Why Be Normal?
By Bryan Caplan
Economists love to pour cold water on new ideas: “If your plan is so great, why aren’t people already doing it?” And usually we’re right to do so. Most of the economy’s backseat drivers aren’t fit to run an apple cart.
But still… There are a lot of ideas that seem to hold up to intense criticism, but the market still doesn’t adopt them. Case in point: Why don’t workers offer employers a money-back guarantee? “I’ll work for free for a month; if you’re not completely satisfied, you’ll never have to pay me a dime.” Do minimum wage laws forbid this? Well, they don’t forbid unpaid internships. So call the money-back guarantee an internship, and away we go.
This plan sounds particularly appealing to people like me who believe that education is mainly a signal, rather than a place to acquire job skills.
So why don’t we see this? Here’s my answer. Suppose you’re interviewing a smart guy, without a college degree, and he offers you a money-back guarantee. You might think “What a great deal” and accept. But then again, you might start thinking “What a weirdo. What’s wrong with him?”
And this, I propose, is the stumbling block to lots of worthwhile innovations. A person with an unconventional idea may have a point, but is also unlikely to be “normal.” He may not fit it with other people. He may have problems with authority. He may be deviant in more ways than one!
Confession: I’m one of the weirdos. I flout all kinds of social conventions. I wear shorts and flip-flops in the winter. I carry a funny cushion around wherever I go. (Don’t ask!) I laugh at inappropriate times. So outside of the best weird economics department in the world, who wants to hire me?
If you hear me out, I think I’ve got some good arguments for wearing shorts and flip-flops in the winter. But even if I convinced you, you would probably hesitate to hire me, especially for a “real-world” job. My failure to conform in dress significantly raises the probability that I will fail to conform in more substantive ways. And even if you decide I can wear shorts while everyone else wears suits, what if a client sees me? He may start to think the whole firm is weird.
My argument about normalcy is an example of what economists call statistical discrimination. In a world of costly information, employers sensibly rely on a lot of statistical generalizations. One of these, I’ll warrant, is that weirdos are, on average, worse employees than conformists. Admittedly, the truth of this probably varies from industry to industry. (Check out Peter Jackson!) But typically, usually, normally, normality is the best bet. The upshot is that some clever but unconventional ideas sit on the shelf, untried.