Category Archives: Incentives

You’re on Your Own (But You Don’t Have to Be)

During the recent U.S. Senate debate in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison and Lindsey Graham seemed determined to one-up each other about their overcoming hardships in their lives.

Harrison, as a Black South Carolinian, sounded quite similar, in fact, to Republican senator Tim Scott—both sending strong messages about rugged individualism that can easily be viewed by those denying racism as proof anyone can make it in the U.S. with enough grit and the right mindset.

The U.S. has long loved rags-to-riches stories, ignoring both that these stories are compelling because they are incredibly rare and that these stories are often lies.

Rugged individualism is not just an idealistic mythology, but a deforming lie that helps mask that most success in the U.S. comes from privileges and connections linked to family wealth, race, and gender; wealth begets wealth just as privilege begets privilege.

Bootstrapping myths have existed nearly as long as the U.S., and seem grounded in a belief that without these stories to incentivize people, the country would crumble due to inherent human laziness.

Certainly the real and mythologized stories of the U.S. are mostly about exceptional individuals (almost all white men) and the power of competition to drive the demands of capitalism and consumerism.

Bootstrapping and rugged individualism myths fail for several reason, however. One is that rags-to-riches stories are by their nature outlier events; it is both illogical and harmful to treat outlier phenomena as “normal,” as the foundational expectation for everyone.

But the greatest harm in these myths are grounded in the lies. Research, in fact, shows that cooperation, collaboration, and community are far more productive than competition.

Just a bit of critical examination into anyone claiming to be a “self-made” success exposes that many factors played a role in that success, notably connections, collaboration and community hidden beneath the individual, and even luck (despite the problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s work, Outliers serves well to reveal those patterns).

What business can prosper without the publicly funded roads and highways systems?

For many in the U.S., Harrison and Scott as successful Black men prove that there is not a systemic problem in the country, but a failure of individuals who can be “fixed” through a more demanding education system and a more punitive police state and legal system.

Again, these beliefs are contradicted by evidence, such as that Mullainathan and Shafir detail in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Individuals tend to behave in ways that reflect their environments.

Mullainathan and Shafir offer two contexts—slack and scarcity, which we can loosely frame as wealth and poverty but understand it is more complex than that.

When people live in slack, they tend to behave in ways that seem rational and productive, in part because of lower stress and wider margins for error. While this is paradoxical, having more than enough money tends to allow people to be better with money (such as saving or spending more carefully, including having greater access to wealth through loans that tend to be lower interest for those who are wealthier).

Living paycheck to paycheck or living without adequate finances creates a level of stress that tends to result in greater financial hardship—falling behind on payments or accumulating insurmountable debt.

Despite the mythologies and beliefs of many in the U.S., these differences can be traced to the circumstances of people’s lives and not to flaws in individuals.

In fact, living in slack allows for individual flaws since making mistakes or bad decisions have much lower stakes.

Having a car break down when you are a salaried employee with a strong savings account and a high credit score has a much different consequence than when you are a single parent working two part-time jobs with hourly wages and no savings account as well as a low credit score.

Despite our knee-jerk urge as a country to blame individuals for their situations and applaud success as the result of individual effort, the evidence is clear that systemic forces are far more powerful than individual qualities for most people.

The ultimate irony here is that while the American Dream tends to be a message of rugged individualism, bootstrapping, and having the grit and proper mindset to succeed, the more robust and humane version of that Dream requires a culture shift in our collective mindset.

Instead of celebrating individuals who overcome inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism, what if as a people we committed to making sure no one has those challenges to begin with? What if we genuinely committed to the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we claimed all people to be endowed with at birth?

Why must any child earn a full and dignified life in the richest and most powerful country in the history of humanity?

While it feels cliche to mention, Martin Luther King Jr. serves well here to demonstrate the great failures of the American culture bound to individualism to the exclusion of community—what John Dewey identified as either/or thinking that misleads people into thinking the needs of the individual are in conflict with the needs of the community.

King, well after his assassination, has been added to the pantheon of celebrated individuals, reduced to a passive radical and quoted or invoked mostly in ways that confirm the very system King was, in fact, rejecting.

