Trash bins, staples and more unintended consequences

Like most university departments and business offices generally, my department has a workstation near the copy machine. It is a large wood table with staplers, tape, paperclips, pens, a cutting board and other items one might need to manage copies, reports, etc. While there have always been the occasional used, bent staple left on the table, I have noticed a substantial increase in the number of discarded staples on the table. Why?

The University of Missouri has initiated a “low waste initiative” (a report about the program in the campus newspaper is here). The intent is to reduce general waste and to promote recycling. Trash cans from office spaces have been removed and replaced with a blue recycling bucket. Attached to the bucket is a small black bin for non-recyclable waste. These black bins are about the size of a large cupholder you might find in a car. Unfortunately, they are not attached to all recycling bins, and there are none near the copy machine workstation or office commons. So what do people do when they remove staples from paper? Ideally they should walk down the hall to a “black bin” to discard the staples. But that is not happening. Since regular trash bins at the workstation are now gone, the staples end up left on the workstation table.

An accumulation of discarded stables on workstation tables is an unintended consequence of the University’s low waste trash program.

Discarded staples are not a threat to world peace and they don’t contribute to climate change, but they are a nuisance and a minor hazard. They are sharp and are not sanitary, so getting inadvertently poked by one could become a painful problem.

There are always consequences for changes in policies, programs and incentives. While we can be careful and thoughtful in considering “all” the ramifications of changes we make to rules and policies, there will often be unintended consequences, both good and bad.

A working paper by National Bureau of Economic Research scholars identifies an interesting but negative unintended consequence to a program designed to promote greater school attendance. In their report, the authors described an experiment in which students were rewarded for meeting an attendance threshold at school. The reward produced the expected results. The reward increased school attendance. However, when the reward program ended, there were unintended effects. As stated by the authors:

Among students with high baseline attendance, the incentive had no effect on attendance after it was discontinued, and test scores were unaffected. Among students with low baseline attendance, the incentive lowered post-incentive attendance, and test scores decreased. For these students, the incentive was also associated with lower interest in school material and lower optimism and confidence about their ability. This suggests incentives might have unintended long-term consequences for the very students they are designed to help the most.

So the introduction of an incentive had the unintended consequence of driving out or reducing intrinsic motivation, a topic I have studied (here).

While we may not be able to anticipate all unintended consequences — that’s why they are “unintended” — we can probably do better than we are. And when we identify them, and if the consequences are significant enough, then we should consider revisions to the programs and policies we have implemented. I don’t know if the University of Missouri will be changing its “low waste program” anytime soon, but it would sure be nice to have a more convenient way of discarding used staples.


Business leadership and the making and punishing of unethical employees

A study published in the current issue of Business Ethics Quarterly links ethical leadership with improved engagement of employees at work, greater employee voice and lower intentions for employees to exit. In other works, when employees perceive or know their leaders to be ethical, they are more likely to feel good about being at work, more willing to communicate their opinions, recommendation, concerns or ideas to their supervisors, and less likely to leave or intend to the leave the business.

In this context, an ethical leader is someone who is a moral person and who models high moral standards at work. The specific indicators of ethical leadership used in the BEQ paper draw from research by scholars at Pennsylvania State University. If valid, the indicators are informative. There are 10 of them. Ethical leaders

  • conduct their personal lives in an ethical manner
  • make fair and balanced decisions
  • can be trusted
  • ask what the right is when making decisions
  • listen to their employees
  • discuss business ethics and values with their employees
  • have the best interest of their employees in mind
  • set an example of behaving ethically at work
  • discipline employees who violate ethical standards
  • define success by the way results are obtained in addition to results.

I would add one more item to the list. When designing and implementing performance measures and incentives, ethical leaders are careful to ensure that they are promoting incentives rather than pressures to perform. The line between incentive and pressure can be thin. Leaders who are not careful may find that their efforts to motivate workers create pressures for them to lie, cheat or steal.

The CEO of Wells Fargo is learning this lesson the hard way. According to the Wall Street Journal’s report of John Stumpf’s testimony during a Senate Banking Committee hearing yesterday (September 21), the Bank is accused “of fostering a culture where low-paid branch employees were pressured to meet impossible sales quotas to keep their jobs, and so signed up customers for products without their knowledge.” Pressure does not create an environment where employees behave ethically. Even well-meaning employees may find the temptation to fudge numbers or behave inappropriately too strong in such an environment. The Bank reported that it fired more than 5,000 employees for wrongdoing.

So, Wells Fargo created unethical employees and then punished them.

