Tag Archives: privilege

Privilege: Many Jill Stein Voters Have It, and Many Hillary Clinton Voters Do, Too

As an outspoken supporter of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, I often get questions akin to the one Stein was asked at the Green Town Hall on August 17: “Given the way our political system works, effectively you could help Donald Trump like Ralph Nader helped George Bush in 2000.  How could you sleep at night?”  More often than not, such questions are followed by the claim that voting for Stein in November is an act of self-indulgent privilege.  Only those with little to lose from a Donald Trump presidency can afford to risk it by adhering to a rigid set of principles that will never come to fruition, third-party critics argue; people who might suffer under Trump’s policies, on the other hand, understand the stakes involved in this election and that Hillary Clinton is the only practical alternative to Trump.

This formulation misconstrues privilege dynamics and misrepresents the identities and considerations of third-party voters and others who refuse to support Clinton, who are far less often White, affluent, heterosexual men than their detractors seem to believe.

The status quo is serving many people poorly.  Proclaiming that, because the alternative is “worse,” everyone must vote for Clinton – a politician who has championed policies that have actively harmed millions of people both here and around the world – is, at its very best, patronizing to those who are currently suffering.  It’s a promise of crumbs instead of a meal with the admonition that starving people better be thankful for crumbs, as the other candidate might take even those away.

This rationale plays on the fears of disadvantaged people and those who care about them in order to perpetuate current power dynamics.  Its use is in many ways an expression of the very privilege it critiques.

Third-Party Critics Misconstrue Privilege Dynamics

Privilege is a multi-dimensional concept, and very few people can claim to speak for the most downtrodden in society.  Individuals writing widely read articles about the privilege of third-party voters aren’t refugees from Central America who President Obama is currently deportingwith Clinton’s support, until recently.  They aren’t incarcerated for marijuana possession or sitting on death row, likely to stay locked up or sentenced to die if Clinton becomes president.  They aren’t living under Israeli occupation, or in deep poverty, or afraid of being obliterated by a drone strike, with little hope for change under the specter of a Clinton presidency.  As Morgana Visser recently noted, “many marginalized people are rightfully horrified of Hillary Clinton,” and those accusing nonvoters and third-party voters of privileged indifference to the plight of others have the privilege themselves not to be so marginalized that four, or eight, or indefinitely many more years of incremental change to the status quo is intolerable to them.

The thing is, the argument that the Democrats are the only actual alternative voters have to Trump – that the status quo cannot be radically improved and that incremental change is all that is possible – is one that many people cannot afford.  Those of us voting for Stein seek to challenge this thinking, to fight for a world in which the most marginalized people are not consigned to deportation, lifetime imprisonment, poverty, or death at the hands of Democrats who are better than Republicans but not nearly good enough.  Third-party voting and abstaining from the presidential election altogether are strategies designed to either change the Democratic Party or create an alternative in a political system that has failed disadvantaged populations for decades, as Sebastian Castro points out.

It’s perfectly fine to challenge the efficacy of that strategy, and I encourage everyone to read compelling cases for lesser-evilsism in 2016 from Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky and John Halle, Shaun King, and Adolph Reed.  I evaluate the risks of Trump relative to Clinton and a lesser-of-evils vote relative to third-party voting differently than they do, but I also have a ton of respect for where they and other social justice advocates like them are coming from.

It is wrong, however, for anyone to wield accusations of privilege as a cudgel against those with different electoral strategies, especially because this tactic ignores the voices of Michelle Alexander, Cate Carrejo, Rosa Clemente, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar, Benjamin Dixon, Eddie Glaude, Marc Lamont Hill, Jenn Jackson, Rania Khalek, Arielle Newton, Kwame Rose, Kshama Sawant, Cornel West, and numerous other members of marginalized groups who support alternatives to the Democratic Party and/or believe it’s fine not to vote at all.

Those who prioritize identity politics should also remember that prominent spokespeople for the Green Party (including Clemente and Cuéllar) tend to be less privileged than their Democratic Party counterparts, that a woman has been on the Greens’ presidential ticket every single year in which the party has launched a bid for the White House (beginning in 1996), and that the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates this year – Stein and Ajamu Baraka – are by far the least privileged candidates running.

