WHAT INCENTIVE DO WE NEED?

For this Sunday we have the transcript of a talk delivered by a student, Sri Toto Goyal, in the Morning Prayer session of Swami’s University a few weeks ago.

A pair of economists conducted a study at 10 day care centers in Haifa , Israel . They observed that there were on an average eight late pick ups per day care center per week. After four weeks they introduced a 3$ fine on every parent arriving more than ten minutes late per day. For why should the day care center look after the children for free? After the fine was introduced, the number of late pickups promptly went…up. Before long there were twenty late pickups per week, more than double the original average. This incentive had clearly backfired.

Economics is at root the study of incentives: how people get what they want or need especially when others want or need the same thing. A typical economist believes that the world hasn’t yet invented a problem he cannot solve given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme. The solution may not always be pretty, but the original problem rest assured, will be fixed. An incentive is a bullet, a lever, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation. We all learn to respond to incentives from the outset of life, be they negative or positive. An incentive is simply a means of urging people to do more of a good thing and less of a bad thing. But, someone: an economist, a parent or a politician has to think it up.

There are three basic flavors to an incentive: economic, social and moral. Very often a single incentive scheme will include all these varieties. For instance, in the recent anti-smoking campaign in the US a $3 per pack ‘sin tax’ is a powerful economic incentive against their purchase. Banning them in restaurants and other public places is a strong social incentive and when the US govt. asserts that terrorists raise money by selling black market cigarettes that acts as a rather jarring moral incentive.

So coming back to the day care center in Israel , “what did go wrong?” Well probably the $3 fine was too small, at a total of 60$ a parent could afford to be late throughout the month. And as baby sitting goes, that’s pretty cheap. But there was another problem too. The fine substituted an economic incentive ($3 fine) for a moral one (the guilt the parents were supposed to feel when they came late). For a few dollars, the parents could buy off their guilt. In the 17 th week of study, when the fine was eliminated, the numbers didn’t change. Now, the parents could arrive late, pay nothing and feel no guilt. Such is the strange yet powerful nature of incentives. A slight tweak can produce drastic and often unforeseen results.

In another study that researchers conducted in the 1970s, which like the day care center in Israel , pitted a moral incentive against an economic one. They discovered that people tend to donate less blood when they are given a small stipend rather than just being praised for their altruism. The fee turned a noble act of charity into a painful way of making a few dollars and it wasn’t worth it. What if the blood donors had been offered a bigger fee? Surely the numbers would have changed dramatically, but something would have changed dramatically as well. For every incentive has a dark side. If a pint of blood was worth something like 500 or 5000 dollars, we can be sure that plenty of people would take notice. They might literally steal blood at knife point. They might pass off animal blood as their own. They might circumvent the donation limits by using fake ID’s. Whatever the incentive, whatever the situation, dishonest people will try to gain an advantage by whatever means possible or rather necessary.

But then, which side of the incentive do we choose? Which of the flavors in an incentive scheme actually prompt us to do what we do? The economic, the social or the moral? In today’s world, morality doesn’t find a place in mans endeavor. Money is the start, the means and the end of doing anything and everything. Bhagwan says, “Money comes and goes but morality comes and grows.” The 3$ fine was introduced to make the parents feel guilty about the trouble they were causing the day care center, but you already know what actually happened.

Well then, think again, ‘Do we need to choose any incentive at all?’, ‘Do we need something material to prompt us to do what we do?’ Look around yourself and you’ll see an army of people to whom the incentive or lets say the fruit of action does not matter at all. Well, if not that, look within yourself and see yourself, that self that does something as an offering to our Lord without thinking about the fruit or as economist would say an ‘incentive’. As Bhagwan in one of his Sankranti messages said in relation to the sports meet that year, “Outside student do things to get name fame and wealth, but students here do it only for Swamis satisfaction and happiness.” It’s that happiness and satisfaction of His that will give us real happiness and satisfaction; for His joy prompts that of all. As mother Teresa once said, “Even for a thousand dollars I’ll not kiss a leper, but for the love of Christ I’ll kiss a thousand lepers.” I can think of no better example of a mortal who gave up her all to serve people who she didn’t know and to an extent even loved ones cannot. She truly followed what Lord Krishna had said in the Bhagawad Gita, “Karmanyevadhi Karaste ma phaleshu kadachana,” that is, “Do actions without expecting the fruit and offer it to Him.” This is what made Arjuna, from a simple yet brave warrior, to someone who became an instrument in Krishna ’s mission. After hearing the Gita when Arjuna fought, he did not fight with an aim to vanquish his enemies or win the kingdom, he plainly did it with an aim to help Krishna establish Dharma in the world and fulfill his earthly mission.

Its not that we need to give up our worldly lifestyle and money and go and tread the Himalayan slopes, it’s but the path that we need to. We need to understand that we are just the instruments and that He is the doer. We will then see how much joy and happiness lies in doing good without expecting anything in return; when our Lords happiness and satisfaction will become ours.

As an economist rightly put it, “for every person who goes to the trouble of creating an incentive scheme, there is an army of people clever and otherwise who will inevitably spend even more time trying to beat it and reach beyond.” Then, there are only a couple of questions left to be asked, questions each of must ask himself, “Can I beat it?” and “Can I reach beyond?”

Jai Sai Ram.

With Love and Regards,

"Heart2Heart" Team.

 

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