Money and motivation

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by Eleanor Arnason, 7/26/08 • This is a quote from the wonderful Immanual Wallerstein, which I got from the Ambling Along the Aqueduct blog:

Generally, it is argued that monetary reward is an incentive for quality work. And I suppose generally this is sometimes true. But it is one thing to reward an artisan for quality artisanship and another thing to reward an executive for obtaining extraordinary profits for a corporation. They are different in two ways. It is clear that good artisanship is quality work. But the obtaining of extraordinary profits is only quality work if one accepts the priority of the endless accumulation of capital. It is hard to justify it on any other grounds. The second difference is the size of the reward. Increasing an artisan’s income by 10 or even 25 percent for quality work is quite different from increasing an executive’s income by 100 or even 1000 percent.

Is it really true that an industrial manager will only work well if he receives the kind of bonuses he can obtain in the present system? I believe it is absurd to think so. We have the clear example of many kinds of professionals (such as university professors) who are stimulated to work well not primarily by the relatively small increases in material rewards but rather by a combination of honors and increased control over their own work time. People do not usually win Nobel Prizes because they are spurred on by the endless accumulation of capital. And there are a remarkably large number of persons in our present system whose incentives are not primarily monetary. Indeed, if honor and increased control of one’s work time were more generally available as rewards, would not many more people find them inherently satisfying?
—Immanuel Wallerstein, Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century

And here is my comment, which I put here to remind myself that I need to think more about markets and maybe write about them:

There are two huge lies in our current world. One is the magic of the market — how it’s possible to run societies and solve human problems through the process of buying and selling. In fact, most of what happens in every society — the raising of children and the caring for families and communities, the creation of art, the cultivating of gardens — happens outside the marketplace and for reasons that are not economic. One does not grow flowers in one’s front yard for profit.

The other lie is that people are primarily motivated by money. People care about money, because they need it to survive. But when Stud Turkel in Working asked people what they’d really like to do, if they could do any kind of work, a very large number said either be a writer or help other people. And what the people who were talking actually did with their lives was work on human relationships and self-expression, while struggling to make enough to get by.

There are people who are motivated by money — not by the need to get by and a rational fear of being poor in this society, but by a desire to have more money than they need. For the most part, they are either boring or scary.