01 May 2015

Stupid incentives reward stupid behaviour

David Simon goes a long way toward explaining why policing in Baltimore has gone awry:

How do you reward cops? Two ways: promotion and cash. That's what rewards a cop. If you want to pay overtime pay for having police fill the jails with loitering arrests or simple drug possession or failure to yield, if you want to spend your municipal treasure rewarding that, well the cop who’s going to court 7 or 8 days a month — and court is always overtime pay — you're going to damn near double your salary every month. On the other hand, the guy who actually goes to his post and investigates who's burglarizing the homes, at the end of the month maybe he’s made one arrest. It may be the right arrest and one that makes his post safer, but he's going to court one day and he's out in two hours. So you fail to reward the cop who actually does police work. But worse, it’s time to make new sergeants or lieutenants, and so you look at the computer and say: Who's doing the most work? And they say, man, this guy had 80 arrests last month, and this other guy’s only got one. Who do you think gets made sergeant? And then who trains the next generation of cops in how not to do police work? I’ve just described for you the culture of the Baltimore police department amid the deluge of the drug war, where actual investigation goes unrewarded and where rounding up bodies for street dealing, drug possession, loitering such – the easiest and most self-evident arrests a cop can make – is nonetheless the path to enlightenment and promotion and some additional pay. Baltimore’s Anguish: Freddie Gray, the drug war, and the decline of “real policing.”, David Simon, 29 April
Two points I would make.

One: in our complex society we are going to have to target quantitative indicators. To do so effectively these indicators need to be meaningful to ordinary people must be, or must be inextricably linked to, improvements in well-being. The alternative to such indicators are the sort of Mickey Mouse, micro-targets that motivate the Baltimore police to maximise the number of arrests they make or, for instance, keep patients in UK ambulances hovering outside hospitals so that they can meet a 'seen within 4 hours of entry into hospital' micro-target. 

Two: incentives are important. People — even well-intentioned and hard-working people — will react to incentives; and if these incentives are to carry out stupid activities that conflict with society's well-being, then they will carry out those activities and we shall see a decrease in society's well-being. It's not that complicated.

No comments: