Saturday, December 08, 2007

Superstars and "talent"

Top bosses and film stars get multi-million pound salaries because talent is scarce. Everyone knows this. Which is a shame, because it's bull, as this fantastic paper by Marko Tervio explains.

Start from the premise that talent is initially unknown, and can only be revealed by working with expensive equipment. So, for example, we can only find out if a manager is any good if he's in charge of a big venture, or if an actor has box office appeal if he's in a mega-costly film. It is, therefore, very expensive to learn who's got talent and who hasn't.

What's more, people with talent cannot offer to share this cost with employers, either because of lack of cash or risk aversion: people don't pay for the chance to become bosses or film stars.

In these conditions, what's scarce isn't talent, but revealed talent. There might be loads of people with the ability to be film stars or bosses, but only a handful get the chance to show what they can do. Marg Helgenberger gets big money not (just) because she's a better, more popular or more beautiful actress than others, but because she's a proven quantity.


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