Third-Party Critics Misrepresent Voter Demographics

Statistics on Green Party voters in the United States are hard to find, but it’s possible to back out some rough estimates from recent polling.  The graph below uses data from four different polls to compare demographic shares among registered Clinton supporters, registered Stein supporters, and all registered voters.

estimated-green-shares

The estimates debunk the notion that Stein’s base is especially privileged.  Her supporters are about as likely as Clinton’s to be women and seem to be a little less likely than Clinton voters to make over $50,000 a year or to have the privilege of a college degree.  The confidence intervals on these estimates are likely fairly large and the average differences between the candidates’ supporters in these domains, if there are any, are thus probably small, but other evidence also suggests that Green Party voters tend to have low incomes; as Carl Beijer has observed, Ralph “Nader had a stronger 2000 performance among voters making less than $15,000 a year than he had with any other income demographic.”

Beijer also makes an important point about the domain in which Stein and Clinton supporters differ most: age.  While age-based privilege is a complicated concept – both young and old people can be targets of discrimination – younger voters have to worry much more than older voters about “what happens over the span of decades if [they] keep voting for increasingly right-wing Democrats.”

Now, to be fair, Clinton voters are more likely than Stein voters to be people of color.  But Stein’s share of voters of color is similar to the share in the general population of registered voters; Stein voters are not disproportionately White.  Looking at the total population that won’t vote for Clinton, which is a larger universe than the set of registered voters who support Stein, provides an even more striking rebuttal to the those-who-oppose-Clinton-are-White-male-Bernie-Bros narrative.  As Visser shows, Reuters data actually suggests that over 40 percent of people of color do not plan to vote for Clinton in 2016.  In fact, neither do over 45 percent of the LGBTIQ community, nor the majority of women, “marginalized religious folk,” and people making less than $50,000 a year.

None of those statistics change the fact that I, along with many Clinton supporters, am privileged enough to have little to lose from a Trump presidency.  But like nearly all Clinton supporters – and unlike the millions of people who, as Visser reminds us, “do not have the privilege of feeling or being any safer under Democrats [as] opposed to Republicans” – I have even less to fear from a Clinton win.  Pundits and partisans would do well to spend less time alleging that third-party voters don’t care about the disadvantaged and more time reflecting on why large numbers of people are much more worried than they are about the status quo.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, Sports, US Political System

The 34justice Political Tool: Ethics, Truth, and a Case Study of Michael Brown and Ferguson

Seating arrangements during the French Revolution gave us the Left-Right political spectrum.  During the first National Assembly in 1789, the king’s supporters sat on the right and proponents of revolution on the left.  In contemporary American politics, we often consider liberals, who  “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” to be on the Left. Conservatives, who “generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems,” form the Right.

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, found this one-dimensional political spectrum problematic.  Theorizing “that virtually all human political action can be divided into two broad categories: economic and personal,” Nolan believed that “political positions can be defined by how much government control a person or political party favors in these two areas.”  Nolan’s views laid the foundation for The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a ten-question survey which categorizes an individual’s political views on a two-dimensional chart.

If you take The World's Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

If you take The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

Nolan’s categorization scheme, though more descriptive than the Left-Right spectrum, unfortunately suffers from the same major flaw: it presents opposing points of view as ethically and intellectually equivalent.  A better system would articulate how different degrees of attention to social justice and the truth drive competing political perspectives.

Published in 1971, the same year that Nolan released the current version of his chart, A Theory of Justice laid out an approach to determining ethics that is widely considered to be the most “fair and impartial point of view…about fundamental principles of justice.”  American philosopher John Rawls argues that we must consider a thought experiment in which each of us is behind a “veil of ignorance” in “original position:”

The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just…Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage…[A]ssume that [all people] are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like…They must choose principles the consequences of which they are prepared to live with whatever generation[, race, class, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, etc.] they turn out to belong to.

