Ockham's Razor diversity

Diversity and the Razor:

I was reading this piece on the effects of diversity (h/t: Cassandra). It begins by pointing out that diversity has significant downsides; but then posits an upside, and tries to strive for a balance point. In doing so, it runs afoul of Ockham's razor.

Here's the downside:

[A] massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.
For the purpose of this argument, we'll call this the 'hostile effect' of diversity: it destroys community, making people more suspicious of each other and less willing to help each other out.

Here's the upside:
So how to explain New York, London, Rio de Janiero, Los Angeles -- the great melting-pot cities that drive the world's creative and financial economies?

The image of civic lassitude dragging down more diverse communities is at odds with the vigor often associated with urban centers, where ethnic diversity is greatest. It turns out there is a flip side to the discomfort diversity can cause. If ethnic diversity, at least in the short run, is a liability for social connectedness, a parallel line of emerging research suggests it can be a big asset when it comes to driving productivity and innovation. In high-skill workplace settings, says Scott Page, the University of Michigan political scientist, the different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can be a boon.

"Because they see the world and think about the world differently than you, that's challenging," says Page, author of "The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies." "But by hanging out with people different than you, you're likely to get more insights. Diverse teams tend to be more productive."
Page wants to posit a 'friendly effect' to go with the 'hostile effect' -- that friendships among diverse people create inspiration.

What strikes me here is that the argument for the 'friendly effect' introduces a new element that is not necessary. It may or may not be true that 'hanging out with people different from you' inspires creativity. It need not be true, however, to explain the upside. The upside is adequately explained adequately by the first study.

If you live in a community where there is a lot of fellow-feeling, charity, civic groups, volunteerism, etc., that takes a lot of the competitive strain off of marginal producers. You have some people who are going to strive for excellence because that's who they are; but you have a large body of people who are going to do just what they have to do to get by. To the degree that 'civic engagement' softens the impact of noncompetitiveness, there will be less competition.

On the other hand, if you live in a community where you are aware of lots of people -- and groups you perceive as different -- struggling to drag themselves over the top, and where there is a lot less "civic engagement" to help you out if you fail, that same body of people are going to be goaded into struggling too. Precisely because the 'hostile effect' destroys the community, they will be frightened, and will have less of a cushion to soften the blow if they fall.

So too for anyone at any margin: the margin of 'who gets the raise,' the margin of 'who gets the promotion,' of 'who gets the job,' or 'who keeps the job now that we're cutting back.' Precisely because it destroys communities, diversity increases competitiveness, and therefore productivity.

This is the same metric from naked capitalism v. socialism debates; if I have a generous welfare society, I lose productivity across the board. If I have a generous volunteer-based civil society, I'll also lose productivity.

Therefore, the suggestion that diversity inspires people is unnecessary to explaining the findings. It may still be true; Ockham's Razor only points to what is most likely, not to what is certain. Still, the Razor says it's more likely that diversity's 'hostile effect' is responsible for both the collapse of communities, and the higher productivity in the most diverse spaces.

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