The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Relying on People’s Vices Backfires

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There are, roughly speaking, three views of human nature: We’re either 1) inherently good; 2) inherently bad, or; 3) about neutral.

Those on the left tend towards “good” and those on the right tend towards “bad.”

In addition there is a dispute about how one gets the best from people: treating them badly (punishment) or treating them well (encouragement). Are happy people better, or are scared people better? Machiavelli’s, “Is it better to be loved than feared?” may come to mind, though he was discussing a different issue.

Christianity has generally gone for “bad” and “punishment.” Humans are fallen, they are innately sinners, and one should not spare the rod, lest one spoil the child.

Different kinds of Confucians have had different views, though the master seems to have been in the “neutral” camp and Mencius was definitely in the innately “good” camp. (Others have been in the “bad.”)

Obviously, we can do this exercise in general terms, where we mean “most people.” If there are, perhaps, a few bad or good seeds, it wouldn’t change things, mostly.

Modern economics and economism has a world view which basically comes down to: “People are bad–selfish and greedy, but you can use their badness to get good stuff done by using incentives.” Economics tends to prefer positive inducements, the negative ones are there: homelessness, deprivation, even death for those who do not fit into the system.

My own view is that most people are neither good nor bad; but weak. They conform to the world around them, particularly their peer group and their masters. They bend. A small number are good pretty much no matter what (5 to 15 percent) and a small number are bad pretty much no matter what (5 to 15 percent).

As for incentives, they work, but they get only the behaviour they reward, and that usually leads to very perverse outcomes. If surgeons are paid more for certain types of surgery–or for surgery rather than non-surgery–then cut they will, whether it is needed or not.

As a result, I believe incentives should be used sparingly: Most jobs shouldn’t use them at all, and those that do should key them to general metrics. If you wanted to give politicians metrics, you might give them a lifetime salary, disallow them any other income, and tie it to increases in the welfare of bottom five percent and the median (the rich can take care of themselves). Then, of course, the politicians will start corrupting the indices, so they metrics would have to be as simple as possible.

Similar schemes can be done for various companies; in most cases, they shouldn’t be, and people who are responsible for human welfare should never get much or any of their salary from specific incentives.

It’s hard to argue that greed can’t get things done: It has. The problem is that greed gets the wrong things done, or it does too much, more than necessary–to the point where it’s harmful. Global climate change is the obvious example, but examples of this are innumerable.

The other issues is that means are ends. If you believe humans are bad and need to be treated badly to get stuff done, then your society will primarily run on meanness, and that will be the flavour and feel of everyday life. (Most of our current regime operates this principle. though most of the population is now motivated more by fear more greed, as almost all the gains go to the top one percent or less.)

The advantage of treating people well is that you’re treating them well. Even if it doesn’t always work (as greed and selfishness and punishment don’t always work), well, at least you’re doing something good anyway.

If you want to do something bad, or rely on bad motives to get something done, the onus is very high to prove that treating people well can’t get the job done just the same–because your method is polluting. It is, in itself bad, happens all too regularly, and makes life worse for people.

And making people unhappy is contagious: Unhappy people make other people unhappy.

It is for this reason that I believe in defaulting to kindness when it comes to policy. If it fails, well, you’ve still done good.

When times get worse we can get meaner or we can get kinder. FDR, in the 30s, chose kinder. For the last 40 years or so, ever since the oil crises and inflation, we’ve generally chosen meaner–and certainly since 2008, when Europe adopted austerity.

There is another choice. I think it can be defended as more likely to work; but we know that being mean isn’t working, so we might as well be kind. At least then, we’ll be doing some good.

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  1. someofparts

    I think John Michael Greer is describing a different side of the same elephant you are looking at.

    It looks to me like Trump has brought this out in a lot of formerly staid liberals.

    It also occurs to me that even though public attitudes toward sex aren’t as repressive as they were for the Victorians, the attitudes we have updated them with are not liberated, they are managed and commodified.

    I thought our hatreds were already managed and misdirected, but I must have missed something.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Yeah, hate is sometimes appropriate. One my friends speaks of the problem in certain spiritual circles where you aren’t supposed to feel anger: sometimes anger is appropriate, and if you can’t feel it (or admit you feel it), you let things slide that you should challenge.

