Monday, July 16, 2012

On Reinventing Reward

After spending a few hours watching her tend the small herd of jersey cows, walking along as she lead them from the pasture, one by one into the milking room, and finally into the "treat" room, we listened as she talked about her work, her lifestyle, her simple pleasures and deep laments, and finally her passionately voiced political points of view on the subject.  "We incentivize the wrong thing," she asserted.  "All our problems [we were talking primarily about health and obesity rates] would be solved if we shifted the governmental incentives from corn to grass."

I think she is guilty of hyperbole -- over-speaking to make her point -- although deep down I suspect she has genuinely been convinced by the argument.  Frankly, I don't believe in "silver bullets."  I have no confidence that "all our problems" -- whether they be church problems, economic problems, agricultural or socio-political -- would be solved by doing any ONE thing.  That said, her larger point is well-taken:  just as what we measure matters, what we reward makes a difference.

I recalled her observation recently while reading about permaculture -- that emerging set of strategies for creating a self-sustaining world.  Reflecting on the health care system of Britain, the author, Graham Bell, notes that, "Britain has a very special approach to health, with its public access to a free National Health Service.  It has often been suggested that the NHS is succeeding because of the increased case load which it has carried over the years.  This is debatable -- a successful 'health' service would treat fewer people as the population got healthier.  The NHS is a major asset to Britain, but not by making us healthier as a nation, rather as a necessary tool for people divorced from a wholesome way of life" (The Permaculture Way, p. 38)

All the recent attention to "wellness" strategies and issues notwithstanding, how much of our own culture's view on "health care" is geared toward illness mitigation rather than the prospering of healthy living?  And isn't the former but a more systemic example of the kind of enabling more particularly condemned in other behavioral venues?  Who knows how extensive the cultural benefit might be if we retooled and re-aimed our incentives  away from the invention and production of better crutches to help us limp along with and prop up our myriad bad habits, toward the habitualizing of behavioral tools for building that "wholesome way of life" of which the author spoke?

I understand the difficulty.  The former -- treating sickness -- merely takes the ingestion of a pill.  The latter -- incentivizing wholeness -- requires real change.  The cynic in me supposes that "change" will lose every time.  The dreamer in me wonders aloud, "well, who knows?  Maybe it's not too late."