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Public vs. Private: The winner is...Daniel Johnson Salem-News.com
For those who doubt this thesis, a real world experiment is about to take place; AOL recently bought the Huffington Post for $315 million.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - The battle between public and private is the most destructive theme running through our society. Now, in the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, the mythology is being goosed by the manufactured mythology of Reagan himself.
As Bob Herbert writes in the NYT (Feb 15): “He was a tax-cutter who raised taxes in seven of the eight years of his presidency. He was a budget-cutter who nearly tripled the federal budget deficit.”
He was seen “as someone committed to the best interests of ordinary, hard-working Americans. Yet his economic policies, Reaganomics, dealt a body blow to that very constituency;” Herbert quotes Mark Hertsgaard, who wrote On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency who said: You cannot be fair in your historical evaluation of Ronald Reagan if you don’t look at the terrible damage his economic policies did to this country.
Herbert concludes that “when all is said and done, it is the economic revolution that gained steam during the Reagan years and is still squeezing the life out of the middle class and the poor that is Reagan’s most significant legacy.”
And in this corner…
Microsoft started the encyclopaedia Encarta in 1993 after purchasing non-exclusive rights to the Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopaedia. In the late 1990s Microsoft bought Collier’s Encyclopaedia and New Merit Scholar’s Encyclopaedia. None of these print editions survived long thereafter. It would not be fair, however, to blame Microsoft; it was the online revolution. All surviving print encyclopaedias have struggled financially and have had to produce online editions.
At the end of 2009 Encarta was finished.
In 2001 Wikipedia was launched and in eight years put Encarta out of business. Microsoft had thousands of employees, billions in assets and had spent hundreds of millions on the project. It had professional writers and editors, all of whom were well paid. At its peak the complete English version contained about 62,000 articles.
At Encarta’s demise Wikipedia had millions of articles in more than 200 languages—three million in English alone (today about four million).
Private is not better than public—except in small relatively isolated instances, which is exactly what Adam Smith was talking about in the 18th century when he coined the term “Invisible Hand”. That term was co-opted by the rich and powerful to justify to ordinary people why they were poor and it was good for them that the rich had no compunction to share.
There is disagreement on Reagan’s motivation. Was he a willing pawn of the rich and powerful as he promoted such laughable policies as the Laffer Curve? Or was he unwittingly dense and bought into the mythology of free enterprise, with no clue as to the impacts of his policies?
Public vs. Private Motivation: The third force
There are believed to be two main human drives: The first is biological—food, water and sex. The second drive is external—the rewards and punishments the environment delivers for behaviours. The model of our society is based on this last drive. But there is a third, ignored drive.
In 1949 psychologist Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin planned some experiments on learning using Rhesus monkeys. He put them in cages along with a puzzle to see how they would do with it. But, an amazing thing happened. On their own, with no encouragement or input from the experimenters, the monkeys began playing with and solving the puzzles. In his notes, Harlow wrote: “Solution did not lead to food, water or sex gratification.” There was no external punishment and reward system at play either which prompted Harlow to posit a third drive: “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.” The monkeys solved the puzzles simply because they enjoyed solving puzzles.
Harlow called this an “intrinsic motivation”. But if it was real, how did it compare to the other two drives? He assumed that if he rewarded them with raisins, they would do even better at solving puzzles.
When he set up a raisin-reward system he found the monkeys made more errors and were less successful in solving puzzles, overall. Harlow wrote: “Introduction of food in the present experiment served to disrupt performance, a phenomenon not reported in the literature.”
He concluded that “It would appear that this drive…may be as basic and strong as the [other] drives”. Then he dropped the experiments and moved on other interests.
Harlow’s work was ignored until Edward Deci took it up again in 1969. In a series of experiments he varied the procedure. In some cases people were given the puzzles to solve and that was all. In other cases, people were given money for solving them. In a third scenario, he paid the subjects, but near the end of the experiments he announced that the project had run out of money and he couldn’t pay them any more for solved puzzles.
The real focus of the test was that after they had solved the puzzles he left the room for eight minutes telling them he had to input the data into the computer (1969, room-filled mainframes) and would be back in a few minutes. What he really did, though, was go to another room and watch the subjects through one-way glass. While on their own, the subjects whiled away the time playing with the puzzles--entirely on their own. Here’s what he observed.
Those who had never been paid, played with the puzzles on their own longer than those who had been paid. His conclusion was contrary to conventional wisdom. “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest.” He likened money to caffeine where it can give a short term boost. Think about workers on a job site. At first a job is different and interesting. They might not do it for free, but the money is not the prime motivator. After awhile, however, the intrinsic motivation wears off and money becomes the prime motivator.
Deci concluded that people have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.” The amazing conclusion he reached is that “Nobody was expecting rewards would have a negative effect.”
The third force
Private acts tend to be driven by the first two drives. Public acts tend to be driven by intrinsic motivations. No matter how much money the Encarta people (writers, editors, software engineers) were paid, they were no match for the thousands of Wikipedia volunteers who worked for free.
The Wikipedia volunteers worked at their articles and editing because they wanted to. They weren’t doing it for money, hell, not even for status or recognition—there are no bylines in Wikipedia.
Think of how curious and fascinated infants and young children are by the world around them. But our dysfunctional society soon knocks that out of them. We put them in schools which, for most children are not fun as the daily activities are ruled and regimented. No wonder our society is broken.
For those who doubt this thesis, a real world experiment is about to take place.
AOL recently bought the Huffington Post for $315 million. But look at two things about HP: The first thing is it is written almost entirely by volunteers. They have bylines, but they are writing for free because they want to write.
The second thing, then, is money. Are HP writers still going to be passionate about their subjects if they know that incremental profits are going to go to distant shareholders somewhere? Will they continue to write for free? The experiments I’ve mentioned so far suggest they will not. HP will have to hire writers and that point they are no longer HP; they will be just like any other media group.
One last comparison: There are many news websites around and Salem-News is probably the most sophisticated in many ways. I’ve been writing here for two years and, like all the other writers, I receive no money for my effort. I write because it has value to me. It’s not about the money which, of course, is the fundamental dysfunction of our society: Our society is all about or even only about the money.
The capitalist model, for all its inhumanity to man was, until, recently, at least functional. It is now obviously broken beyond repair. Only the wealthy and the Republican ideologues may resist this conclusion.
Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place
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