities? Whatever those charities used for good works with that contribution is the value they contribute to society.

Did they horde their money? Then they have contributed nothing of value, no matter if they made $2 or $2 T last year.

Some things really aren’t easily measurable. How much is a the vista from Pike’s Peak worth? Does the total happiness you get from your child’s first steps offset all the poopy diapers you had to change? Is it worth keeping Debbie Downer on the team if she meets all her sales numbers but makes the rest of the employees miserable? (ok, maybe that last one could be measured with A/B testing of team sales when Debbie goes on vacation)

I’m a numbers guy, and I admit that I hate when people give nebulous, qualititative measures to show we should take some action. But I’m humble enough to admit that not everything can be reduced to a number and measured. Some things are good to have and should be selected for even if we can’t quantify exactly how good that is.

For example, I volunteer my time with the Boy Scouts, mainly because I was one. Sure, you can point out how youth that spend time in scouts are X% less likely to go to jail, or people that earn Eagle tend to make $Y more in their lifetime. But how do you measure the value of teaching a young man to be Trustworthy?

The same way you measure the value of teaching them to be: Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.

I still remember it after all these years!

And I remember beating those kids up in school. Yet I’m a successful professional currently nailing my third career.

Math is hard.

Still not clear on how one could “measure societal contributions” that are un-measurable.


So they made a great contribution before the get caught, indicted, and convicted. And if the conviction got overturned they’d be valuable again?

How about the CEO of Countrywide, who has never been charged with a crime but who certainly bears some responsibility for the meltdown?

This whole thing is unknowable.

Work and criminal history aren’t really accurate measurements for this task. Plenty of people (most notably almost all mothers up through the mid 20th century) contribute much value without any “work history” at all. Criminal records in general won’t work either. Most laws apply to actions that are orthogonal to societal harm. Pot smokers subtracted nothing from society, and many who practiced civil disobedience (with associated criminal records) contributed greatly.

Unless you have a way to take into account non-corporate work contributions and society-progressing disobedience (or at least harmless, society-neutral “crimes”), work and criminal history will always be insufficient to illustrate societal contribution.

Shodan’s criteria seem to measure adherence to the status quo – without shaking things up too much – and ignore the biggest social contributions there are: people who actually change our society. Basing societal worth on work and lack of criminal record assumes that our current society is the best one possible, and that any attempt at changing society or challenging those in power is necessarily for the worse.