The veil of ignorance, by forcing us to consider the possibility that we will be anyone in society, focuses us on fairness and equality of opportunity.  Especially given human beings’ risk aversion, rational people behind the veil of ignorance would seek to minimize imbalances of power.  The ethics of a given policy proposal or viewpoint can be defined by the degree to which Rawls’s thought experiment informs our thinking, which generally means the degree to which we contemplate the circumstances of populations with low levels of power and privilege.

A better political categorization tool can capture this thought experiment with a horizontal “ethics axis.”  “Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

Political Tool.003

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over the Nolan Chart and the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Applying the 34justice Political Tool

A case study of the Michael Brown shooting and related events in Ferguson, Missouri can illustrate how to use the 34justice political tool.

The Veil of Ignorance in Ferguson

Ethical considerations require us to imagine ourselves behind the veil of ignorance in original position.  We don’t know if we’re white or black, police officer or regular citizen.  We must ask ourselves what sort of policies rational people would adopt in that situation.  Given the power differential between police officers and citizens, rational people who knew they might end up as citizens would want a system that set high standards for police behavior.  They’d want to ensure that the police force acted with transparency, restraint, and the best interests of the community in mind.  Rational people behind the veil of ignorance would also want to make sure police officers could enforce reasonable laws and use force to protect themselves if necessary – they might end up as police officers, after all – but they’d set a very high bar for the use of that force.

Knowledge of institutional racism would also factor heavily into the calculation of the rational person in original position.  We are much more likely to harbor subconscious biases against and jump to negative conclusions about black people than white people, and black people routinely face both overt and covert forms of discrimination.  A rational person behind the veil of ignorance, knowing that he might become a black citizen, would be especially wary of mistreatment by police.  Nobody in original position would agree to a system that placed more responsibility on black citizens than white officers; a viewpoint that did so would consequently be privilege-defending and unethical.

An ethical and power-balancing viewpoint, therefore, approaches the actions of the Ferguson police force with more skepticism than the actions of the black community.  It begins with an attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of black citizens.

We can thus categorize knee-jerk reactions about the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson, all unsupported by evidence, as follows (as originally noted by Billy Griffin post-publication, the viewpoints described in the following sections are meant as an illustrative sample, not as a complete set of all possible viewpoints):

Viewpoint A (privilege-defending): The police behave responsibly, so the conflicts are really the fault of an unruly black population.  The police officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t have done so unless he was in danger.  Similarly, the police wouldn’t use force against protesters unless it was necessary to maintain law and order.  Race is not an issue.

– Viewpoint B (partially privilege-defending): The police may have acted inappropriately during the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson, but Brown and the black community likely shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for what has happened.

– Viewpoint C (power-balancing): The police are in power and responsible for protecting citizens; police actions deserve intense scrutiny when they harm civilians.  We must avoid blaming the victim.  This situation is the likely product of systemic racism and institutional injustice.

Political Tool.004

The Accuracy Axis in Ferguson

Here are the facts from the Michael Brown shooting itself:

[NOTE: the information below, updated on 11/14/15, contains both what we knew at the time this post was published and updated information (from the DOJ report) to match the ensuing investigation (big thanks to a commenter on Twitter for pointing out the discrepancies).  Strikethroughs and bold italics indicate changes.]

– Brown was shot at least six times.  He was unarmed.

Eyewitness accounts following the shooting say that Brown had his hands up in the air and was trying to demonstrate that he was unarmed when he was killed.  Recent video has seems to have corroborated that Brown’s hands were, in fact, raised.

– The police did not release their version of events until the day after the crime.  The report, when released, said that Brown reached for the officer’s gun in the car and was shot as a result of the struggle for the weapon.  Forensic evidence confirms that Brown was first shot in the hand while involved in a struggle in the car, though it’s not clear how the struggle began. The department also did not release the name of the officer who shot Brown (Darren Wilson) for 6 days, despite repeated requests by the media and public (the police claimed that the delay was due to threats on social media).

Anonymous police sources have originally claimed that Wilson was injured and taken to the hospital after the shooting, but initial reports about the injuries turned out to be false (as did a photo circulated by a Chicago firefighter). The police did not originally provide have not provided independent verification of the injuries.  It was confirmed later, however, that there was “bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm.”