Reminds me of the statement by Thomas More in his book, Utopia, made famous by Drew Barrymore’s character Danielle (aka Cinderella) in the movie Ever After. Danielle is arguing with Henry, the Prince of France, for the release of her servant, who is bound with other poor and destitute prisoners for the America’s. Here is the exchange:

Danielle: A servant is not a thief, your Highness, and those who are cannot help themselves.

Henry: Really! Well then by all means, enlighten us.

Danielle (quoting More): If you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners corrupted from infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded, sire, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?

Henry: Well, there you have it. Release him.

That’s quite a commentary about one of the nation’s most prominent banks.

Accepting rejection with civility and grace

I have been editing the academic journal, Agriculture and Human Values, for 10 years. I get more than 400 submissions a year, and I publish between 40 and 50 articles each year. If you do the math, that means I reject far more papers than I accept (my acceptance rate is about 12%).

I know it is not easy receiving a rejection letter. As an academic with a responsibility to publish, I get rejection letters, too. I know the feeling a rejection creates. Your heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. Your chest tightens. You want to lash out at the naive editor who made the bad call or the idiot reviewers who are clearly ignorant of what ground-breaking research looks like. If a reason is given for the rejection, then you see only the flaws in its logic; you miss points of genuine concern. If no reason is given, then you get even madder because the rejection now seems arbitrary and without merit.

Occasionally I get a “lashing out” email from authors of papers I rejected. The writers are clearly writing out of emotion. Many of these express unkind things about the editor, the editorial process and the reviewers providing reviews. Fortunately, there is a delete button that safely handles these emails.

But on even rarer occasions I get an email from an author of a rejected paper thanking me for the opportunity to consider their work and expressing appreciation to the reviewers for their helpful comments and insights. Wow. How amazing it is to find someone who is civil and gracious in rejection!

I received such a message yesterday shortly after my sending the dreaded rejection letter. The writer said this: “Thank you for the thoughtful response regarding this manuscript submission. While I am disappointed at the final decision, I very much appreciate the care with which the reviewers considered the manuscript as well as your commentary regarding your decision.” The writer continued with a request that I let the reviewers know that the author was grateful for the comments and suggestions they provided.

It is encouraging to know that there are scholars of integrity out there, especially those who are able to see rejection for what it is–an opportunity to improve one’s research and to demonstrate that they are a person of character.

The hope and optimism of Thomas Malthus

My graduate research seminar today focused on how to review what other scholars have written. I took the opportunity to discuss with my students the writings of Thomas Malthus.

Malthus was a 19th century British scholar. Although trained as a minister, he spent most of his career as an academic. His most famous treatise is An Essay on the Principle of Population, which he published in 1798. In the essay, Malthus explained that because food production increases arithmetically while population grows geometrically, if left unchecked population growth would exceed available food supplies, resulting in famines, riots and other forms of human misery. “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature,” he wrote.

It is tempting to think of Malthus as a pessimist, since commentators (called “neo-Malthusians”) often invoke him when describing a situation of potential doom and disaster, especially when referring to the environment, population growth and our ability to feed ourselves.

Prominent economists ride this bandwagon. For example, in a speech delivered to agricultural economists a few years ago, Thomas Hertel, a Purdue University economist, said this: “[The] degradation of existing crop land, when combined with the seemingly inexorable growth in demand for food, fiber and fuel has led many observers to suggest that the world may run out of land. Malthus (1888) is perhaps the best known champion of this position.” Other notable examples of economists promoting the pessimistic view of Malthus include Amartya Sen, who frequently used the term “Malthusian pessimism” (e.g., here) and Paul Samuelson, who referred to “the pessimism of Malthus” (here). Both of these scholars won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Robert Heilbroner, in his influential classic, The Worldly Philosophers, described Malthus as “the first professional economist” and his ideas as “profoundly disturbing” and “gloomy”. Malthus’s name is also used as an adjective, as in “Malthusian stagnation” and “Malthusian trap.” Sen’s reference to “Malthusian pessimism” would thus seem redundant.

Not all scholars share the prevailing view of Malthus, however. Some have argued that it is wrong to conceive of Malthus as a pessimist (e.g., Laurence Moss). I agree with this assessment, because I’ve read his essay.

In the final two chapters of the essay, Malthus provides an explanation for why it is “natural” for population to grow faster than food supplies. Because Malthus was a trained theologian, he sought a religious explanation for his observations about population and food. According to Malthus, the world is this way because that is how God made it, and God had a good reason for doing so. As Malthus claimed:

The necessity of food for the support of life gives rise, probably, to a greater quantity of exertion than any other want, bodily or mental. The Supreme Being has ordained that the earth shall not produce food in great quantities till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon its surface. … The processes of ploughing and clearing the ground, of collecting and sowing seeds, are not surely for the assistance of God in his creation, but are made previously necessary to the enjoyment of the blessings of life, in order to rouse man into action, and form his mind to reason.

