Literature as a pure art approaches the nature of pure science.
—“The Scientist of Letters: Obituary of James Joyce.” The New Republic 20 January 1941.
In 1910 the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, offered what he called a “Square Deal” to the American people—a deal that, the president explained, consisted of two components: “equality of opportunity” and “reward for equally good service.” Not only would everyone would be given a chance, but, also—and as we shall see, more importantly—pay would be proportional to effort. More than a century later, however—according to University of Illinois at Chicago professor of English Walter Benn Michaels—the second of Roosevelt’s components has been forgotten: “the supposed left,” Michaels asserted in 2006, “has turned into something like the human resources department of the right.” What Michaels meant was that, these days, “the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more,” it is instead “that the rich [can] make whatever they make, [so long as] an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.” In contemporary America, he means, only the first goal of Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” matters. Yet, why should Michaels’ “supposed left” have abandoned Roosevelt’s second goal? An answer may be found in a seminal 1961 article by political scientists Peter B. Clark and James Q. Wilson called “Incentive Systems: A Theory of Organizations”—an article that, though it nowhere mentions the man, could have been entitled “The Charlie Wilson Problem.”
Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson was president of General Motors during World War II and into the early 1950s; General Motors, which produced tanks, bombers, and ammunition during the war, may have been as central to the war effort as any other American company—which is to say, given the fact that the United States was the “Arsenal of Democracy,” quite a lot. (“Without American trucks, we wouldn’t have had anything to pull our artillery with,” commented Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who led the Red Army into Berlin.) Hence, it may not be a surprise that World War II commander Dwight Eisenhower selected Wilson to be his Secretary of Defense when the leader of the Allied war in western Europe was elected president in 1952, which led to the confirmation hearings that made Wilson famous—and the possible subject of “Incentive Systems.”
That’s because of something Wilson said during those hearings: when asked whether he could make a decision, as Secretary of Defense, that would be adverse for General Motors, Wilson replied that he could not imagine such a situation, “because for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Wilson’s words revealed how sometimes people within an organization can forget about the larger purposes of the organization—or what could be called “the Charlie Wilson problem.” What Charlie Wilson could not imagine, however, was precisely what James Wilson (and his co-writer Peter Clark) wrote about in “Incentive Systems”: how the interests of an organization might not always align with society.
Not that Clark and Wilson made some startling discovery; in one sense “Incentive Systems” is simply a gloss on one of Adam Smith’s famous remarks in The Wealth of Nations: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” What set their effort apart, however, was the specificity with which they attacked the problem: the thesis of “Incentive Systems” asserts that “much of the internal and external activity of organizations may be explained by understanding their incentive systems.” In short, in order to understand how an organization’s purposes might differ from that of the larger society, a big clue might be in how it rewards its members.
In the particular case of Engine Charlie, the issue was the more than $2.5 million in General Motors stock he possessed at the time of his appointment as Secretary of Defense—even as General Motors remained one of the largest defense contractors. Depending on the calculation, that figure would be nearly ten times that today—and, given contemporary trends in corporate pay for executives, would surely be even greater than that: the “ratio of CEO-to-worker pay has increased 1,000 percent since 1950,” according to a 2013 Bloomberg report. But “Incentive Systems” casts a broader net than “merely” financial rewards.
The essay constructs “three broad categories” of incentives: “material, solidary, and purposive.” That is, not only pay and other financial sorts of reward of the type possessed by Charlie Wilson, but also two other sorts: internal rewards within the organization itself—and rewards concerning the organization’s stated intent, or purpose, in society at large. Although Adam Smith’s pointed comment raised the issue of the conflict of material interest between organizations and society two centuries ago, what “Incentive Systems” thereby raises is the possibility that, even in organizations without the material purposes of a General Motors, internal rewards can conflict with external ones:
At first, members may derive satisfaction from coming together for the purpose of achieving a stated end; later they may derive equal or greater satisfaction from simply maintaining an organization that provides them with office, prestige, power, sociability, income, or a sense of identity.
Although Wealth of Nations, and Engine Charlie, provide examples of how material rewards can disrupt the straightforward relationship between members, organizations, and society, “Incentive Systems” suggests that non-material rewards can be similarly disruptive.
If so, Clark and Wilson’s view may perhaps circle back around to illuminate a rather pressing current problem within the United States concerning material rewards: one indicated by the fact that the pay of CEOs of large companies like General Motors has increased so greatly against that of workers. It’s a story that was usefully summarized by Columbia University economist Edward N. Wolff in 1998: “In the 1970s,” Wolff wrote then, “the level of wealth inequality in the United States was comparable to that of other developed industrialized countries”—but by the 1980s “the United States had become the most unequal society in terms of wealth among the advanced industrial nations.” Statistics compiled by the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman pointed out in 2014, “have long pointed to a dramatic shift in the process of US economic growth, one that started around 1980.” “Before then,” Krugman says, “families at all levels saw their incomes grow more or less in tandem with the growth of the economy as a whole”—but afterwards, he continued, “the lion’s share of gains went to the top end of the income distribution, with families in the bottom half lagging far behind.” Books like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century have further documented this broad economic picture: according to the Institute for Policy Studies, for example, the richest 20 Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 50% of Americans—more than 150 million people.