Commentators have also debated whether several additional facts are related to the shooting:

– Brown took cigars from a convenience store without paying about 10 minutes prior to the shooting.  He shoved the store clerk on his way out the door.  We know this fact because the police department released a video of these events (which, despite the police chief’s claims, the press and public did not ask for) the same day they released Wilson’s name (which the press and public did request).  Wilson almost certainly did not know about the robbery when he stopped Brown on the street.  Wilson’s radio transmissions confirm that he received a dispatch call about the robbery and had a description of Brown when he first encountered him.

– Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot (this information was released by an anonymous source and not in response to a specific request).  Marijuana can remain in a person’s system for over a month and there is no legitimate evidence linking marijuana use to violent behavior.

– The Ferguson police force has a (probably very long) history of unprovoked attacks on black people in the community.

Finally, the following facts relate to the protests in Ferguson immediately following the shooting:

– Across the country, numerous black citizens have been shot and killed by white police officers under suspicious circumstances.

– Unarmed black teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have also been killed by white citizens in recent years.  Mostlywhite juries failed to convict the offending citizens of murder (Mike Dunn, Davis’s killer, was found guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder, while George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was acquitted).

Most protests were entirely peaceful, but a small percentage of people threw molotov cocktails and looted local stores.

– The Ferguson police, wearing military attire and sporting intense assault weapons, pointed guns at and used tear gas and other violent crowd control tactics on peaceful protesters.

– There is a clear pattern of racial profiling in Ferguson.  About 67% of Ferguson citizens are black, but black people comprise less than 6% of the Ferguson police force.  Over 85% of police stops and arrests are for black people.  Some police lieutenants in Missouri have been caught ordering indiscriminate harassment of black citizens.

– The city of Ferguson makes considerable revenue by routinely fining poor black people for minor offenses (like driving with a suspended license).  When they can’t pay, these citizens often spend time in prison.

These facts can help us categorize more evidence-based viewpoints:

Viewpoint D (privilege-defending): We’ll never know exactly what happened when Michael Brown got shot, and we must remember that police work is difficult and dangerous.  Our police officers need to be able to use their judgment when they feel threatened.  Michael Brown was clearly violent, as can be demonstrated in the video of him robbing a convenience store and the forensic evidence indicating a struggle with Wilson, and he was also probably high.  There isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to convict Darren Wilson, and it is a concern that black people on the jury might show racial solidarity instead of looking at the evidence.

The black community’s rioting and looting also necessitated police action.  Citizens who don’t want to experience police violence should avoid doing anything that appears unlawful and/or dangerous.  Nothing is wrong with our police system.

Viewpoint E (partially privilege-defending): The circumstances of Brown’s death look suspicious.  The police department certainly should have released its report sooner, so it’s hard to trust them over eyewitness accounts.  At the same time, the main eyewitness was a friend of Brown’s and the community is more likely to side with Brown than with the police.  Additionally, the fact that Brown and Wilson were engaged in a physical struggle before the fatal shot robbed a convenience store beforehand, shoving and intimidating the store clerk, suggests that Wilson had good reason to fear Brown.

The racial disparities in Ferguson are definitely something to look into, but police also probably don’t pull people over for no reason at all.  And while the police used excessive violence in some cases, the rioting and looting of black citizens was a large part of the escalation of the situation.  The citizens in Ferguson and the police must both reflect on their behavior.

Viewpoint F (power-balancing): The Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson’s response to it are a direct result of the effects of institutional racism.  Black people in this country clearly face challenges that those of us with white privilege never encounter.  We must listen to the black community and work immediately to correct the policies that lead to a justice system that unequally treats blacks and whites.

