Monday, 15 February 2010

3 up

This here blog in now three years old to the day. Hooray for me. So to celebrate here are three totally unrelated things.

1. It only struck me the other day, but might the Tories' commitment to scrapping compulsory annuity purchase at 75 cause some problems for Personal Accounts/NEST? Frustratingly the recent policy document only says that they will "reward those who have saved for their retirement by ending compulsory annuitisation at age 75". But assuming that means what it says, could we see people hitting retirement with a pot of money in NEST able to simply take it as cash (ie not annuitise any of it)?

That would strike me as a bad system. The whole point of the scheme in the first place was to try and improve the replacement ratio (ratio of work to retirement income) for the lower to middle earners who currently don't have access to a workplace pension. However if they can draw down the whole pot as cash the scheme will not serve that purpose for at least some. I remember being told this was one of the flaws in the Australian system - retirees blowing their pot on a cruise and then having to exist on state benefits. Some will argue that it's their choice. True, but then why 'nudge' them into saving in the first place? You might as well have left them to spend the money during their working life.

2. One of the books on my wish-list (well, realistically I'm going to buy it given that it's only about £8 on Amazon) is Micromotives and macrobehaviour by Thomas Schelling. Anyway, before I took a punt I thought I'd flick through Tim Harford's Logic of Life, as I remembered that he refers to Schelling quite a bit. I didn't like Harford's book very much (though his first was one was alright), and as I was having a flick I stumbled across a section that reminded why. Here's a chunk about paying kids to read books, and the reaction to the idea:
The idea is horrifying to conventional wisdom. Psychologist Barry Schwartz [author of the Paradox of Choice] attacked Fryer in an op-ed piece in the New York Times: "The assumption that underlies the project is simple: people respond to incentives."

The trouble, Schwartz continued, was that psychologists had found circumstances in which that wasn't true. He suggested that what schools do instead is rekindle the intrinsic joy of learning; this is inspiring material for an op-ed article, but offers no practical help whatsoever.

This, to me anyway, is wrong in several ways. First, it's a bit of a misrepresentation of Schwartz's article (which is here). Although he does suggest we should ask why intrinsic motivation is flagging, he also says "It may be that the current state of achievement is low enough that desperate measures are called for, and it’s worth trying anything." It's not rekindle intrinsic motivation or nothing.

Secondly, I'm really not clear what the conventional wisdom is here. Certainly on the one hand there is widespread belief that learning is an end in its own right, and that we should try and help kinds enjoy it. But isn't 'people respond to incentives' part of the conventional wisdom too? Presumably that's why parents have ben bribing their kids to revise for exams etc no doubt since exams existed. I would say that the argument that Schwartz deploys about incentives sometimes resulting in worse performance is also a challenge to conventional wisdom, just a different bit of it.

Thirdly, is it a reasonable point that what Schwartz says is of no practical help? I don't think so. Surely it is quite helpful for someone to say 'your idea may backfire, and here is some evidence that suggests why'. Isn't that what a lot of economics is all about?

3. Two more chunks of Adorno for no real reason except that I like them. It's over the top, but enjoyable stuff.

Chunk A
Among those intellectuals anxious to reconcile themselves with [mass culture] and eager to find a common formula to express both their reservations against it and their respect for its power, a tone of ironic toleration prevails unless they have already created a new mythos of the twentieth century from the imposed regression. After all, those intellectuals maintain, everyone knows what pocket novels, films off the rack, family television shows rolled out into serials and hit parades, advice to the lovelorn and horoscope columns are all about. All of this, however, is harmless and, according to them, even democratic since it responds to demand, albeit a simulated one. It bestows all kinds of blessings, they point out, for example, through the dissemination of information, advice and stress reducing patterns of behaviour. Of course, as every sociological study measuring something as elementary as how politically informed the public has proven, the information is meagre or indifferent. Moreover, the advice to be gained from manifestations of the culture industry is vacuous, banal or worse, and the behaviour patterns are shamelessly conformist.

Chunk B
[W]hat its defenders imagine is preserved by the culture industry is in fact all the more thoroughly destroyed by it. The colour film destroys the genial old tavern to a greater extent than bombs ever could: the film exterminates its imago. No homeland can survive being processed by the films which celebrate it, and which thereby turn the unique character on which it thrives into an interchangeable sameness.

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