The American Myth requires a King who is a unique individual who overcame, and his messages are only useful when they can be woven into the existing fabric of individual responsibility, respectability politics, and (maybe worst of all) a colorblind society.

That is the “content of character” King, often more prop than the person and radical King became near the end of his life.

However, King called for setting aside “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms [that] have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor” because “the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.”

Ultimately, then, King concluded: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income” because:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Many decades before the research offered by Mullainathan and Shafir, King recognized that shifting to systemic solutions instead of “fixing” or punishing individuals would allow the sort of individualism that need not be rugged in order to be fully human—and a contributing individual to the larger economy and democracy.

Consider the shift in perception of individuals by a systemic change—decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana creating entrepreneurs where we once saw criminals.

The American Dream is a damning dream, a hoax, a lie—as long as it remains a story of bootstrapping and a celebration of manufactured individuals overcoming.

The Harrison and Graham debate was more than one-upsmanship about who had the hardest path to the stage.

One is a pause, a possibility for turning toward the sort of community at the center of King’s final message; the other is clinging to the very worst of the country that has resulted in each of us being on our own—unless we were lucky enough to be born into the sort of wealth and privilege that allows us to fail and try again.

In 2020, during an international pandemic while living in the richest and most powerful country in the world, you are on your own.

But you don’t have to be.


Kristof, How Much Inequity Is the Right Balance?

I started simply to ignore Nicholas Kristof’s An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, but I was pulled back into it by Russ Walsh’s Hope, Poverty, and Grit.

First, the rush to celebrate Kristof’s acknowledgement of Thomas Picketty, inequality, and (gasp) the implication that capitalism is failing seems easy to accept. But that urge to pat Kristof on the back feels too much like the concurrent eagerness to praise John Merrow for (finally) unmasking Michelle Rhee, despite his repeated refusal to listen to valid criticism over the past few years.

But, I cannot praise Kristof [or Merrow especially (see HERE and HERE)] because there is a late-to-the-party and trivial quality to Kritof’s oversimplification of the problems raised by Picketty, a framing that allows considerations of inequity and poverty to remain comfortably within the exact free market/competition ideologies perpetuating all the ways in which we are failing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If Kristof’s initial premise is true—many in the U.S. do not have the sustained interest needed to consider fully Picketty’s work—then that may be what Kristof and others should to be addressing. Those likely to buy and then (not) read Picketty are disproportionately among the privileged for whom the current imbalance works in their favor.

A passing and brief interest in inequity (let’s drop the “inequality,” please) is evidence that many in the U.S. remain committed to the Social Darwinism that drives capitalism’s role in creating social inequity—”I’m going to get mine, others be damned”—and equally unaware that this selfish view of the world is in fact self-defeating.

And this leads me to the real problem I have with Kristof’s mostly flippant short-cut to Picketty:

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

And while Kristof appears completely oblivious to what he is admitting here, that second claim is the essential problem with capitalism: The ideology that humans should seek the right balance of affluence and poverty, which is the essence of capitalism and the ugly truth that the market creates and needs poverty.

So I do not find Kristof’s idiot’s guide satisfying in any way, but I do have some questions.

In the U.S., where white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 and then black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks and white use illegal recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are disproportionately targeted and charged with drug possession/use, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where women earn about 3/4s what men earn (for the same work), what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where people born in poverty who complete college have a lower earning potential than people born in affluence who haven’t completed college, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks with some college have the same earning potential as white high-school drop-outs, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

Kristof’s guide may be intended for idiots, but it fails because his analysis remains trapped inside a market view of the world, a view that seeks an ugly and inhumane balance of inequity that values poverty, that needs the poor and thus creates the exact inequity we continue to trivialize in our political leadership and mainstream media.

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data:

Daily Kos: Armstrong and Woods: Capitalism’s Poster Boys

Daily Kos: Armstrong and Woods: Capitalism’s Poster Boys.

Between parts I and II of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, an ad ran on OWN that included a clip of Armstrong acknowledging losing 75 million dollars in one day due to sponsors abandoning him followed by Armstrong noting his lowest moment. The sequence suggests that Armstrong was saying his loss of millions was his lowest moment, but when the full part II ran, Armstrong, in fact, identified removing himself from LIVESTRONG as the low moment.

