College Graduation Speeches About False Perceptions

I enjoyed two recent graduation-related speeches found online: Judge Frank Easterbrook’s Commencement Address at Swarthmore, and Michael Lewis’s Baccalaureate Remarks at Princeton. At bottom, both are about false perceptions. Lewis takes on the common perception among successful people that success is the product primarily of merit, and not of lot of luck. Easterbrook takes on the perception among some Supreme Court observers that law is just politics and the Supreme Court divides along ideological lines as a result of it. You may or may not agree with these arguments, of course. But I found both quite interesting.

An excerpt from Lewis:

People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. . . .

[D]on’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.

An excerpt from Easterbook:

We have about a month to go in the Supreme Court’s current term. Many 5-4 decisions are impending. The press will bemoan the Justices’ inability to agree and assert that the Justices’ ideology explain the divisions. Those of you who have encountered the attitudinal model in class will nod sagely. You, and the press, will be wrong.

Suppose the Justices who are usually called “conservative” were to resign tomorrow and be replaced by President Obama. The reconstituted Court still would find lots of cases to be hard. It would grant review of those hard cases and decide many of them five to four. Cases that the Roberts Court finds hard and decides 5-4, this hypothetical Court would find easy and decide 9-0; lawyers would stop presenting those disputes. But they would bring more and more of the disputes that divide the new Court.

To those who specialize in economic analysis of law, the effect is known as selection pressure in litigation. The choices made by lawyers, and the judges themselves, ensure substantial disagreement even when there is no ideological difference among the judges – which also makes it hard to blame politics for the disagreement we actually observe. The rate of disagreement among the Justices has been stable for more than 70 years The Court had the same rate of dissent in 1945 as in 2005, though in 1945 eight of the nine Justices had been appointed by a single President. Selection pressure is responsible for this stability.