Is fairness an art?

One of the main attractions of the concept of fairness is that it requires judgement, it is qualitative not quantitative. It is not reduceable to a number, and hence differs from inequality, the hard-edged term that tends to be favoured by most economists – because they mostly like to have a calculation and favour quantification. Measuring it doesn’t make inequality the better measure: the simple fact is, humankind can stand a good deal of inequality if it is fair; if it isn’t fair, equality is deeply unsettling. 

Fairness is a clear sense that is innate in humans and crucial to our well-being. But does that make it an art?

It’s a question forced upon us by the title of an excellent new book The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean, by David Bodanis (author of bestseller e=mc2), published late last year. I am happy to recommend the book.

The Art of Fairness is alive with stories, finding fair and decent behaviour around the world and across history, as well as finding its opposites. I am now sorely tempted to do further research on the Bounty’s Captain Bligh, who appears to have swung between periods as a generous and inspirational leader and as a vicious monster. And I have to admit favouring any book that has a chapter on the experience of the second world war in India and Burma, and the leadership of the great and largely forgotten General Slim, under whom one of my grandfathers served (in a very junior capacity). It remains an oddity that the British obsession with that war almost entirely neglects the war in Asia. 

From a business reader’s perspective, the two key chapters are one that contrasts Satya Nadella’s oversight of Microsoft with that of his predecessor Steve Ballmer, and another that compares the leadership that delivered the remarkably efficient construction of the Empire State Building with the venality that took apart an airline business, Eastern Airlines, apparently for personal greed. For me it felt that the Microsoft story held few surprises, as the downs and ups of that company in the years since Bill Gates’s departure have been played out in public, and the weaknesses of Ballmer seemed all too apparent to the outside world in his mostly mocked performances seeking to inspire staff, where he appeared unable to persuade even himself. 

The Empire State Building and Eastern Airlines stories, while having some familiarities, are less known and so it felt they had more to teach. The Empire State story focuses on lead contractor Paul Starrett, who had what we might now call a strong stakeholder approach to business. In particular, he saw significant value in paying workers above the standard rate and offering them better treatment, not least making decent food available to them with subsidised restaurants created on a number of floors as the building rose. He was no soft touch: the iron fist within this velvet glove was a rigorous audit process, for people, tools and materials – so that no one was tempted to skim additional wages for non-existent workers or scam materials away from the building site. Both were problems typical of the construction business then as now. Starrett was rewarded by the construction being swifter and more efficient than rival sites even given the scale of the ambition that the building represented. It remained the tallest building in the world for decades.

The Eastern Airlines story is a contrast to this. Frank Lorenzo became CEO of the successful business in 1986. He took over a thriving and successful operation with good stakeholder relationships. And he proceeded to damage each of those relationships in order to make more money. He cut salaries among the workforce. He sold off assets, including the innovative reservations system that the business had carefully built. It was worse than just selling assets: often these were related party transactions that benefited him personally. He tried to divide and rule the workforce, trigger a strike among ground crew and mechanics and enter bankruptcy to offload liabilities. His plans failed and he was ousted, but not before having so damaged the business that it was split up among a number of acquirers.

One of the familiarities of this Eastern Airlines story is that it feels like a good deal of current business behaviour: too often it seems companies now are being overloaded with debt and, if they do not succeed quickly, deliberately put into bankruptcy to enable a phoenix business to emerge unburdened by former liabilities. Bodanis, in his generous discussion of further reading materials and explorations that provides a final two dozen pages of the book, makes an explicit link between Lorenzo’s behaviour and that of the worst activities of private equity. This unfortunately feels a fair comparison.

Each of these chapters in the first half of the book is used as evidence for what Bodanis calls koans, Zen Buddhism’s brief, sometimes apparently contradictory lessons. Examples are ‘Listen, without ego’ and ‘Give, but audit’. Collectively, these koans build through the book to form Bodanis’s understanding of what the art of fairness amounts to.

The second half of the book is given over to a contrast between the always flawed but ever-determined US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the flawed and irresolute Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Though both feel like stories we have heard before, Bodanis manages to vest each man’s history with fresh insight – framed by the koans evidenced by earlier chapters – helping us to learn anew.

While Bodanis does not explicitly draw links between his discussion of Goebbels’ big lies and current political tendencies, those messages are clear between the lines (and between the lies). Reading the book over the weeks either side of this January’s insurrection in Washington DC, as I did, it felt disturbingly prescient. Further, the discussion of FDR feels particularly important given that President Biden, indeed all of us, seem to be some form of new New Dealers now, in our determination to Build Back Better – or better, to Build Back Fairer.

Actually, it seems to me that Bodanis’s book is less about fairness than it is about the key word in the subtitle, decency. When you read the book, it often seems that the words decency and decent appear more often than fair and fairness, and certainly when you hear Bodanis speak about the book it is decency that seems to keep coming up. It seems an old-fashioned term, but it is none the worse for that; Bodanis is perhaps challenging us to refashion it for our modern era. That would be no bad thing, and I think I would agree that decency at least is an art.

The Art of Fairness, David Bodanis, Bridge Street Press 2020

Steve Ballmer: I love this company