  3. Bad for other people. E/M ‘dox.

  4. Blissex

    «If you believe humans are bad and need to be treated badly to get stuff done (most of our current regime operates like this: most of the population is now motivated by fear more than greed, as almost all the gains go to the top 1% or less),»

    That applies of course only to the livestock 90%, as welfare for them comes with sharp disincentives, but welfare for the top 10%-1% does not, as a commenter on another blog put very well:

    «[ Lender-of-last-resort loans should be made at painfully high interest rates. And if the institution is too close to insolvency to stand a penalty rate, the right policy is for the central bank to TAKE THE EQUITY. I have never heard an explanation from anyone in the Treasury or the Federal Reserve for why so little was done to implement this piece of the Bagehot rule in 2008-2009 ]

    J Sterling said…

    Funny, they usually have a fine understanding of the principle that welfare to the needy should sting like hell, lest all claim it from laziness, not from need…»

  5. V. Arnold

    The U.S. has become a nation of little people; stupid and cruel.
    The monster president is beyond the pale; there is no sanity to be found within this male human; and compassion is long gone.
    You bought it; you live with it.

  6. Willy

    I’ve been experiencing an ever increasing degradation in many services and products for the last decade or so. Whether it’s health care, automotive parts, deck stains or appliances… it appears a corner was turned and that increasingly, cheating the consumer is an acceptable business practice. Or should I say ‘rationalized cheating’?

    Things have become imbalanced. Engineers and doctors and scientists are about quality. But the MBA’s they usually answer to only care about quantity – of profits.

  7. The Stephen Miller Band

    I agree with your sentiment but the problem is, The Mean are largely In Charge and they manufacture the consent of The Neutral who comprise the majority. The Good don’t like to use coercion and so therefore are at a significant disadvantage compared to The Bad who will use coercion & punishment & massive psychological manipulation to grab & hold onto power.

    The System we live in & under is reinforcing for The Bad. We have to pay to live. In the last thread, Mandos indicated, and I agree, that so long as Writers have to eat & pay the rent, regardless of whether they’re academicians or not, they will not express and share freely and instead they’ll write for hire and therefore they will be, and are, subjected to varying degrees of overt & inherent censorship.

    The question is, how do The Good change this basic equation? How do The Good alter The Paradigm? I have noted many times before and I will do so again, I do not believe it is possible to do so from within the System. The System is doing as it is intended to do. It’s not broken. It is working as designed. The ONLY effective answer to that is another System to challenge the current paradigm and unfortunately, because everyone has to pay to live, that new System won’t be forthcoming any time soon if ever.

    Let’s take the issue of Peak Oil, for example. It’s as though it’s no longer an issue anymore. Those who control the Information Flows have been successful in containing the Alarmists so prevalent a decade earlier and now you rarely hear or see anything about The End of Oil even amongst the most earnest, or, dare I say, The Good. There is NOTHING in place, and NOTHING is being fomented & inculcated, to deal with EROEI that goes to Less Than Zero. Quite the opposite, actually. The American Military is expanding its operations, not retracting, and it’s one of the largest users of Fossil Fuels. The controls have been set for The Heart of the Sun and The Good are too objective and too independent to form a collaborative effort to challenge The Bad’s corralling of The Neutral.

    In short, WE, meaning ALL of us, are pretty much F*CKED. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

    Good To The Last Drop

  8. GH

    “I’ve been experiencing an ever increasing degradation in many services and products for the last decade or so. Whether it’s health care, automotive parts, deck stains or appliances… it appears a corner was turned and that increasingly, cheating the consumer is an acceptable business practice. Or should I say ‘rationalized cheating’?” -Willy

    The goal isn’t to “cheat” the customer the problem something very basic.

    In my little corner of the economy everything revolves around “productivity” and “volume”. “Quality/Workmanship” only matters when it comes to getting things through various compliance/inspection officers (Because quality is their job not yours and if its good enough for them its good enough for a customer).

    So you produce things that are just barely good enough to get past compliance/inspection officers but (and here is the important part) most of them aren’t smart/skilled enough to comprehend what they are reviewing/approving. And once you realize they aren’t smart/skilled you really start to exploit their deficiencies because as I said at the start, your in the business of “productivity” and “volume”.

