Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Mon, 19 Apr 2021, 4:26 PM


Complicated motives

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This week Boris Johnson claimed that the roll-out of the vaccine was the result of capitalism and greed; Goldman Sachs workers complained about long hours; and I got my jab. There's a link here. All three episodes shed light on the role of motivations.

Johnson is of course wrong. The Oxford vaccine was discovered by academics and is being produced by AstraZeneca at cost, and the Biontech vaccine was discovered by people who were already billionaires. It's nearer the truth to say that the vaccines' discovers were motivated less by greed and more by intellectual curiosity. And this, of course, is only one of countless motives, which include pride, ego, loyalty to colleagues, force of habit, fear of failure, peer pressure, altruism, and so on.

And these non-financial motives are powerful things. The vaccine roll-out has been conducted with impressive efficiency by people who were working either for nothing or for lowish wages. That contrasts with the failure of Test and Trace which has spent millions on expensive consultants. A sense of vocation or of doing good can produce better results than the cash nexus: this is why workers in the public sector are more likely to do unpaid overtime than those in the private sector. Halfassed

Of course, money matters; it is what gets workers through the door. But whilst it is usually necessary to get a job done, it is not sufficient to get it done well, at least where contracts and worker supervision are incomplete. Instead, it gives us workers who, as Homer Simpson says, go in every day and do it really half-assed. Those Goldman Sachs employees who leave before getting their bonus remind us that we need more than money to induce us to work long hours.

Which brings us to the problem. Trying to motivate people by appealing to their greed can crowd out these many other motives (pdf). Don Revie discovered this in 1974 when he became England manager and proudly announced to the team that he'd raised their appearance money. He immediately lost the respect of players such as Emlyn Hughes who would have paid for the privilege of playing for England.

In the same vein, high-powered bonuses encourage bankers to take on too much risk. Or they encourage managers to focus on what can be measured (such as the next quarter's earnings) rather than important things that cannot such as innovative activity or a good corporate culture, as Jean Tirole and Roland Benabou have shown (pdf). High CEO pay can incentivize office politics and selfishness as senior bosses jockey for the top job. And as John Kay showed in his book, Obliquity, companies such as ICI and Boeing were more profitable when they focused on making chemicals and planes than when they shifted to focusing on shareholder value.

There are several different mechanisms causing crowding out. One is a selection effect: if you offer big pay you'll tend to attract people who are motivated by money who might well be more selfish and less moral than others. Also, financial incentives change people's self-identity. The man who thinks "I'm a prudent banker" won't take reckless risks but the one who thinks "I could get a big bonus" will. And then there's the risk of a loss of reciprocity: if all you are offering is money, workers are less likely to feel respect or loyalty to you, as Emlyn Hughes demonstrated.

All this might explain two big facts. One is the serial failure of government outsourcing. Subcontracting replaces what Julian Le Grand called "knightly motives" (pdf) such as public service with the cash nexus. The other is that labour productivity has slumped as neoliberal management has spread, with its emphasis on target and incentives rather than other motives.

But, but, but. The crowding out of intrinsic motives by cash incentives is only part of the story. It's also the case that financial motives can crowd in these other motives, as Sam Bowles has shown (pdf). This is the message of George Akerlof's classic paper (pdf), Labour contracts as partial gift exchange. Good pay can sometimes promote reciprocity and hence get workers to put in more effort than necessary. It also allows workers to focus more on their jobs because they are less worried about money. Or financial incentives can serve as signals: a small tax on plastic bags, for example, told us all to use less plastic.

It cuts both ways.

You might think this just shows the weakness of economics. When done properly, it often concludes: "it all depends."

But there is a strong message here. It's that the network of motivations within any organization is a delicate eco-system which is sensitive to context. Any manager who blunders in with faux-cynical theories of human behaviour like Johnson's risks destroying this system. Sometimes - and only sometimes - things are more complicated than they seem.

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