One of the marks of a good economist is to recognize that money is not all that matters. Not remotely. While in many arenas of life monetary rewards and punishments are real and relevant, only in a few arenas are these incentives exclusive. Incentives come in many different forms – often (perhaps even most often) in non-monetary forms.
The man who diets and goes to the gym regularly might do so in order to make himself more attractive to potential mates. The benefit isn’t monetary, and the cost isn’t exclusively, or even chiefly, monetary. But there’s nevertheless a real, albeit non-monetary, cost-benefit calculation going on in this guy’s head. Raise his cost of going to the gym (say, he suffers a permanent injury to his back) or lower his benefit of working out (say, he meets a fetchin’ babe with a fetish for flabby dudes), and he’ll spend less time at the gym.
Another mark of a good economist is his skepticism of stated intentions. Talk is cheap. So if someone professes his great love of humanity, the economist pays little heed. (Old joke: An economist and non-economist are strolling together down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. As they pass Carnegie Hall and hear beautiful piano music wafting out onto the street, the non-economist turns to the economist and says wistfully, “You know, I don’t play the piano, but I’ve always wanted to learn to do so.” The economist immediately replies “Obviously not.”)
Politicians, of course, incessantly assure us of their excellent intentions, and are routinely called “public servants.” Long-serving senator Jones, 18th-term representative Smith, and 67-year-old Williams who for the past 45 years held only jobs to which he was elected by the public are routinely described as having “devoted” their lives to “public service” – implying that these individuals worked sincerely for the betterment of society and, in doing so, made genuine personal sacrifices of a sort and magnitude that us ordinary mortals would not dream of making.
But how do we know that elected officials – more than the everyday men and women who vote them into office – truly put the welfare of strangers above their own welfare? Of course, all of them they say that they do so. Again, talk is cheap. So here’s a proposal to help screen those relatively few candidates for high office who have a sincere and steadfast devotion to the public welfare from those many candidates who, talking cheaply, only profess such a devotion: require that everyone seeking high-level elective government office do so anonymously.
Assign to each candidate for high office a new, sterile name – something that reads like an abbreviated VIN for an automobile. For example: 6PRKr4. In fact, call it a PIN – “Politician Identification Number.”
Each candidate, successful or not, will for the rest of his or her days and into the future mists of history be known to the public only by his or her PIN. Candidates’ and elected-officials’ faces will never be seen by the public, they will address the public from behind curtains, both real and virtual, and their voices will be electronically modified so that not even their mothers, spouses, or household pets will recognize their voices.
History will forever know each of them – the good, the bad, the indifferent – only by their PINs.
These public servants will also be required, during their time in office, to live in spartan government housing, and will be paid modestly, say, 85 percent of the US median household income.
This proposal, if adopted, would greatly increase voters’ ability to screen for truly public-spirited persons to serve in elected office, for only truly public-spirited persons would be willing to endure these terms as part of the price of seeking high elective office. When, say, 6PRKr4 proclaims his or her (we’ll not know 6PRKr4’s sex) devotion to the greater good and the public weal, that proclamation will be believable.
Obviously, my proposal has downsides. Keeping each candidate’s true identity forever secret would be very costly, and the personal acclaim that would arise from genuinely excellent performance while in office would be unavailable to motivate commendable behavior. Ditto for the personal shame that would arise from disreputable behavior. But yet another hallmark of the economic way of thinking is recognition of the ubiquity of trade-offs. The fact that some proposed change in policy isn’t ideal or has down sides isn’t sufficient to discredit that proposed change. It must be compared to its best attainable alternative.
I believe that the comparison works in favor of my suggestion. Were it adopted, all the tawdry ‘glory’ of elected office would be stripped away, so that such offices would no longer be sought by fame-seeking megalomaniacs. Holders of high political office would at least be much more likely to be public spirited. And we would then stand on much firmer ground when describing President 6PRKr4 as a “public servant” who “devotes” its life to the public interest.
This proposal stems from a conversation that my dear friend Andy Morriss and I had in July 2000 in the jungle of Tikal, Guatemala. Hearing a tour-guide there refer to ancient Mayan rulers as “King 1,” “King 2,” “King 3,” and so on – the personal information on these long-dead Ozymandiases having been forever lost – Andy immediately saw the promise of making genuine public servants anonymous. Andy is perceptive.