Monday, February 07, 2005

Remuneration: Some Questions

Some people, when getting into more advanced discussions of parecon, seem to have issues with remuneration for effort and sacrifice. While buying into worker's and consumer's councils, balanced job complexes, participatory self-management and the right to influence decisions insofar as one is impacted, and participatory planning, they take umbrage with some of the aspects involved in such remuneration.

First of all, let me point out that this isn't an entirely new concept that is totally untested and utopian. For example: In my fiction-writing workshop, the main assignment, our short story, is graded entirely on effort. Otherwise, a beginning writer will be deterred from taking the class for fear of a bad grade and an excellent writer can bullshit her way through it.

Imagine this: A coach wants to improve his team's running speed. He thinks of a few ways to do it. He could simply have his team race and give out rewards (say, pay increases or early breaks or something) to the fastest runners and penalties to the slowest runners. The problem is that his linebackers will never catch up to his wide receivers, so they have little incentive to try whatsoever; they're going to be penalized, so why try? Meanwhile, the fastest runners may know that they cannot possibly bridge the gap between each other (even if the gap is just a second), so each fast runner is encouraged only to run fast enough to beat those they might be able to gain an edge on and keep ahead of those behind them in a similar situation. Clearly, the couch is doing the wrong thing. What are a few solutions?

He could separate his team into like groups and reward the best from each equally. This is a form of remuneration for effort and sacrifice because the coach is taking into account that each player has different biological ability. But the problem with this approach is that the slow linebacker still has no incentive to try very hard.

The best approach would be what actually occurs (and trust me, I know from having trained with a high school football team): Each player runs individually or as a group, is timed, and then runs again after a certain period of training. Those who improve their times the best are rewarded. Now every player has a reason to do what is actually desired: Put their all into their training so they can improve themselves.

One should bear in mind what a reader is probably thinking: "Wait, these competitive football guys don't need encouragement, chances are they really want to be there". This is an entirely correct observation, and something that leans parecon's direction: People work incredibly hard at things they are passionate about. They don't need much in terms of societal incentive; people will go to great lengths to do things they love, if only in the offtime.

So, what's the concern? (I'm putting aside classist and capitalist diatribes; those are far deeper value questions than this piece can address). One concern is that effort is totally subjective. My responses are, roughly:

1) So's virtually any other worthwhile system. Let's say we reward people for making X number of widgets. That remuneration scheme doesn't take into account the quality of each widgets. Let's say we reward productive assets. What is a productive asset? If those systems aren't subjective, then usually they're garbage anyways (such as in the case of the market, where it is fairly objective what someone "owns", although even there the market does have to tolerate some degree of subjectivity as to what can be owned and what is theft or a public good).

2) This critique stems from a misunderstanding: We're not saying that every field should have people graded on an A-F scale by some arbitrary standard. We're instead saying that the workplace should key remuneration norms insofar as possible to this standard. If a workplace decides that, barring extreme effort or laziness, everyone will be doing about as much per hour, so people can be paid per hour they work. Perhaps barring extreme circumstances, every worker should be able to produce the same amount per unit of effort they exert, so we can pay based on output. The point is that the guiding logic is to reward effort exerted.

3) In cases where a workplace group does indeed rate each worker, there are real concerns that an entire workplace may not like a worker and lower her effort rating or like a worker and raise her effort rating. There could be a few limits: Each workplace could only be able to tack a multiplier of some sort within a limit, say, from .8 to 1.2, and the average of the workplace must be 1, meaning that giving someone an extra rating would necessitate taking it from someone else. They could also only give a few of these increased or reduced multipliers, meaning that the workplace would not want to uselessly use these limited adjustments. There would undoubtedly be appeal procedures, attempts at anonymity would be instituted, etc. I think that replacing supervisors with a group is at least likely to reduce abuses like nepotism and favoritism.

4) If one workplace is viewed as abusive or out of line with other workplaces in the same industry, inputs can be altered to reflect this fact, as well as other punitive or adjusting measures.

There will likely always be a measure of subjectivity and, with it, a measure for potential abuse. But parecon is unlike any other economy that I know of in that these abuses are not only unlikely, but difficult to pull off and carry so many negative implications from the society (both in terms of cultural norms and regulations) that the abuses aren't worth it in the first place. I admittedly lean more towards objective standards derived from the effort standard than actually grading effort, but others may disagree.


Another question that I hear is, "Why would anyone go through the trouble of getting training if they can get the same amount for just putting effort into a job requiring less training? Doesn't this encourage training?"

My first question in response to someone who asks this question is, "Why would anyone get training in karate or art or music now, if they don't plan to work in it?" In other words, people regularly make decisions to get training in things they don't plan on being paid for. If training was free, why wouldn't someone choose to get trained for something they want?

However, let's say somehow that we find that we need more doctors, yet people don't want to become doctors (aside from the ones currently doing it) because people don't want to go through the training. The capitalist solution is to wait for the situation to become totally obvious (to see that capitalism's response isn't that impressive, see the situation with RNs and hospital over-clogging now), then potentially raise the wages for doctors to encourage movement to the industry. In other words, this kind of after-the-fact response is hard to do in any economy; parecon has the advantage of being both decentralized and conscious. A parecon could propose a few solutions: It could temporarily raise the pay of doctors to encourage training; it could have paid internship to encourage a switch; the doctor's councils could voluntarily raise their hours worked in exchange for some kind of overtime; etc. Even better, balanced job complexes could be temporarily altered: People could spend some of their ordinary work time working as an assistant nurse.

Remember that the situation of people being paid despite not being completely trained is common: paid internships are common. The point is that I don't want to decide these issues beforehand: I want people to be able to do what they want, and to have access to all the information they need, yet I also want to encourage people to do things they wish. A workplace could, say, vote that every member has to achieve X certification over some time period or risk coming under review, if there was a serious concern that training was needed. Markets will respond to these situations according to their destructive and ugly dynamics; parecon will do it in a flexible and democratic manner.


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