5th August 2012: Malcolm Gladwell on Slack Arbitrage

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell on slack arbitrage:


For most of us, slack—the gap between what is possible, under conditions of absolute effort, and actual performance—is unavoidable. We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we can’t. . . . This notion of slack is part of what we take as normal and natural about the world. . . . Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. By custom, we disparage the idleness of the idle rich. We should encourage it. It is our best chance of taking their place. . . . We pretend that meritocracies—our favored word for modern competitions—are contests of equals. They aren’t. Some people can stay close only by making painful choices, and, as the standards of competition rise, those choices grow more painful still.



Slack arbitrage is a function of a ‘winner takes all’ tournament system in workplaces and status-driven socio-economic competitiveness. Elites control capital assets, have higher income streams, are rent-seeking, and can extract greater value. This creates competitive selection pressures on those in the middle who aspire to become a new elite.


This upward dynamic has existed in academia for at least the past decade. Gladwell’s “painful choices” can involve extra role responsibilities; which peer-reviewed journals to target; time spent on competitive grant proposals; and attending events to gain commercial and government partner investigators. Absolute effort is given — and actual performance is institutionally evaluated — in pursuit of the possible. Academia thus begins to more closely resemble the ‘up or out’ competitiveness of making partner in management consulting firms.


In the past, slack arbitrage in academia occurred at certain career points: the mid-career academic who has worked out how to ‘game’ the workload points system; or the professor who flies under the radar and keeps to their PhD students. Now slack arbitrage is under attack from a performance-based management culture: everyone must work hard; and upward mobility is restricted to academics who have a ‘success for the successful‘ dynamic.


Gladwell could have read Tom DeMarco‘s Slack: Getting Past Burnout and the Myth of Total Efficiency (New York: Broadway, 2002).