But the point of an ad is to tease, not reflect truth.

For many cycling enthusiasts like me, the dark underbelly of professional cycling and Armstrong have been no revelation. For the many innocent people trampled by the Armstrong stampede—such as cycling journalist Neil Browne and the well publicized Frankie and Betsy Andreu—the Armstrong confession has opened the door for some vindication of their honesty, but unlikely is that the tremendous damage done to their livelihoods can ever be repaid.

Within hours of the Armstrong interview being aired, details of a book on Armstrong’s disgraceful fall were announced for a June 2013 publication, to be followed by a film.

And herein lies one thing that is receiving almost no public discussion: As long as the media, the USADA, and the public keep the gaze on Armstrong alone, the culture within which Armstrong flourished, the culture within which Armstrong was created will remain unexamined, unscathed, and free to consume.

Today among the rubble of Armstrong’s machine, Capitalism remains unchecked, and many now line up once again to profit off Armstrong as they did during his rise to false King of Cycling.

continue reading at Daily Kos

Welcome, Doctors, to the Brave New World of Corporate Reform!

What are the problems?

What is the evidence the problems exist?

What is the quality of that evidence?

Who are the stakeholders in the problems and solutions?

What are the perspectives of those stakeholders?

What are the perspectives of the stakeholders with experience and expertise in the problems and solutions?

Who stands to gain personally, professionally, and financially from the problems and solutions?

In the pursuit of any sort of reform, the right questions are essential—as is credible evidence—before solutions can be identified as valid, useful, and potentially effective. The great failure of democracy is that it appears those elected to power have neither the ability to ask the right questions nor the propensity to seek credible solutions. Those leaders are, however, eager to claim problems and support solutions that benefit them.

“In a bold experiment in performance pay, complaints from patients at New York City’s public hospitals and other measures of their care — like how long before they are discharged and how they fare afterward — will be reflected in doctors’ paychecks under a plan being negotiated by the physicians and their hospitals,” announces the lede to “New York City Ties Doctors’ Income to Quality of Care.”

“Bold” apparently means “making decisions based on ideology and not a shred of evidence.”

The article makes no case that doctor pay currently poses any sort of genuine problem—just that doctor pay is “traditional.”  Further, the article does acknowledge two important facts:

“Still, doctors are hesitant, saying they could be penalized for conditions they cannot control, including how clean the hospital floors are, the attentiveness of nurses and the availability of beds.

“And it is unclear whether performance incentives work in the medical world; studies of similar programs in other countries indicate that doctors learn to manipulate the system.”

For those of us struggling against a similar baseless current of teacher evaluation and pay reform, these details are all too familiar: (1) Concerns about accountability being linked to conditions over which a worker has no control (or autonomy), and (2) A complete disregard for the mountain of evidence that merit pay of all kinds proves to be ineffective and triggers for many negative unintended consequences:

“‘The consequences in a complex system like a hospital for giving an incentive for one little piece of behavior are virtually impossible to foresee,’ said Dr. David U. Himmelstein, professor of public health at the City University of New York and a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, who has reviewed the literature on performance incentives. ‘There are ways of gaming it without even outright lying that distort the meaning of the measure.’ …

“Dr. Himmelstein also said doctors could try to avoid the sickest and poorest patients, who tend to have the worst outcomes and be the least satisfied. But physicians within the public hospital system have little ability to choose their patients, Mr. Aviles said. He added that he did not expect the doctors to act so cynically because, ‘in the main, physicians are here because they are attracted to that very mission of serving everybody equally.'”

The medical profession is poised to experience the complete failure of democracy that has been the fate of educators for at least three decades now. Democracy has spawned a legion of people with power but no expertise, and the result is a template for reform that ignores clearly identifying problems, fails to gather credible evidence, bypasses a wealth of experience and expertise, and imposes the mechanisms of inequity that brought those in power to that power.

As a result, buried late in this article on doctor pay reform is a cautionary tale:

“But Dr. Himmelstein said there were still hazards in the city’s plan. He said that when primary-care doctors in England were offered bonuses based on quality measures, they met virtually all of them in the first year, suggesting either that quality improved or — the more likely explanation, in his view — ‘they learned very quickly to teach to the test.'”

Educators, sound familiar?