Monday, July 14, 2008

Parenting Incentives

I know a number of people who are advocates of basic incomes, whereby everyone would get paid something like a state pension, which would enable them to pursue whatever activities they wanted (whether it be working or education, care-giving, etc) without having to worry about covering basic needs. I've also proposed incentive payments for voting myself. Now it seems that in NYC they're paying disadvantaged parents to make sure they do basic parenting things, like taking children to the dentist.


  1. Anonymous12:36 am


    That's really interesting!

    I suspect, though, that one can be for "an (unconditional) basic income for all", yet against the NYC experiment's "(conditional) cash in hand, if you do X" model.

    The problem with the latter (at least by my reckoning) is that it assumes that the value in the performance of X (where X is, say, "reading your child a bedtime story") is entirely "instrumental" (ie: it's good for the child's imagination, cognitive-development, etc, if she's read a bedtime story). I suspect, though, that there's also an (equally important) "intrinsic" value to the performance of X (returning to our example: it's intrinsically-valuable for the child to "feel" that the thing that's motivated her parent to read to her is "love", not "money").

    Anyway, it's just a thought.


  2. I wasn't suggesting that an unconditional basic income was quite the same as conditional cash incentives, and of course you can be for either but not the other. I'm not sure the incentives are quite that bad though.

    Firstly, if the intrinsic value is undermined by the children's knowledge, it's possible they don't know (that's the case in this story). The fact that parents can only do certain things if they have money doesn't mean they're doing them for money, so they could still have the right motives. And even if the intrinsic value is somehow eroded, it might be that getting the instrumental value is still better than nothing.

  3. Anonymous10:53 pm

    "The fact that parents can only do certain things if they have money doesn't mean they're doing them for money, so they could still have the right motives."

    Yes, I agree. And the mother in the article provides a case in point.

    That said, what I meant to say (though I was perhaps a tad clumsy in how I went about saying it) was that, though there will, of course, be "caring mothers who perform X with the right motive", it's possible that, if we institute this NYC model, we may also attract a number of "guardians for whom cash is the sole motive". This, then, leaves us with two groups who (at least in theory) are making use of the model: "caring mothers (or fathers, etc)" and "cash-motivated guardians".

    I think we both agree that there's no problem with the first group (because their actions fulfil both the "intrinsic" and "instrumental" values, I've, personally, no problem with them). If our views do differ, it's probably vis-a-vis the second group. Now, on that point, you're probably right: a child who (because he's had the story read to him by the cash-keen guardian) receives just the "instrumental" benefit is still probably better off than she who (because no one read her a bedtime story) receives no benefit at all. However, the question, then, is, when we deal with that second group of children, if all we want is that this second group at least receive the instrumental benefit, why not simply send those kids a cassette tape which contains a recorded voice that reads them a bedtime story?

    At this point, we're left weighing up two models: 1. the model in which we give, to the cash-motivated guardian, money for reading a bedtime story 2. the model in which we send the kid the cassette and ask him to, come bedtime, press play.

    There's two means by which we can weigh the models: 1. vis-a-vis THE KID (I'd say that, on that front, the two models are equal: neither delivers the "intrinsic" value to the kid (there's no love, in either of the two scenarios, after all), but both deliver the "instrumental" value (a story gets read to the kid, either way). 2. vis-a-vis THE CASH-KEEN GUARDIAN (whilst in the NYC model, the guardian gets cash; in the cassette tape model, he gets nothing. The advantage of the cassette tape model is that, through it, we institute a model that's delivered the same thing (namely, "instrumental" benefit) to he about whom we're concerned (namely, the kid), and we've done so without instituting/reinforcing/affirming the (extremely repugnant) idea that "a cash-keen guardian CAN view the kid as an economically-exploitable commodity"; that guardian's just got nothing, after all.

    Anyway, sorry, that was long; I think I got a bit too carried away.

  4. A basic income sounds like a pretty terrible idea, actually, given the incentives it would create to avoid the labour force.

    It makes sense to have support structures for those who cannot work for one reason or another. It doesn't make sense to use taxes to support those who simply choose not to.

  5. NS:

    I think a lot depends on how you carve up intrinsic and instrumental benefits. I'd suspect there are benefits produced by having your parent read you a story that aren't produced by the casette tape. (This may be clearer with things like being taken to school or the dentist). Which we prefer all things considered will, however, depend on how we rate likely costs and benefits.


    That's a pretty common reaction - an aversion to paying people who choose not to work - but I'm not sure your incentive point is really right. Present welfare schemes create a disincentive to work, because once one loses benefits one is no better off. If you keep the basic income no matter what then there's still an incentive to work in order to be better off (assuming the basic income covers basic subsistence needs but you might want more luxury goods, etc)