Monday, November 24, 2008

The IROC-Z Quotient. Standardized Testing for Jerks.

The modern world is a complicated place. Very often, we don't have the time, energy or resources to evaluate for ourselves the full nature of a person or a situation, and so have to rely on some kind of quantitative shorthand. And as surely as water runs downhill, the world teaches to the test.

One hundred out of one hundred university provosts will tell you that choosing a college is a complicated, intimate decision and that the U.S. News and World Report college rankings are meaningless drivel. But, of course, twenty-five out of twenty-five colleges that rank in the top twenty-five splash their statistic all over every prospective-bound brochure. A 17 point drop in the S&P 500 or a 53% percent chance of rain are utterly meaningless figures. They do absolutely nothing to describe the world or predict the future. Yet these numbers are, almost without exception, among the first things we hear on a newscast. They are scientific calculations after all, right?, and so, even if imperfect, they have to mean SOMETHING.

Over time, numeric proxies start to eclipse reality itself. The CEO spouts effusive corporate-speak to nudge up a share price. The parent enlists Kaplan to brainwash his kids for an average net, money-back guaranteed 50 point SAT score increase. The golfer gives himself a putt. Slowly, imperceptibly, we forget about the whole sausage factory that reduces the vast, crazy world to digits and start worshiping the shorthand itself.

It’s only natural, of course. We’re busy people. To figure out how smart a person is takes a lot of effort. It’s rude to probe too hard, so we just wait for a passing reference to a person’s having “spent some time in New Haven” to clarify that he graduated in the top 2% of his prep school class. Front and center – the Mac Daddy of all signifiers – is the almighty dollar. That’s a little easier to suss out than intelligence; we just have to wait to peek at a little slice of Patek Philippe hand-chiseled bezel poking out from the edge of a monogrammed cuff. We’re all taught that money isn’t everything and that money can’t buy happiness. And we all know, from about age seven, that that’s bullshit. Money buys freedom. Money buys influence. Money buys security. And no matter how much we swear that it’s noble to be a social worker or a school teacher, and no matter how much we deeply, truly believe that, not a single one of us can help but have some lingering sense that the dude with the Rolex has done a better job of doing whatever it is we’re all supposed to be doing.

The dollar shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all of human metrics. The meritocratic faithful will tell you that rich people are rich because of their skills and resourcefulness. I’d estimate that to be true about 4% of the time. From time to time, yes, a person works hard, focuses intently and walks himself down the path to one of the half dozen kinds of careers that pays big, or thinks outside the box and comes up with the next Post-It Note. The remaining 96%? Duh. C’mon, say it with me - Born with it. The sample size of the group of investment bankers I know personally is large enough for me to justify generalizing: having lots of dough means no more than that you have been graced with the subtle, acquired ability to pick out the right style suit and hint at the right summer vacation paradise to get your foot in whatever door leads to more dough. And that’s it.

Most people would agree that, when trying to figure out how worthwhile a person is, such characteristics as love, happiness, kindness and commitment are more important than money. But because human beings are so hard-wired to overestimate the importance of things that can be quantified, it’s futile to try to make people focus on these kinds of amorphous concepts. What we need, then, is a new and improved matrix, one that measures the things that are really important. If we can get that right, teaching to the test will better all of humanity.

I propose the Individualized Reconnaissance of Compassion – Zeitgeist 2009 (“IROC-Z”) Quotient. (As a side note, it is an amazing coincidence that the acronym for this matrix is the same as the name of a certain 1980’s Chevy. All of the great minds in the automotive and sociological communities are in agreement that, because of some inexplicable convergence of engineering and marketing, there is a perfect one-to-one correlation between owning this make and model car and being a dick.) Based on a few informational tidbits, the IROC-Z process would be able to quantify all of the factors that make a person good and likable. Have you ever kicked a dog? Made a child who’s not yours cry? Did you read a book last year? What’s your mother in-law’s birthday? Do you let people merge from on-ramps? How much do you tip? Between Google, the Department of Homeland Security, and Visa, all the necessary information has already been collected, so producing the results would just require a little number crunching. Some MIT work-study kid could do it in a week. The IROC-Z Quotient would be a 1-100 scale (so that it would work in metric system countries too), with 1 being the best – a person almost entirely devoid of dickish qualities, resembling a combination of Mother Theresa, Jim Hensen, Nelson Mandela, Bono, Oprah and Captain Steubing – and 100 being the worst – a person who is dickish to the core, resembling a combination of Hitler, Carrot Top, Jack Abramoff, Barney, Imelda Marcos and Jerry Springer.

Ratings would be documented with an ID card, renewable annually like your car registration. And the whole process could be administered by some pseudo-public agency, like the post-office, that would be revenue-neutral via customized add-ons, marketed at a sensible price point, for every taste and style. It wouldn’t have to be mandatory – so no complaints from the libertarians or the ACLU – just highly inconvenient if you didn’t do it, like not having a CVS card.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to hire a new employee based on this scale? Assuming you were among the chosen few, how wonderful to join a country club / fraternity / Oddfellows lodge where everyone was as wonderful as you. Nice people-only bars! “Sorry dude, can’t let you in” says the bouncer, “says right here you’re a dick.” Or, if you needed a little a little schadenfreude rush, you could more easily hang out with people who were a few notches less wonderful then you. And, just as, when you’re about to let your mortgage check bounce, you have at least a fleeting thought about the effect on your credit score, you might think twice before berating the fast food register guy about how long your Baconater is taking. Doing so could cause your toddler to be booted from his exclusive IROC-Z-rated preschool. A whole universe of paraphernalia would follow: the “My Son is a 9 IROC-Z Student at Sunnyville M.S.” bumper sticker (and of course, the inevitable “My 97 IROC-Z Student Beat Up Your 9 IROC-Z Student”). 90th percentile-only IROC-Z internet dating sites. IROC-Z ties and lapel pins. IROC-Z mixers and fundraisers. If you wanted to be a snob, you could at least be a snob for the right reasons. If you’re a smart, loving person with a great sense of humor who tells engrossing stories and remembers people's birthdays, why wouldn’t you want to try to steer clear of all the riffraff with bad attitudes and weak social connections? And, for the time being at least, there’s no constitutional prohibition on discriminating against people who are just jerks.

Numbers vastly over-simplify the world, but that’s just the way it is. So until we can figure out how to eradicate the wayward human tendency to rely on numeric drivel, we might as well start focusing on numbers that matter. Send a note to your senator; yell it from the rooftop; tell all your friends: Assholes are everywhere! We demand full disclosure! The universal IROC-Z quotient system must become the law of the land!


mediaslinger said...

Seriously. You can't see Bono driving an IROC? Sure, maybe he'd be running it on vegetable oil, but he'd still be revving the engine and peeling out down the street at 3 am.

Rich said...

Me thinks this could be accomplished without the precision if done Homeland Security style. Just broad color categories no one can understand - except for the best and worst that is, as we all get the tops (good) and bottoms (bad). The 70% in the middle are harmless. It is the over and underachievers who need tracking. I just need to know who to emulate and who to scoff at.