Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Capital is not the best motivator

One of the most basic assumptions that we use as a foundation of our society is that positive incentives are necessary for the continuation and propagation of our society. These incentives, almost always in the form of capital, inspire us (or so we're lead to believe) and lead us to innovation.

This line of reasoning allows us to continue our institutionalized policy of 'social Darwinism'. The phrase "survival of the fittest" was coined by Herbert Spencer (rather than Charles Darwin to whom the phrase is often attributed) to explain the self-regulation and sustainability of society. It was Spencer's thought that a potential gain in capital was sufficient motivation for members of society to innovate, advancing society as a whole. At the core of 'social Dawinism' is the belief that the struggle for natural resources (or fiat capital backed by production that utilizes those resources) will force the 'better' humans to succeed while leaving the 'inferior' humans behind. This 'natural' class structure (according to the theory) become more pure the less regulated the distribution of resources is. In other words, without a government welfare state, the best and brightest will eventually come to own the vast majority of the capital we have and distribute it according to their own innovation, while all others will be left with less capital but incentive to do better to gain more. Natural competition between people for this capital leads to better practices, the 'social Darwinists' (who we now call libertarians) argued.

The problem with this is that we know (and have known for some time) that personal gain is not necessarily a good motivational tool. For instance, in this study (published in 1987), we have the following information;

In one study, girls in the fifth and sixth grades tutored younger children much less effectively if they were promised free movie tickets for teaching well. The study, by James Gabarino, now president of Chicago's Erikson Institute for Advanced Studies in Child Development, showed that tutors working for the reward took longer to communicate ideas, got frustrated more easily, and did a poorer job in the end than those who were not rewarded.


The recognition that rewards can have counter-productive effects is based on a variety of studies, which have come up with such findings as these: Young children who are rewarded for drawing are less likely to draw on their own that are children who draw just for the fun of it. Teenagers offered rewards for playing word games enjoy the games less and do not do as well as those who play with no rewards. Employees who are praised for meeting a manager's expectations suffer a drop in motivation.

This leads to interesting conclusions;

Such findings call into question the widespread belief that money is an effective and even necessary way to motivate people. They also challenge the behaviorist assumption that any activity is more likely to occur if it is rewarded. Amabile says her research “definitely refutes the notion that creativity can be operantly conditioned.”

So, if capital is not a sufficient motivator to accomplish things (and it's particularly poor motivation, if not counter productive, in the realm of creativity and innovation), why do we use it as a competitional tool rather than simply as a means to perform the task?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blackwater, goddamn (also Xe Services LLC)

If you've read any of my other posts it won't surprise you to discover that the concept of a private company with carte blanch to kill whoever they want so long as the government in the region is too weak to prosecute is pretty abhorrent to me. Blackwater (or Xe, as it's now called) is a particularly abusive organization with regards to human rights violations and extreme incompetance.

I bring this up because I was looking into the infamous Fallujah incident. Blackwater, in it's infinite wisdom,
ignored multiple warnings about the dangers of traveling through Fallujah, cut essential personnel from the mission, and failed to supply its team with armored vehicles, machine guns, sufficient threat intelligence, or even maps of the area. Blackwater’s own employees described its conduct as “flat out a sloppy … operation” and a “ship about to sink.” Another Blackwater employee stated: “Why were they sent into the hottest zone in Iraq in unarmored, underpowered vehicles to protect a truck? They had no way to protect their flanks because they only had four guys.” Even the internal review conducted by Blackwater at the direction of Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, found that the team ambushed in Fallujah “[h]ad no time to perform proper mission planning” and “[w]as without proper maps of the city.”
Four of thier own men died, and because of thier own negligence (House Oversight Committe report). Now, the deaths of four Americans left many people outraged, but upon some cursory research, I found another House Oversight document. This one was an examination of Blackwater as a whole in Iraq.

It found that Blackwater "left 11 Iraqi civilians dead and 14 wounded" on one occasion, and on another shot a man whose "brothers reported to the State Department that their brother, a father of six, was "killed as an innocent person standing on the side of the street." According to an internal State Department document, the personnel who fired the shots initially failed to report the shooting and sought to cover it up".

There are so many things in this report that it's hard to chose highlights, but among others there's this;
In recent days, U.S. military commanders havereported that Blackwater guards "have very quick trigger frngers," "shoot first and ask questions later," and "act like cowboys." A senior U.S. military official has asserted that the impact of Blackwater's actions on Iraqi attitudes toward U.S. forces "is going to hurt us badly" and "may be worse than Abu Ghraib."
As well as this;

The Blackwater and State Department records reveal that Blackwater's use of force in Iraq is frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage. Blackwater is legally and contractually bound to only engage in defensive uses of force to prevent "imminent and grave danger" to themselves or others.2t In practice, however, the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are preemptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire.
Blackwater isn't even being regulated by the State Department. The committee found that "even in cases involving the death of Iraqis, it appears that the State Department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to "put the matter behind us," rather than to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability"

Read the full report, it's only 15 pages long and it's chock-full of disgusting abuses by these guys.