Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Incentives Destroy Co-operation and Will Destroy Society

Human societies depend upon each of us helping our neighbors, and not exploiting them, and about 80 percent of us are willing to participate fairly in joint projects of mutual benefit. The other 20 percent are skivers, people who will try to get the benefits with as little effort as they can get away with. The skiving free loaders are not popular with the others who pull their weight, and usually sanctions or punishments are applied to those who try to exploit other people’s mutual effort for their own gain. It is called norm enforcement, the norm being that everyone should pull their weight, and those who do not are deviants from the norm.

Data like these are not difficult to get by testing in controlled situations. If my neighbor and I could each build a house on our acre plot in six months, but by co-operating we could do a better job making use of our complementary skills and finish the two houses in eight months, then we have a clear benefit from co-operating. If the houses still took six months each and were no better, we might as well build our own, and we only have ourselves to blame for anything that goes wrong. The act of co-operating must itself have a benefit or there is no point in it. So setting up a test in which people can share a sum of money they have been given with other participants to get a benefit from the pooled resource mimics my neighbor and I helping each other build a house, as long as it is likely that by sharing we can all be better off.

In such tests, Professor Stephan Meier, Assistant Professor in Management at Columbia Business School, and co-worker, Andreas Fuster, PhD candidate, Harvard University Department of Economics, discovered that when people were given private incentives, norm enforcement became less effective. The incentives seemed to take the edge off the hard feeling towards the skivers.

  1. Participants were asked to contribute to a common pool of cash to be divided equally among them all at the end of each of six rounds, whether or not all participants contributed. No kind of norm enforcement was used. People gave only small amounts to begin with, and gave less in each round.
  2. By adding an incentive to contribute (a lottery ticket), with no opportunity to enforce norms, people contributed more gladly, including free riders.
  3. Norm enforcement was introduced to the first test, in the shape of a fine on free riders at the end of each round. Those who were fined, most of them, increased their contributions in subsequent rounds.
  4. Adding the lottery ticket incentive made contributors scale back their punishment of free riders by almost half, and free riders were less likely to make larger contributions in subsequent rounds whether or not they were punished. The result tended towards the previous test without incentives.

Fuster says:

Individual incentives can really change the structure of how we deal with one another, what the norms are, and how we enforce norms. If social forces in an organization are important, managers need to be attuned to norm enforcement and peer effects. They should understand that adding monetary incentives can dramatically change this dynamic and lead to a net negative effect.

The point is that the lottery ticket became the aim of participating, there being nothing to be gained by sharing through the common pool. Free riding therefore became irrelevant. Everyone would give just enough to get a lottery ticket, whether a free rider or not.

On the face of it the experiments are flawed. There is no co-operative gain to be made by contributing to the common fund. The pool needs to be enhanced in some way to make it more like human co-operation. Even so, it is easy to see that a separate incentive can draw attention from the whole point of a co-operative venture—the advantages of co-operating—by distracting attention from the primary objective.

It is the reason, for example, why sports can be so easily disrupted by gambling. Whatever is to be gained from illegal betting can make sportsmen actually want to sabotage the supposedly co-operative team objective, and lose for their personal gain.

The same is true of senior managers and board members who begin to give themselves bonuses from the company’s earnings. The drive to maximize bonuses distract from the corporate aims, and when shareholders will not sack managers and board members who are lining their own pockets at the expense of the shareholder, then the managers can run amuck.

That is what happened in our banks. Barclays’ shares for example sank by a half over several years when top managers in most banks lifted their own compensation, including bonuses, by obscene amounts, and shareholders let them get away with it. Needless to say, the holders of large blocks of shares, able to sway any shareholders’ meeting, are often themselves large banks and city institutions, so effectively they are in a scam to rob the ordinary small shareholder and the customers.

Politicians are the same. Their objective is supposed to be to represent the interests of the people who vote for them, but they are all too easily distracted by the wads of maney waved at them from corporate bosses. Tony Blair is getting his compensastion now for his sacrifice of pretending to be a Labour Party Prime Minister, when he was a Republican Quisling. The incentives of the rich soon make most career politics forget what they are there for.

Our societies used to take an extremely dim view of bribery, but no longer. Bribes are today incentives, and the law enforcers themselves are too ready to accept them. A cabal of superrich people have corrupted the western world beyond redemption. Western society is decadent and immoral. Democracy is superficial. We are run by this megarich class, which controls every party with its incentives, incentives to do as they want, and not what is good for society.

The often despised Arabs are showing more courage and awareness now than the once militant workers of the UK and France. Workers in the US have always been too easily fooled by their betters. Even after thirty years of declining real wages, longer hours and poorer conditions for those in work, and a labor pool of twenty or thirty million unemployed or part time workers, while the top thousand or so people have trebled their wealth, the average American is still beguiled by the moribund American dream, Republican crooks and pastors, and their own inability to comprehend what is going on. They are the ones without the incentives, but rather are offered carrots.

Carrots might be incentives for donkeys, but Americans ought to be more sophisticated than those famously uncomplaining beasts of burden. Its time they started to do what the Arabs have already begun. Get out in mass on to the streets, trash a few corporate HQs and banks, and threaten revolution. Social instability is one thing the rich do not like, and can do little about, except getting national guards to shoot citizens.

Then everyone will realize that the state is not theirs, and democracy is an illusion.

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