It’s pretty clear that Michael Brown’s death was an unjustifiable murder – not only was he unarmed and shot at least six times, but Wilson had clear alternatives.  Even though there was a struggle and it’s unclear how it began, multiple eyewitnesses consistently report that he had his hands in the air and was no immediate threat to Wilson.  Tthe police department’s behavior raises considerable doubt about their claims.  There was no legitimate reason to delay the release of Darren Wilson’s name and the police report for so long, or to ignore eyewitness testimony.  The release of the convenience store video was also in bad faith because Wilson almost certainly did not know about this event when he stopped Brown executed very poorly and without explanation, which led many people to fairly believe that the police department wasseems more intent on blaming the victim than on assessing evidence relevant to the shooting.  Wilson should certainly get a fair trial, and both the robbery and the physical harm he sustained are definitely relevant information to consider during the trial, but police behavior has made it harder to trust even the final account of events.that less likely to happen.  The trials in related cases raise doubts about whether the mostly-white jurors will deliver an evidence-based verdict in this case.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we must remember that “it is as necessary…to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is…to condemn riots. [A] riot is the language of the unheard.”  These riots are caused by frequent police harassment, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system, and a feeling of powerlessness.  Addressing those root causes is where our focus must lie.  That the vast majority of protests were peaceful and the police were the aggressors in nearly every conflict underscores the need for rapid reform in the way law enforcement operates.

The ethics and accuracy axes aren’t completely independent.  It’s relatively difficult to find somebody espousing an unethical viewpoint that accounts for all the facts, for example, and Viewpoints D and E require selective interpretation of available information.  A privilege-defending but evidence-based viewpoint (Viewpoint G) would have to acknowledge unequal treatment of blacks and police misconduct but, harboring open racial animus, excuse it anyway.

Political Tool.005

Another category of interest might be viewpoints based on deliberate lies, rather than on a lack of information; they would fall below Viewpoints A, B, and C.

Assuming we agree that ethical considerations and the truth matter, Viewpoint F is objectively superior to the others.  Calling Viewpoints A, D, and G “conservative” and Viewpoints C and F “liberal,” as we might today, fails to identify fundamentally racist positions as unacceptable.  The traditional spectrum also ignores the importance of conducting thorough and accurate analyses.  Our traditional political categorization tools falsely suggest that truth and morality are relative.  In most cases, like the case of Michael Brown, they very clearly aren’t.

If we instead evaluate viewpoints using the veil of ignorance and a thorough analysis of the facts, we will more easily identify the root causes of disagreements.  We will also be forced to focus our conversations around ethical considerations and honest dialogue.  Over time, we could potentially revolutionize the way we discuss politics.

Note: The Huffington Post published a version of this post on Tuesday, September 23.

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Filed under Philosophy, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion

Financial Incentives and Social Good: Dan Pallotta’s Faulty Assumptions

At the suggestion of WOVIN founder Darius Golkar, I recently watched Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk on the nonprofit sector.  Golkar recommended this video to me when I asked him why WOVIN donates only 50% of its profits to charitable causes.

Golkar founded WOVIN because clothes we donate to Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and other charities rarely have the effect we intend.  Our hand-me-downs often enrich international “clothing recyclers” who exploit the poor in countries like Ghana and Nigeria.  WOVIN addresses this problem by reconstructing donated jeans into bags, key rings, cardholders, and wallets, selling these products, and then giving a portion of the proceeds to organizations that assist impoverished people.  I sincerely admire this work.

When I first read about WOVIN, however, the 50% number bothered me.  And while Pallotta’s TED Talk may explain why Golkar chose to incorporate WOVIN as a for-profit company, Pallotta’s paradigm reflects many inaccurate and problematic assumptions we have about business.  Several of these assumptions pertain to executive compensation.

Pallotta begins to discuss compensation 3 minutes and 11 seconds into his talk.  He says:

So in the for-profit sector the more value you produce, the more money you can make.  But we don’t like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service.  We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people.  Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people.  You know, you want to make fifty million dollars selling violent videogames to kids, go for it, we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine, but you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria and you’re considered a parasite yourself.  And we think of this as our system of ethics, but what we don’t realize is that this system has a powerful side effect, which is, it gives a really stark, mutually exclusive choice between doing very well for yourself and your family or doing good for the world to the brightest minds coming out of our best universities…[T]ens of thousands of people who could make a huge difference in the nonprofit sector [are] marching every year directly into the for-profit sector because they’re not willing to make that kind of lifelong economic sacrifice.

He then uses the chart below (the Stanford MBA figure is the median salary for someone ten years out of business school and the CEO figures are averages) to argue, “There’s no way you’ll get people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.”

