Christmas is upon us. You can feel it in the air. You can taste it in the eggnog and smell it in the trees. You can hear it in the melodious hum of caroling, interrupted by the sweet sound of conservatives, howling about White Jesus.
For the policy wonks, 'tis the season for using beloved holiday tales to illustrate political positions. This year, we turn to the story of Santa Claus in order to dispel one of the Right’s most pervasive, dangerous moral myths: The idea that without zero-sum incentive in the form of basic material sustenance, Americans will stop working and turn into lazy, dependent welfare queens, living large off of the government. But that is simply not the case.
Source: The Atlantic, December 2013.
First, a quick refresher on the basic bargain with St. Nick: 364 days a year, the old guy looms in the North Pole like some kind of fat, bearded, one-man NSA, scrupulously tracking the sleep cycles of everyone on Earth. More important, he keeps track of our moral purity, and come Christmastime, if he knows you to be good enough, he brings you toys. If you were bad this year, then it’s nothing but coal in your stocking.
Let's repeat that: the worst that can happen is coal. Does anybody want coal? No. Unless you’re a West Virginia prospector, it’s a useless, inert object, but beyond that it's basically harmless. A snarky, passive aggressive reminder of how bad you've been? Sure, but it isn't an actual punishment. Santa does not, for example, take away your food. Or your job. Or your home.
What Santa is doing is called positive reinforcement, and it works. When children are told that being good will earn them toys, even if being bad won't cost them anything they already have, they tend to behave better. There's even real-life, non-holiday specific research to prove it. In fact, positive reinforcement not only works, it's the only thing that works. That same research will tell you that positive punishment — taking away valued necessities — doesn't really modify behavior. Yet this precisely what the conservative axiom "people will only work if they're incentivized by profit" is advocating.
Of course they'll tell you that money is an earned, positive reward. But we all know that isn't true. In this country, losing gainful employment doesn't mean an iPhone denied: it means homelessness, starvation, and misery. The conservative deal isn't really "work and you can live a life of luxury,"it’s "work hard and hope uncontrollable circumstances don't stymie that effort, or you’ll lose everything."
Except it doesn't really work that way. Even if this kind of brutal, circumstance-blind program of discipline incentivized American workers, harder work doesn't really bring about better results. Since the late 1970s, Americans have been more productive. They've done fewer drugs. Yet their wages continue to stagnate. In absolute terms, the median income in this country has actually decreased.
(Source: American Prospect, October 2013)
But if the work-or-die case against welfare is punitive, puritanical nonsense that can't even deliver expected results, what are we left with? The money-as-motive argument remains popular in part because even those of us on the left have the sense that something has got to motivate people to work. "Be good for goodness' sake"? We’ve tried that argument, but deep down we all know it’s a bit silly for motivating millions of laborers in the aggregate.
Unsurprising reveal: Santa Claus provides the answer. Like well-behaved children, adults also love toys. Except our toys are more abstract: we love disposable income, social status, and praise. Despite what conservatives claim, nobody actually likes being on welfare. It's better than starving, but all things being equal, most people would prefer the respect of their peers, and positions of power and acclaim in their communities.
In fact, these more intangible motives are already why many of us — especially, say, those of us in the writing community — keep working. It ain't for the pay scale.
Positive reinforcement of the Santa Claus variety fills in the incentive void left when we stop punishing the less fortunate among us for failing to match the achievements (or, more often that not, simply lacking the spectacular structural advantages) of their peers. Will some continue to be denied these adult toys, especially as we continue to struggle with issues of classism, racism, sexism, economic inequality, et. al.? Yes, but with a robust welfare state holding up the bottom and already extant positive incentivizes tantalizing the top, the worst that can happen is coal. Everybody still gets a Christmas ham.
The policy logistics of such a welfare state are, of course, a separate issue (although God knows, we've seen them work). But the important lesson this Christmas is more basic: literally being able to feed your children is not the only motive for work, and when those are the stakes, the results can be catastrophic. So as Christmas passes and we enter the New Year, perhaps we can resolve to remember the fairer, more effective system of incentive this classic holiday tale has taught, and finally do away with a far more dangerous, damaging myth.