Monday, December 19, 2005


Over the weekend, I was speaking with a friend in the medical community about the notion of perverse mechanisms. The dictionary does not quite get the right definition for my use of the word. I do not mean "marked by immorality; deviating from what is considered right or proper or good". Nor do I mean "resistant to guidance or discipline". "Marked by a disposition to oppose and contradict " perhaps gets a little closer.

The definition of perverse that fits this use is "negative or unhealthy".

Perverse Mechanisms provide the foundation for the concept, propounded by some social scientists and philosophers, that many of the underlying causes of non sustainable and seemingly irrational civil behavior do not come from some dark greed zone or from some firery hell where evil designers lurk in the underworld and work overtime to devise our undoing.

No, these social thinkers argue that many of our truly bad ways of doing things come from something a little less easy to moralize on, and in many ways, a lot easier to fix.

I'm not sure who first brought the issue up, but the idea is fairly simple.

Many of the things that we do as a culture that lead towards "ends" that range from "catastrophic" to "just plain old dumb" come from the way we have structured ourselves, our business relationships, and our daily lives.

For example, with my friend in the medical community, I mentioned how health care in the eastern tradition of acapuncture is actually based on health. Quite simply, the patient, or in this case the client, pays the doctor to keep them healthy. If they fall sick, payments stop.

The mechanism that is in place today of course is just the opposite. We pay our medical professionals when we become ill.

The more ill we become, the more money we must pay. The system, no matter how moral and self regulated it may be, contains a perverse mechanism at its foundation which will eventually bring the system or the society it serves into ruin.

The mechanism is perverse, not evil.

And without an equal mechanism to produce health, it will produce bad results.

Perverse Mechanisms abound in our society.

When we hire an architect to build our house, his payment is often based on a percentage of the cost of the house. No matter how great a guy or gal he or she may be, it will be in their best economic interest to build your house in such a way as to maximize their fee. They will choose the most expensive materials, the most expensive flooring, and they will oversize your appliances, just in case you need the extra capacity. The result is an inefficient home with an AC system that is over sized and a not-so- gracious portion of almost everything else.

The client pays at the beginning. And he pays throughout the term of his life in that house for the extra energy required to service the oversizing that the perverse mechanism created.

If the architect's fee was based on how little energy the house used, the mechanism would no longer be so perverse.

Non perverse business relationships would do a lot to make our economic system more efficient and less wasteful.

Why should your stock broker be paid by the total amount of stocks you buy?

Why should he not be paid based on your profits or gains in the market?

Why should you pay for your car, if it not running?

If it stops running, you should simply return it to the dealer and tell him you will buy from another dealer if he can't provide a car that is more reliable. True competition would then incent very reliable cars. If the car dealer or manufacturer is making a tidy sum fixing their own product, there is a perverse mechanism in place that invites mechanical mediocrity.

Restaurants are a good example of where perverse mechanisms are kept to a minimum. If you like the food, you pay for it. If it doesn't make you sick, you come back.

Corporations unfortunately, have discovered that perverse mechanisms can be very effective ways to create business. If you create a product(cigarettes) that has poisons in it or produces poisoned pollution, the consumer pays and then he gets sick. If you own the drug company that manufactures the antidote for your poisons, the consumer pays you again. If the consumer goes to the hospital and you own the hospital, the consumer or the insurance company pays again. If there is insurance, and the corporation owns the insurance company or underwriter, the consumer pays again. And if the consumer dies,(and that is somewhat certain) and the corporation owns the cemetary, the consumer pays again.

The whole system them becomes one large gigantic perverse mechanism on steriods.

Perhaps the greatest perverse mechanism comes in governance,

Where oftentimes bad leadership brings even more power.

If an incompetent administration fouls up

and allows its people to be attacked,

it is rewarded with high approval ratings when it talks tough.

When the government retaliates for the attack from one country,

by attacking another country,

it is rewarded for it's bold incursion,

because of the national bond and trust

that was strengthened by the attack.

When the response to the attack becomes very expensive,

both in gold and blood,

It is argued that it must be continued,

or the blood that was lost,

would be lost for no good cause.

People's hearts then become manipulated by demagoguery.

Civil liberties are traded for security.

A Free press becomes a subservient press.

Bad information leads to an uniformed electorate.

And the uninformed electorate re-elects

the incompetent government.

And the cycle begins again.

This is a Perversity

of a very low order,

With a very high social cost.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a good one OZ. Makes me think of the perverse relationships with lawyers, and a host of others. MS

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooooh this is a good one. I like this concept of perverse mechanisms.

You have said it all here - very clearly concisely. I suspect that I can be applied to many situations.

The image works.

I am going to forward this one

8:44 AM  

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