Submitted by Bryce Laliberte
A perverse incentive is an incentive which actually stimulates a destructive or counter-productive behavior. They exist wherever a reward is associated with bad behavior. One particularly vivid illustration of perverse incentives is when the French government established a program in Hanoi paying people for rat tails. The intention was to reduce the rat population, but in fact the rat population exploded. This occurred because the natives, mostly poor farmers, started farming the rats so they could harvest the tails. The system is rife with perverse incentives, some established as the result of mere human limitations for understanding consequences, and some even intentionally prolonged and worsened where actors have found a reward through the conditions brought about by those perverse incentives. Sometimes what is construed as an accidental perverse incentive was intended all along, but will be played off as an accident because foolishness is excusable but malice is not.
Politicians are a species of entrepreneur. Rather than seeking out opportunities for producing a valuable product or service which will satisfy others, they are always looking for opportunities to improve their power. If they are not the type to identify and make use of every opportunity – no matter the expense that might be imputed to others – then they are unlikely to be a successful politician to begin with. Thus we can infer that, among politicians, an inordinate amount are the type who have and will make use of tragedies in the most cynical ways as a means to improve their power. It is not unreasonable to suppose active politicians are involving themselves in tragedies with an eye on the goal of accumulating power – in fact, it may be unreasonable to assume good faith and goodwill.
A pandemic is a natural tragedy. While in this case the political effects are the most visible, especially as the most images one has seen of the inside of hospitals recently are nurses dancing on Tiktok rather than the more grisly and unpalatable images of intubated obese elderly slowly suffocating as their lungs fill with liquid, pandemics remain a tragedy of the natural world. The damage is, even without counting the political ramifications, inevitably immense, on par with an especially bad earthquake or tsunami. Roughly 500,000 dying before their time – even if they are mostly elderly – imposes a substantial effect on society. Now, at least personally, I will not give a bone to any theories that the pandemic is effectively unreal – one can certainly make an issue with how it has been handled politically, but the way it is handled politically and its reality as a force of nature are two separate things. As humans we are not beyond pandemics occurring. They exist in the realm of untameable natural forces, with hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. The evolution of human pathogens go brrr. We are lucky this time around the pathogen was much more transmissible than it was deadly. The pandemic having a reality beyond human control, and conspiracies of politicians taking advantage of the natural tragedy are not incompatible. The point is that politicians who are not of a stature and type to wield the pandemic to suit themselves politically at the expense of the people are probably not politicians to begin with.
The political mishandling of the pandemic is a cruelty upon disaster, and it is a mistake to suppose that politically craven mishandling is proof it wasn’t real. In propaganda, the rule is that the truth is the best material. In psychological operations, the rule is that things that really happened make the best opportunity. The fact that politicians are taking advantage of such a reality is what makes it so insidious. So we must ask, how are they using it? We can assume that they are responding to their own immediate incentives: 1) they are avoiding liability, e.g. anything bad happening won’t become something that hurts their career prospects, and 2) they are looking out for opportunity, where they can impose some policy which will suit their career prospects.
I’d like to bring something up. I was, in fact, someone initially in favor of the lockdowns. I was probably one of the first in my social networks – some of the social networks that were noted to have noticed COVID the earliest, even – to notice what was happening and bring it to the attention of others. I bought masks and stockpiled essential food items in January, and I made myself a nuisance to family members so they would similarly prepare themselves. I made a chart, a simple extrapolation really, that turned out accurate within 1 or 2 days for number of hospitalizations due to COVID. I bring this up because my take on the political (mis)handling of COVID incorporates these features of the landscape. I expected clumsy and crude measures that would be ineffective, as a rule. But even I was surprised when all possible refinements to initial measures were rejected. The most “useful” measure, which probably saved the political class from the most ire it deserves, was a generous unemployment measure that – at least among my own circle of friends – substantially improved their income (not that they took advantage of this opportunity wisely, in my opinion). But the extension of the lockdowns past their initial two weeks “to gain our bearings” slowly proved perfidious. I expected that the initial measures would be improved upon, so that high risk individuals would be identified and isolated for a brief period so that the virus could burn its way through the rest of the population that had very low risk, and we’d be able to return to normal. But instead all were forced to remain as isolated as law enforcement could effectively manage. Perhaps I was naive and, in a rare turn by my own assessment, insufficiently cynical.
It is a little easier to see in hindsight what has taken place. Immense economic damage has been caused by the reactionary measured taken by the political class to insulate themselves from liability. A stark class difference has exerted itself – high status, degree holding workers, who labor in offices mostly on computers, were able to continue working with practically no harm to themselves. Low status laborers who must be at their place of employment to work were most likely to find themselves out of work, and even if they managed to hold on to work there was no benefit for their increased risk. It’s crude by nature, but in effect most “typical Trump voters” suffered by the slowdown, with some other communities being affected as collateral damage. The innocuous protests against mask-wearing were held up and unfairly criticized by the media, while the looters and rioters burning down small businesses were covered for by that same media. However, it would be misleading to focus particularly on the differences between political parties and their ostensible constituents. Apart from those Americans lucky enough to have an office job that can be satisfied by a computer and internet connection, the rest were harmed, and will continue to be harmed. This harm is intentional. It lowers the bargaining power of all voters, not just Trump voters, and it means politicians will provide less to their constituents while taking more for themselves in the wake of this natural disaster.
The crisis of the pandemic was and is still being wielded by the political class to impoverish and divide voters. When voters are starving and insecure, they are more likely to take the first deal that comes along which seems to rescue them. But this allows the political class to devise their means to provide themselves greater advantage. In fact this is practically a metaphysical necessity, as those politicians engaging in such Machiavellian scheming will gain the power over those politicians that do not, and so displace them. The ongoing reorganization of the political class and its relation to the voting class is an as-yet little noted phenomenon, and the reasons underlying that reorganization are only vaguely and ambiguously sensed by the populace. The pandemic has made us tangibly worse off, and this may become very consequential for us. Certain people have been very busy during the tragedy, accumulating wealth and power, some good, some bad. It may not appeal to our politically sensitized notions but the most salient fact about the pandemic is that nearly all Americans are worse off and politicians will be capitalizing on this impoverishment for several election cycles to come. Drawing out and recognizing this fact will be important as one figures out how they’re going to sustain themselves this coming decade, and it’s likely to be lost in the noise of political polarization because this fact seems to offer no immediate political gain to exploiting. And that is a key feature why it will be so consequential.