For years, I've been avoiding buying russet apples. They have such unattractive tawny brown skins. Not like the smooth, pink-cheeked Royal Galas and MacIntoshes.
Until this fall. "What kind of apples would you like?", I asked my out-of-town visitors. "Well, russets are the best, of course, but I doubt you'll be able to get them. It's almost the end of the season."
Given a challenge like that, I had to - and did - procure the last of the local russets.
It's true. They are the best apples - not too sweet, just the right texture, with an intense appley flavour.
This is the logic behind what I call the Sam-I-am theory of affirmative action. In Dr Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, Sam-I-am urges the protagonist to try this strange food:
You do not like them.
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say.
[Spoiler alert] The hero eventually tries green eggs and ham and, yes, he does like them.
One view of affirmative action is that if employers can just get the past the colour of a potential employee's skin, and give that person an opportunity, they will discover their prejudices were mistaken. They will learn, and next time not judge people on their skin colour. Affirmative action will improve the welfare of disadvantaged groups, by expanding their job opportunities. It is good for employers, too, as it allows them to discover and tap new pools of talent. Moreover, affirmative action can be temporary: as employers learn, and tastes change, discrimination will end.
The russet apple example illustrates one condition necessary for affirmative action to work this way.
Research in behavioural economics suggests that our experiences and perceptions can be manipulated. For example, people will honestly believe that a wine tastes better if they are told that it is expensive (e.g. here) Did I enjoy my russet apples because russets are objectively delicious, or because I was told that they were hard to obtain and special by someone whose taste I respect? Almost certainly the later played a role.
The policy conclusion: affirmative action will be more effective if it has high level, highly respected advocates. Here I risk being overly speculative, but it may be possible that, if employers feel that they are being forced to hire a certain person, they may perceive that employee as inferior, even if in fact that person is perfectly capable?
The russet apple example illustrates a second point: something can be shut out of the market place as much by suppliers' beliefs about consumers' preferences, as by those actual preferences. I have now seen the light, and realize that russet apples are delicious. But how can I convey my demand to suppliers? If they believe that russet apples will not sell, so do not bring any to market, I will never have an opportunity to reveal my preferences.
An well-trained economist would respond: in any kind of remotely competitive market, if an opportunity for profit exists, someone will exploit it. If there are no russet apples on offer it's because no one is willing to pay the costs of their production. To which I say: Have you checked out the extent of concentration and vertical integration in the Canadian grocery industry lately? Also: apple trees take time to grow. It is risky to sink a large amount of capital into any fruit with a fluctuating, uncertain demand.
But I have learned one thing at least this year: not to discriminate against apples just because I don't like the colour of their skin.