My Say: Of Dune, Star Wars and social mobility

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 8, 2021 - November 14, 2021.
My Say: Of Dune, Star Wars and social mobility
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With the spate of lockdowns in the past year and a half, I’ve really missed going to the cinema. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was not a stretch to say that I watched a movie at the cinema twice a month. One of my most frequented web pages was probably the “Coming Soon” page on the various cinema websites. At the start of every year, I would go through the IMDB page that showed new releases for the coming year and mark down which movies I would want to see.

Having watched maybe one movie — Tenet — in a cinema in the past 1½ years or so, I was incredibly excited to watch Dune on IMAX, not just for the movie itself but the whole cinema experience. I won’t spoil anything, and I do encourage people to watch the movie; it’s really very good.

That being said, the premise of the movie, along with the source material on which it is based, does not sit well with me. The (non-spoiler) synopsis of the movie, taken from Google, goes like this: “Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people.” Of course, I have no issue with the latter part of the statement; travelling to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people is an exciting plot.

The part that does not sit well with me is the statement “born into a great destiny”. In other words, this is a story about a “Chosen One” of sorts who, by virtue of his (in this case) birth, must go on and do remarkable things. In the most recent Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, I was super underwhelmed when the plot “twist” was revealed (spoiler alert — but the movie has been out for nearly two years, so the statute of limitations has expired on spoilers): Rey, the “saviour” of the series, was ultimately a descendant of Palpatine.

So, essentially, a necessary — and perhaps sufficient? — condition for Rey’s ascent to hero-ism was her ancestry. Never mind that in the previous two movies, we see Rey’s difficult background and her hustle to survive. Never mind that at the end of Episode 8, we see a kid somehow use The Force to move a broomstick, giving us hope that maybe the Force is accessible to all. After finding out that Rey was just Palpatine’s descendant, we figured maybe that kid who moved the broomstick was Palpatine’s descendant too. Very disappointing.

So, why does this matter? It matters because stories that tell us that a series of remarkable acts, carried out by “Chosen Ones” — chosen, in particular, by virtue of their lineage — are how the world or even the universe gets saved. And it is, therefore, only those of a particular ancestry who have some predestined right to be the hero. As such, whether you get to do great deeds depends on the lottery of birth. Either have the luck and happenstance to be born in the right family or go through life as a background character.

But how much do we lose by virtue of keeping those who were unlucky enough to be born to more regular ancestries as background characters? In a recent paper, Patrick Gaule, an economist at the University of Bristol specialising in the economics of science and innovation documented, using a novel dataset, how much the world loses in terms of “invisible geniuses” by virtue of where they are born.

The findings follow a two-step logic. First, there is a strong correlation between exceptionally talented teenagers (as measured by participation in the International Mathematics Olympiad) and their ability to come up with new ideas over their lifetime. Nothing controversial here. Second, such individuals who happen to be born in low- or middle-income countries are systematically less likely to become knowledge producers. This means that, if you are born in a middle-income country, even if you have the same ability as someone born in a high-income country, you are less likely to be an idea creator over your lifetime.

The larger implication is that “Chosen Ones” are now from the analogous “families” of high-income countries. How many “Chosen Ones” have we missed simply because we do not provide them with the opportunities to maximise their potential? What if the most talented football player in world history was actually from Malaysia, just that she did not get the training or coaching she needed? It is difficult for abilities and talents to blossom in spaces that are not conducive to their development.

Stephen Jay Gould, the late American evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist, puts it well: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” What’s more, the effect of unleashing talent may not even need to be by design! Economists Gerhard Toews and Pierre-Louis Vézina find that areas around Gulag camps in the former Soviet Union are more prosperous today, in no small part because many of the (millions of) prisoners were artists, engineers, managers or professors who were imprisoned solely for being the educated elite.

The good news for all of us is that, over the past couple of centuries, this notion of resource allocation due to hereditary circumstances — in other words, the aristocracy — has been replaced by a notion of resource allocation due to talent and abilities. More succinctly, it has been replaced by meritocracy. The bad news, however, is that meritocracy is, by itself, not safe from being entrenched. Parents who succeed by their own merit are, naturally, going to pass down the rewards they have received from society to their children. An easy thought experiment is as follows — who is more likely to get 10As in their SPM? The child of a rubber tapper in rural Segamat or the child of a corporate lawyer in Bangsar? Who is more likely to get a cushy internship?

To be clear, while meritocracy is imperfect, it is still much better than a resource allocation system based on the fact that someone happens to be an Emperor’s granddaughter. Social mobility — amid growing income and wealth inequality, exacerbated by a regressive pandemic crisis — must continue to be a top three priority of any policymaker. This is true not just in Malaysia but also globally; if we say things such as the climate crisis are global challenges, we also need to provide citizens of different countries — geniuses in the making — with global opportunities to save our world.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist and head of research at Khazanah Nasional Bhd

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