In other words, God created a world that would not “naturally” grow food in abundance, because if He did, humans would become lazy, and laziness will not impel humans to better themselves. In order to acquire food, humans would have to work for it, and this struggle is one of the “blessings of life.” Malthus used the word “ordained” to emphasize the idea that it could have been otherwise, but God wanted it the way it is. In the paragraph following the statement quoted above, Malthus said that although there is “much partial evil” in a world where famines are possible and actually occur, a system where humans had to exert themselves in order to eat produces an “overbalance of good.” To drive this point further, Malthus said that we should

consider man as he really is, inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity …; we may pronounce, with certainty, that the world would not have been peopled, but for the superiority of the power of population to the means of subsistence. Strong and constantly operative as this stimulus is on man to urge him to the cultivation of the earth, if we still see that cultivation proceeds very slowly, we may fairly conclude that a less stimulus would have been insufficient. Even under the operation of this constant excitement, savages will inhabit countries of the greatest natural fertility for a long period before they betake themselves to pasturage or agriculture. Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state.

So humans need to work the land to acquire their food and to feed their growing populations. In saying this, Malthus was not suggesting that we should expect life to be one of drudgery. Rather, he believed that it is entirely possible for humans to overcome want and necessity. Far from thinking that food shortages, famine, and human misery were inevitable, as a pessimist does, Malthus offered an alternative vision. The key is this phrase, taken from the first of the two major quotes given above: “till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon [the earth’s] surface.” When people labor and use their minds and hands intelligently, they can produce enough food to feed themselves and others. It seems to me that this also suggests that we give some consideration to agricultural practices that are long-term sustainable. We need to feed people in the future as well as today, and that requires that we think carefully and work diligently to do so.

I hope to see fewer references to the “pessimism” of Malthus. But our misunderstanding of Malthus reflects a more serious problem. The reason people misunderstand Malthus is because they don’t read what he said but rather accept without question what others have said about him. Doomsdayers, pessimists and others with an agenda have misrepresented Malthus for their own ends. Because people generally don’t read the classics anymore, the misperceptions of Malthus have evolved so far and lasted for so long that the name “Malthus” has become synonymous with pessimism. How unfortunate this is. If people read Malthus, then they might come to the conclusion, as I did, that Malthus was not a pessimist and that his observation about the relationship between population growth and the “natural” growth of food supplies was offered so that he could encourage people and governments to be thoughtful and innovative in their governing of resources and societies.

We have a lot of misperceptions and misunderstandings about things—the world, societies, science, technology, religion and the environment. This needs to change. Misperception and misunderstanding will persist until two things occur. The first is for people to think, work, study and labor with a genuine desire to seek out truth wherever it resides. The second is for people to be courageous enough to accept that truth, even when it means that they might have to change what they believe and do.

I’ll end this post with a bit of Malthusian hopefulness and optimism, using the final words of Malthus’s essay. He begins with a quote from the poet Alexander Pope and then gives words of encouragement.

“Hope springs eternal in the Human breast, Man never is, but always to be blest.”

Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator.

So let’s get to work, folks. We have a lot of good to do in the world.

Is it better to be smart or hard-working?

In preparing for an assignment to speak in church tomorrow on the assigned topic of “work”, I recalled a summary of research I read last year about “the secret to raising smart kids.” According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, we should praise effort rather than intelligence. In other words, when a child does well, it is better to say something like, “you must have worked really hard” rather than “you must be very smart.”

There are two views of intelligence. One is that intelligence is fixed. The other is that intelligence can improve with effort. When a child with a “fixed” mind-set solves a problem, then they are likely to attribute their success to their intelligence. Conversely, when the child cannot solve a problem, then they tend to get discouraged, give up and attribute their failure to their lack of intelligence and skill. In contrast, when a child has a “growth” or “mastery-oriented” mind-set, then they will learn that with effort they can solve any problem. Thus, difficult problems that might discourage a “fixed” mind-set child become challenges and opportunities for “mastery-oriented” children.

Interestingly, praising a child for their intelligence fosters the “fixed” mind-set, while praising a child for their hard work promotes a “mastery-oriented” mind-set. According to the article (linked above), “Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their persistence or strategies (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.”

So, is it better to be smart or hard-working? I don’t know. But if you’re going to compliment me, maybe you should acknowledge my effort rather than my intelligence.