How, though, can “Incentive Systems” shine a light on this large-scale movement? Aside from the fact that, apparently, the essay predicts precisely the future we now inhabit—the “motivational trends considered here,” Wilson and Clark write, “suggests gradual movement toward a society in which factors such as social status, sociability, and ‘fun’ control the character of organizations, while organized efforts to achieve either substantive purposes or wealth for its own sake diminish”—it also suggests just why the traditional sources of opposition to economic power have, largely, been silent in recent decades. The economic turmoil of the nineteenth century, after all, became the Populist movement; that of the 1930s became the Popular Front. Meanwhile, although it has sometimes been claimed that Occupy Wall Street, and more lately Bernie Sanders’ primary run, have been contemporary analogs of those previous movements, both have—I suspect anyway—had nowhere near the kind of impact of their predecessors, and for reasons suggested by “Incentive Systems.”
What “Incentive Systems” can do, in other words, is explain the problem raised by Walter Benn Michaels: the question of why, to many young would-be political activists in the United States, it’s problems of racial and other forms of discrimination that appear the most pressing—and not the economic vice that has been squeezing the majority of Americans of all races and creeds for the past several decades. (Witness the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance—which frames the issue of policing the inner city as a matter of black and white, rather than dollars and cents.) The signature move of this crowd has, for some time, been to accuse their opponents of (as one example of this school has put it) “crude economic reductionism”—or, of thinking “that the real working class only cares about the size of its paychecks.” Of course, as Michaels says in The Trouble With Diversity, the flip side of that argument is to say that this school attempts to fit all problems into the Procrustean bed of “diversity,” or more simply, “that racial identity trumps class,” rather than the other way. But why do those activists need to insist on the point so strongly?
“Some people,” Jill Lepore wrote not long ago in The New Yorker about economic inequality, “make arguments by telling stories; other people make arguments by counting things.” Understanding inequality, as should be obvious, requires—at a minimum—a grasp of the most basic terms of mathematics: it requires knowing, for instance, that a 1,000 percent increase is quite a lot. But more significantly, it also requires understanding something about how rewards—incentives—operate in society: a “something” that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explained not long ago, is “ironclad.” In the Columbia University professor’s view (and it is more-or-less the view of the profession), there is a fundamental law that governs the matter—which in turn requires understanding what a scientific law is, and how one operates, and so forth.
That law in this case, the Columbia University professor says, is this: “as more money becomes concentrated at the top, aggregate demand goes into decline.” Take, Stiglitz says, the example of Mitt Romney’s 2010 income of $21.7 million: Romney can “only spend a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife.” But, he continues, “take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people—say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece—and you’ll find that almost all the money gets spent.” The more evenly money is spread around, in other words, the more efficiently, and hence productively, the American economy works—for everyone, not just some people. Conversely, the more total income is captured by fewer people, the less efficiently the economy becomes, resulting in less productivity—and ultimately a poorer America. But understanding Stiglitz’ argument requires a kind of knowledge possessed by counters, not storytellers—which, in the light of “Incentive Systems,” illustrates just why it’s discrimination, and not inequality, that is the issue of choice for political activists today.
At least since the 1960s, that is, the center of political energy on university campuses has usually been the departments that “tell stories,” not the departments that “count things”: as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty remarked before he died, “departments of English literature are now the left-most departments of the universities.” But, as Clark and Wilson might point out (following Adam Smith), the departments that “tell stories” have internal interests that may not be identical to the interests of the public: as mentioned, understanding Joseph Stiglitz’ point requires understanding science and mathematics—and as Bruce Robbins (a colleague of Wolff and Stiglitz at Columbia University, only in the English department ) has remarked, “the critique of Enlightenment rationality is what English departments were founded on.” In other words, the internal incentive systems of English departments and other storytelling disciplines reward their members for not understanding the tools that are the only means of understanding foremost political issue of the present—an issue that can only be sorted out by “counting things.”
As viewed through the prism of “Incentive Systems,” then, the lesson taught by the past few decades of American life might well be that elevating “storytelling” disciplines above “counting” disciplines has had the (utterly predictable) consequence that economic matters—a field constituted by arguments constructed about “counting things”—have been largely vacated as a possible field of political contest. And if politics consists of telling stories only, that means that “counting things” is understood as apolitical—a view that is surely, as students of deconstruction have always said, laden with politics. In that sense, then, the deal struck by Americans with themselves in the past several decades hardly seems fair. Or, to use an older vocabulary: