Tag Archives: marijuna reform

Misunderstanding Motivation

13 Apr

I am increasingly fascinated by our collective ignorance of what drives our desires, actions, and visions of delight – as our basest needs are met, wealth and “utility,” the cold economic term for happiness, diverge logarithmically. And I am not the only one focusing on this. Dan Pink did a wonderful talk at RSA on the subject. David Brooks wrote a book and a piece in the New Yorker on this question as well. I can’t go a week without reading a story how wealth and happiness only partially relate at all, and rarely directly.

Our laws, legal system and public policy, of course, will lag such scientific understanding or debate. Transforming new academic positions into productive governmental positions take time. But as the simplistic economic rational actor theory – that all people will logically and predictably choose more of a good than less, and make personal choices to maximize their economic situation at the least cost – becomes more and more exposed as trite and incomplete at best, our laws and policies based upon that theory are revealed as incongruous to the facts. Our tax laws and penal code are based upon the idea that we can induce, encourage, and incentivize behavior (Nudge it, perhaps) based upon cash pay outs or punishments, carrots and sticks, because Americans are rational actors. Let me give two seemingly unrelated examples where that is clearly not the case: NPR and marijuana.   

Lost in the debate about federal funding of NPR, as Republican politicians seemingly wish to exact revenge for some perceived slight, and Libertarians and budget cutters seek to remove the government from educating and informing the public via radio at all, is that if the economic rational actor theory was wholly accurate, NPR should not exist at all. Corporate NPR gets little of its funding from the federal government, but they are merely the news organization that produces the programming. The individual NPR station in towns and cities and rural areas across the country receive the greatest percentage of their funding from individual listeners. But it is in no one’s personal economic interest to donate their money to a radio station. Listening to the news is free, and as far as any individual can tell, the news will appear whether I give money or not. Why pay for an item when I can have it for no cost? That is not economically rational. As a tax break, I get a maximum of 35 cents back to my dollar donated – the rational economic choice is to keep the dollar.  Business donations make up the second major chunk of funding, but there too advertising dollars would be better spent. Why spend $1000 to get a ten second mention on NPR when I can have a full ad in another outlet or venue? Radio host Michael Medved speaks for many conservatives when he says he would donate money to NPR the day federal money dries up. Why? Because just like the motivation to donate to NPR, the debate about governmental funding of it is about a lot more than the economics.

Similarly, laws and public policy fail to account for, control, or incentive the use (or disuse) of marijuana. If man were a rational actor, the punishment for smoking pot would effectively discourage its use. But despite nearly 900,000 arrests a year, or roughly one in 25 who smoke regularly, marijuana remains the third most used recreational drug behind alcohol and tobacco. Roughly one third of Americans have smoked it at some point, and 25 million a year partake. Smoking pot is like speeding, jaywalking and drinking underage – technically illegal behavior that is widely socially accepted and now little influenced by the law. Thirty percent of Americans live in a jurisdiction with lax marijuana laws, and academic studies in those areas (plus Holland and other western nations that have taken similar steps) have shown that Doritos stay on the shelves and productivity does not decline. In other words, everyone who wants to smoke pot is smoking it, the world hasn’t ended, and our rational actor public policy needs to catch up with our understanding of human nature.