Unintended consequences of new technologies

A couple of headlines from today’s Drudge Report caught my eye: 100 tiny robots replaced humans to wait in line… and Police use droid to snatch rifle from barricaded suspect….

I like new technologies. I like the smartphones, flat screen TVs, the satellite radio in the car I recently rented, and the fact that I can drive rather than walk or ride a horse to where I want to go. Technology can be great. But there can also be side effects and unintended consequences. As a trained economist, I think it is appropriate to ask whether the benefits of technologies outweigh the costs. There will always be costs, some of which we won’t recognize immediately.

Today I attended a lecture by a University of Missouri graduate student who did some work this summer in Guatemala with Heifer International. In one village she visited, women cooked food on open fire pits in their thatched houses. The fire pits created a lot of smoke in the homes. Heifer helped households get cooking stoves with ventilation pipes that took the smoke out of the homes. The stoves required less wood than the open fire pits and solved the problem of smoke in the rooms. But there was a side effect. Guatemala has a lot of rain. The open fire pits dried out the thatched roofs. The new stoves do not, hence the unintended consequence. There is also the advantage that smoke clears out mosquitoes and other insects, which doesn’t happen now.

An important problem that new technologies create is our becoming dependent on them. Dependency in turn can result in a loss of skills. Scholars refer to this as “deskilling.” How many people can answer what 7 x 8 equals, boil an egg or orient ourselves on a street without asking Siri?

Reminds me of the scene from the 2012 Avengers movie. SHIELD’s helicarrier is losing altitude because one of its rotors was damaged in an attack. Nick Fury tells the pilot to put the flying ship over the ocean. The pilot responds that they lost their navigation system. Nick Fury tells the pilot, “Is the sun coming? The put it on the left!” Nick didn’t forget how to navigate without GPS, but apparently the pilot did.

Let’s be wise about our use of technology. Before it makes us dumb.


If you do not like your friends or do not have any close friends, should you be able to rent or pay someone to be a friend? Would you want to?

I teach an introductory microeconomics course. After discussing markets and teaching the basics of supply and demand today, I had a conversation with the class about the universal appropriateness of markets. Market, the price mechanism and the profit motive are great. When allowed to function, they offer quite a bit to society and largely account for our growing wealth and increased availability of goods and services, including advanced technologies we have come to enjoy and rely on today. However, do we want or need markets, the price mechanism and the profit motive dominating every aspect of our lives? Are there some things for which markets and prices should not be used?

I asked these questions and then showed a clip from the movie The Truman Show. In the movie, Jim Carrey’s character, Truman, is unaware that he lives in a movie set. His entire life has been displayed on TV. His wife and best friend are actors. The clip I show follows a scene where Truman has become suspicious about his existence. The show’s producer will stop at nothing to keep Truman on set, so he instructs Truman’s best friend, Marlon, to talk to Truman and convince him all is fine, with the words, “The last thing I would ever do it lie to you.” Is he really a best friend for Truman as a paid actor in the role of “best friend”? Should it matter to Truman? As outsiders watching the movie, do we care?

Michael Sandel, a Yale University philosophy professor, has famously written on this topic. See a TED talk he gave here. In his book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Sandel writes,

“Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone but increasingly governs the whole of life. It is time to ask whether we want to live this way. … The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and or market values, into spheres of life there they don’t belong. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to rethink the role that markets should place in our society. We need a public debate about what it means to keep markets in their place. To have this debate, we need to think through the moral limits of markets. We need to ask whether there are some things money should not buy.”

When I asked my students to give me examples of things they think money should not buy, many mentioned friends, family and love. These make sense. We want friends, family and love to be motivated by intrinsic considerations, not by extrinsic incentives. Money and other extrinsic incentives have a way of crowding out intrinsic motivation, a topic I have written about (here). Other students wanted markets out of education, insurance, health care, and some specifically mentioned textbooks. I can understand their frustration with textbooks, some of which are very, very expensive. But would education, insurance and health care be improved if markets were removed and providers and consumers were only intrinsically motivated? What if we taxed everyone and had the government pay for these services, would that improve things? We do that with national defense, so how about these other considerations? Lest there be confusion, this is not a question about whether goods are public or private but whether money and markets should govern their functions.

If you don’t want to rent-a-friend or meet and talk with real people, then  consider the Tokyo Game Show. As reported by Yahoo! news, attendees can flirt with virtual women. Now, instead of paying someone to be your friend you can buy a machine who will talk with you and ask how your day went. Let’s hear it for the power of market incentives.