    What about the ones that are smart/skilled enough to comprehend what you are doing and have enough of a backbone to say something about it? Well there are three easy strategies that you can use to contain/control them. The first thing you can do is set their performance reviews to a volume/output based system and make timely review/approval of products the centerpiece. If they don’t review/approve a large number of products in a timely manner then they lose their job. The second thing you do is inform their division lead that if his team causes any major delay/disruption to overall volume/productivity then the division lead themselves will be removed for “not aligning with company goals”. The third thing you do with those that are smart/skilled and have character is promote them into the teams that focus on productivity/volume.

  9. V. Arnold

    August 5, 2017

    That is probably one of the most ridiculous posts I’ve ever read re; the present U.S. situation.
    What’s your bloody point? Or, do you even know?
    Oh hell, never mind………..

  10. GH

    “That is probably one of the most ridiculous posts I’ve ever read re; the present U.S. situation.
    What’s your bloody point? Or, do you even know?
    Oh hell, never mind………..” V. Arnold

    Willy was lamenting the degradation/decline in service and products. I was offering an explanation since I work in selling products/services that need to pass inspections. Willy believed it was cheating or acts of low character but I was offering another explanation.

    I even quoted Willy at the start of my post to make it clear I was talking to “him” about “his post”.

    I wasn’t making a larger narrative regarding the state of the U.S.

  11. Bill Hicks

    Good analysis. I’ve always felt a contradiction between my leftist views that society should strive to elevate the common good and my day-to-day experience that many people don’t really deserve to be elevated. In the end, I settle for the notion that the elites these days are almost uniformly bad, and it would be preferable to cut them down to size even it it means inadvertently helping selfish, small minded people who would never help anyone else.

  12. Hugh

    Morality is the ethos of your society. It is how you act or should act in regard to others. You live on a desert island, there is no morality because there is no one for you to act in regard to. Our society is failing because we are all being taught, and increasingly acting as if, each of us is living on our own desert island, our connections, and obligations, to each other forgotten.

    OT 209,000 job were not added to the economy in July. Total nonfarm jobs not seasonally adjusted were down a million because it takes the much larger establishment/business survey this long to report job losses associated with the end of the school year. Those are government jobs, state and local. If we look at total private sector jobs in July, these increased by 111,000. This is a rather anemic number, although it also reflects an expected midsummer lull: Almost everyone who is going to be hired has been hired. I think the big story is that the Trump bounce has dissipated. While there is a certain volatility in the early in the year numbers, for a time, 2017 looked to be doing better in terms of jobs than 2015-2016, but not 2014. Now it looks like 2017 will not be as good as either 2014 or 2015. It is currently about the same as last year 2016 but if the slippage continues, it will be worse. Hours and nominal wages for the bottom 80% are up somewhat. This may reflect employers making do with the workers they have rather than hiring new ones this far into summer. And it may be transitory. It will be interesting to see the report on real wages when it comes out in a few weeks.

  13. V. Arnold

    August 5, 2017

    My bad, I mis-read your reply, my appologies.

  14. Peter


    Why would there be much job loss from school summer vacation except from the low pay service sector jobs. Most everyone else are salaried employees on vacation?

    The job numbers used publicly may be flawed but they are useful for comparison and I think what type of jobs that are created is most important now. When does that information come out?

  15. Blissex

    «many people don’t really deserve to be elevated»

    If you put “deserve” into your arguments for “social justice” then they often acquire a bad smell, because then they are valid about the whole human race (and quite a bit of the animal kingdom in varying degrees), while in practical politics that can’t work, and conservatives/social darwinists are quick to see that and ordinary people feel the smell too.

    For example consider arguments about state medical insurance: if they are based on the moral right of the poor to have halthcare, as for example B DeLong seemed to be arguing recently, then limiting them to the USA looks “disparate impact” racist, because the USA is majority-white and the rest of the world is majority-colored, and morality does not stop at borders and does not discriminate on the basis of race either: if a poor USA citizen has a human right to Medicaid/ACA subsidies/Medicare paid for by USA taxes, so does any poor red or yellow or other skin human being on our planet, and then you to avoid hypocrisy need to argue for USA taxes to become 90% of GDP to pay for Medicaid/ACA subsidies/Medicare for every poor person in India, Laos, etc.; if pure charity is a duty of the state, then it does not stop at national boundaries.

