The title of this post is taken from something Bill James wrote in one of the first Baseball Abstracts.
In the context of competitive athletics, where ability and performance can be measured more or less objectively, the claim that talent isn’t scarce is very counter-intuitive, although in the sense James meant he was clearly right (What he meant was that, even in major league baseball, talent at the margin isn’t scarce, and organizations were therefore often way too conservative about making changes among players at or near the actual replacement level, by for example continuing to play a sub-mediocre “proven” veteran instead of a promising younger player).
In the context of human endeavors in which performance can’t be measured as accurately as in competitive sports — i.e., almost everything else — this claim has far more general applicability.
For example, in politics, talent is not scarce. At all. Not even a little bit. How many people from the constitutionally eligible pool in America would make good presidents? Literally millions. (If the bar is set at “better than Donald Trump” the answer would be tens of millions). Even if you want to pare down the pool by insisting that good candidates already have substantial experience in government and/or electoral office, you’re still in the hundreds of thousands. At least.
Talent is not scarce. BTW this applies to just about everything. Give a halfway well-informed selection committee in regard to the relevant subject matter a Google interface and 24 hours and that committee could replace every Fortune 500 CEO, every major university president, every national op-ed columnist, every Hollywood star, etc. etc. etc. with a fresh batch of alternative candidates for the same positions with no loss of quality whatsoever (Indeed in some inertia-ridden fields, the immediate improvement in quality produced by such a comprehensive purge would be striking. Looking at you MoDo).
The implications of this state of affairs are far-reaching. For one, it makes it clear that claims that social rewards are distributed on the basis of merit, rather than on the basis of nepotism, cronyism, prejudice, pseudo-scientific methods purporting to measure what are in fact meaningless distinctions in performance, and most of all, overwhelmingly random and blind luck, significantly overstated. (Significantly overstated doesn’t mean totally false. Obviously Mike Trout isn’t being paid $430 million to hit and catch and throw a baseball for random reasons. But again, life isn’t sports, and everybody else, unlike Mike Trout, is by comparison eminently replaceable.)
Existing social hierarchies, and especially the compensation structures that undergird them, require the constant denial of the fact that almost everyone is easily replaceable at any time. After all, if there are 500 people standing at the ready who could do just as good or better a job than Chairman Smith or President Jones or Senior Executive Vice President for West Coast Promotion Johnson or Distinguished Professor of the Newly Endowed Chair for the Worship of Capitalism Cowan, then why do these people get treated and most of all paid as if they were as unique as unicorns, as precious as Vermeer portraits, as irreplaceable as Billy Shakespeare or Willie Mays?
Because if we didn’t treat them (us) in that way, that would mean the entire structure of our society is radically unjust, root and branch. And that can’t be true, obviously.*
Here’s one tiny example of how this frankly banal insight should be deployed: It’s obviously insane to nominate somebody to be president who will spend the majority of his first term in his 80s. There’s about a 10% risk that such a person will begin to undergo the early stages of senile dementia during his term, which for obvious reasons would be a catastrophe of Trumpian proportions, especially since early-stage dementia may take quite a long time to develop to a point where the invocation of Section 4 of the 25th Amendment is clearly warranted, by which time we could all be dead or worse.
The only reason to run such a crazy risk would be if the talents of President Eightysomething were so remarkably special and rare that it would make sense to take the risk. They aren’t, and it doesn’t.
Because talent is not scarce.