Executive Compensation Bar Graph

While I agree with one aspect of Pallotta’s analysis – current economic and social incentives in the United States disproportionately advantage businesses that contribute little to society over more altruistic endeavors – Pallotta erroneously suggests we can fix this problem and better promote social good by making charitable organizations more like typical U.S. businesses.  This paradigm recurs during his analyses of several topics and reflects an overarching view of economics I plan to address in future posts.  For the purposes of this post, however, I will focus on four faulty assumptions he makes while discussing executive compensation:

Faulty Assumption #1: The value individuals produce in the for-profit sector correlates highly with the salaries they earn.

We erroneously believe personal success indicates remarkable personal characteristics – that belief is a well-documented psychological fact.  Yet chaos theory, regression to the mean, and intelligent analysis indicate that luck and privilege influence success considerably more than talent – even narrow definitions of luck in recent economic analyses show that luck plays a much larger role in market outcomes than most people think.  Whether it’s even possible for someone’s “talent” to produce the kind of value Pallotta describes is a hotly debated question.

In US society, our lack of regulation and accountability for moneyed elites helps promote inflated CEO salaries even when the individuals receiving these salaries have very clearly reduced a company’s value.  The bank bailout of 2008 and the huge profits reaped afterwards by executives directly responsible for the financial crisis clearly demonstrate the inaccuracy of Pallotta’s assumption.

Faulty Assumption #2: People make career decisions based primarily on monetary incentives.

Money certainly drives some people’s career decisions, but many people care at least as much, if not more, about some combination of prestige and ethics.  Teach For America (TFA) is an excellent example of an organization that knows this fact – while TFA can offer corps members only beginning teacher salaries in its placement districts, the organization attracts the top graduates from the best colleges in the country.  Why?  Acceptance into TFA impresses nearly everyone, looks fabulous on a resume, and helps corps members feel like part of a larger “movement for educational equity.”  While it’s certainly possible that some corps members join in hopes of the long-term payout TFA’s connections might provide, the vast majority of corps members I know applied because of TFA’s mission and status.

Faulty Assumption #3: High levels of compensation promote increased productivity.

Education research suggests that incentives only improve performance when they focus on behavioral inputs– to improve, students and teachers need to know exactly what behaviors they must produce to receive rewards.  They must also have the ability to execute desired behaviors.  Examples of input-based incentives that have produced desired outcomes include paying students to read books or paying teachers to relocate to more challenging schools.  Students and teachers who are instead offered prizes for behavioral outputs like student grades or test scores, on the other hand, do not improve their performance. Executive salaries and bonuses, like student grades and test scores, are often based on outputs (like company economic performance) and therefore unlikely to increase productivity.  I believe this phenomenon helps explain why researchers agree that merit pay initiatives are misguided.

Even when incentives are offered for clear, achievable tasks, the magnitude of the incentive drastically changes its impact.  Recent research suggests that when incentives are very high, performance actually declines.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted an innovative study which found that individuals offered substantial amounts of money for winning games succeeded considerably less often than individuals offered low to moderate amounts of money (Ariely believes that the stress we experience when confronted with high stakes causes this effect).

Faulty Assumption #4: High levels of compensation in the nonprofit sector will motivate more people to work for social good.

Wealthier individuals are, on average, less empathetic than the rest of society.  As Chris Hayes (in Twilight of the Elites) and Daniel Goleman have suggested, powerful people tend to surround themselves with other powerful people and often forget about or are ignorant of the circumstances of those less fortunate.  But psychology also plays a role – the mere mention of money predisposes people to behave less altruistically.  Since external incentives also erode internal motivation, a focus on salary in the nonprofit sector could potentially diminish compassion in that sector.

Our current incentives are highly problematic regardless of the flaws in these assumptions – on that point Pallotta and I agree.  But the remedy isn’t to embrace a business model that promotes selfishness and greed while failing to generate clear economic value.  In terms of executive compensation, a better solution would reduce exorbitant salaries across the board, call selfish career decisions what they are, and use psychology and behavioral economics research to increase the prestige associated with more ethical jobs.

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Filed under Business