    The basis for progressive politics is not human rights of the recipients or the duty to charity of the taxpayers, or even worse being “deserving”, because politics is about state budgets, and those are business arrangements of mutual interest, not about rights or charity or worthiness.

    The basis for progressive politics is *guaranteed reciprocity* (and the ability to move to another country): that you fund Medicaid/ACA subsidies/Medicare when you are earning well and are healthy because it is in your interest, because you are assured that you would enjoy their benefits if you became poor or sick, as the state would make sure that other people would pay to make them work.

    «inadvertently helping selfish, small minded people who would never help anyone else»

    But regardless of their attitude those people still would have to pay into a reciprocal state managed system of health care, or pensions, or unemployment pay, because its reciprocity would be state-enforced, which is a big difference from charity or rights or worthiness, as those can only be unilateral and non-discriminatory (and for christians that unilaterality and non-discrimination of charity are duties because it is commanded by Jesus, who did not say “only help the poor and the sick if they have the same citizenship or race as you and only if they can do the same for you”).

    The story again is not pure charity as in “help anyone else”, it is an arrangement of mutual interest about reciprocal, state-guaranteed social insurance.

    And if those “selfish, small minded people” did not want to suffer state-enforced reciprocity agreed by a majority of self-interested people they could always emigrate to a country offering them a different policy choice.

  16. Willy

    The goal isn’t to “cheat” the customer the problem something very basic.

    I know a compliance/inspection officer for a world famous multinational who was fired for not being “productive” enough. He claims to this day that dangerous product is slipping through the inspection net. I believe him because I worked there. I witnessed the systemic rot from top to bottom.

    As long as everything is “officially” about the company bottom line (unofficially it should be obvious, everybody is just trying to keep/enhance control over their own position within that system) those dependent on that system will continue to rationalize what’s happening.

    The cheating of the customer is not what the majority of the rank and file intentionally do. But they must comply with the system, being controlled by the PTB, if they want to survive there.

    An aside, but I know a marketing graduate who struggled finding work, then finally found a job as a “PR consultant” where part of their job is to write up fake positive reviews for products to try and balance out the negative web reviews from disgruntled consumers.

    People at the top know exactly what’s happening. This is capitalistic failure, which is a direct result of “Relying on People’s Vices”.

  17. bruce wilder

    The exchange of examples between GH and Willy gets at something really important, something at the core of how the economy and political culture is deteriorating. Contra V.A, it certainly seems to me to be a microcosm of a larger “trend”.

    This article might provide a more theoretical take.

  18. Hugh

    Peter, BLS numbers are very flawed for a variety of reasons from definition of what is being measured to the population being measured to how that population is measured. Seasonal adjustment, the basis of the 209,000 number depends in part on future job growth that has happened, and may never happen. The best example of this is the discrepancy between the December-January numbers. The January seasonally adjusted number is often 200,000 or better, but in fact, the economy usually loses nearly 3 million jobs after Christmas. I think that is an important reality, but it is not reflected in the seasonally adjusted stats. Similarly, at the end of the school year, about 1 million positions are lost. Many or all of those positions aren’t teachers but support staff. The BLS does not measure quality of jobs at all. We can only get some general idea of what is going on very indirectly looking at hours, pay, job numbers, and where job growth and loss are occurring.

  19. howard hawhee

    The very idea of the nature of kindness is now up for grabs, which is beginning to make it hard to even have discussions like this one. It is asserted that if you help people, it makes them dependent and therefore weaker and therefore does them no favors, while if you kick them around, they learn self-reliance and get stronger.

    So, to the triad “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” we can now add “cruelty is kindness.”

  20. Hugh

    Correction: that has not happened

  21. Peter


    I’ve read the criticisms of the BLS numbers but they are what we have and if the flaws are consistent they can be used for comparison. We may still be experiencing negative job growth but the numbers may show less negative growth which is better than more negative growth.

    Trump is playing politician now and must take advantage of good news, however flawed. If there are some real job gains in the next year in the high skill high pay sector then Trump will have something to boast about that can’t be denied. The coal sector may lead because exports are on the rise again.

  22. NR

    Just wanted to say this is a great post.

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