Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Balanced Society

Let me preclude this post with first off stating I am not an economist in any regard and thus cannot put my ideas through stringent analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, but that said neither is George Osborne and he successfully staked a claim to be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, so what’s good for George is good for me.

I’ve listened to the debates and read the manifestoes ad nauseam and agree there is need for radical reform in the way we run the country financially, I also agree that the idea of Big Society is a compelling one. However, unless we have a time machine that can take us back to a golden age where we thought and acted as a society or community I can not see how we can pull the Big Society out of the hat with our current cultural system. Thatcher changed that with the entrepreneurial individual spirit set out in the eighties, the what’s in it for me culture that we still have the echoes of today. Labour compounded this with the let’s legislate and run everything for society so they are controlled to act fairly, rather than taking responsibility for our actions, this was based on a notion of game theory that people will work like markets. Both strategies have failed, so how do we get back to a way where we act for the advancement of society, rather than individually?

We cannot rely on some idea of altruistic sensibility, which seems to be the underpinning of the Big Society idea, anybody that has ever been on a PTA or governing body can tell you it never really works that way, most altruism is inevitably self-serving and therefore one has to query the effectiveness for the bigger picture. So with this in mind I’ve been giving it some thought, how do you incentivise and reward people to be a better society, to contribute more without having to re-educate the culture?
Tricky one, until I watched this great presentation on the economics of Facebook gaming from Jesse Schell. He latches on to something that is either deeply cynical or a different way of looking at things, a framework for incentivising good actions or what he calls "intrinsic motivation".
Now most of Jesse’s ideas rely upon a technological framework that isn’t there yet, but that doesn’t prevent us from trying out the ideas in other ways. Why not create tax credits that are like reward points for contributing and bettering society. The more you do, the more tax credits you accumulate.
If the tax credits amounts are aligned to a notional amount that the government saves in expenditure, then we’re gradually re-educating society through gaming/ incentivisation.
So, first thoughts are:
Devise annual health MOT, the fitter you are, the decrease in BMI etc, the less you use the NHS – the more tax credit you get.
If your children perform well at school, behave, conform etc, the points you accumulate and thus the more tax credit you receive.
Fuel consumption/ carbon footprint – the smaller the footprint/ less fuel consumption etc – more tax credits.
The volunteer work you do, ie charity, governance, PTA, youth work – tax credits.
If you have fair employment practices, show diversity, have sustainable energy policies and practices etc – tax credits.
You get the idea. There obviously has to be a framework to prove these things are happening and there has to be a balance so that there is a measure of fairness, but maybe if the haves were incentivised more to help the have nots rather than purely relying on altruistic ethics, maybe we could get the balance back.
I know that there is a naivete to these ideas, but I am sure with a bit more rigour there’s some mileage in it. I want to live in the big society (essentially christianity without the hocus pocus?), it’s how I live my life now – but I know there’s not enough of us to go round and we always inevitably get drawn back into the “what’s in it for me” rather than the long term benefits of “what’s in it for us”. I’m just looking for a middle ground that could get us moving in the right direction. Thoughts?

Here is the Jesse Schell talk that explains wider:

and here is a nice example of gaming for better behaviour:


  1. I do think there's some mileage in this. I have lived in a society (China) which is more like a big society than the UK, but this is down to centuries of differing cultural traditions plus an extremely authoritarian political system. You are right that we need incentives in order to do good, and tax credits is a nice one (if you pay tax, of course :))

    How might this work in practice? It would be great to give people real incentives to improve their health, but what about people who genuinely can't change their situation (e.g. because they have cancer). There isn't a level playing field to start with, so maybe this is too much of a contentious area.

    Fuel consumption is a much neater example. You could earn credits simply by not owning a vehicle. But then, assuming car manufacturers and oil company lobbyists have the government somewhat by the short and curlies, would they ever go for this?

    How well your kids do at school? Hmm, this leans a bit towards social engineering. What if you have a kid with a behavioural disorder? Again, probably too contentious.

    How much charity work you do could be a good way of earning credits. The only element of unfairness I can see is that if you have a well-off spouse and don't need to work, it's much easier for you to earn points than it is for someone working full time and raising kids, but these elements could be balanced out to give an element of fairness. (I've long thought that people should be able to pay their way through university by doing charitable work. Maybe students could earn a reduction on their fees by doing a few hours of voluntary work each week?)

    I think the biggest incentive to get people to do good is to make it easy, so I think there's a lot of mileage to this idea, provided the unfairness issues can be ironed out. I'm not sure the current government would back your ideas though. Maybe it's up to institutions to lead the way on this. Would a university consider giving fee reduction credits to students who perform better, for example?

    Lots to think about - we must do coffee one of these days!

  2. The game can't just be about extrinsic value as that is not actually as much of a motivator as people think (See Dan Pink's Drive) but gaming for good is better than legislating, penalising or policies. Have added some video explanations above. Yes must do coffee will DM/ Linkedin e-mail you some dates.