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Perverse financial incentives

Apart from being an unconvincing defense of Benthamite utilitarianism, economist Richard Layard's Happiness is little more than a compendium of hedonics studies and some general conclusions about their implications -- it is useful as a bibliography if nothing else. One group of studies he cites has to do with performance-related pay, which he is anxious to reveal as a source of stress and hedonic ineffiency. (He also optimistically suggests we should celebrate the income tax as a wonderful way of encouraging a healthy work-life balance.) But what I found most interesting was this: "Economists and politicians have tended to assume that when financial motives for performace are increased, other motives remain the same. In fact, these motives can change." Layard then cites studies that demonstrate that financial motives tend to compromise pre-existing motivations; it erodes what impulses we might have had to perform an action for its own sake: one found that people paid to solve puzzles will work at them less than those encouraged them to solve them merely for the satisfaction of solving them. Apparently once we are paid to do something, we begin to believe that the pay compels us to do it, and the activity takes on the qualities of disutility economists associate with jobs in general -- that we must be compensated financially to waste our time working rather than enjoying leisure. It seems that being paid is good way to destroy whatever pleasure we take in something; so strong is the alienating tendency of money and profit-tallying that when it intervenes we begin to separate from our involvement in what we are doing in the moment and revert to position of calculation -- thinking about the future, thinking about theoretical maximation ratehr than actualizing any of that potential in the present moment. This would seem to have the effect of keeping work and leisure unfortunately opposed to each other, a separation that seems to begin with the compulsion to sell one's labor on the open market for wages.

So as long as we remain dilettantish about our hobbies, we can enjoy them; when we professionalize, we turn them into chores. This explains part of my failure to pivot from researching a dissertation to defending one -- I enjoyed learning as long as it was a hobby of mine to understand trends in 18th century cultural production, but when it became a matter of packaging and selling that knowledge, I balked. This is what makes me something of a loser as far as our economy goes; I lack the willpower to be able to stomach the loss in pleasure that comes with professionalization -- another word for that ability to power through that hedonic loss? Ambition, which may be a desciption of the internal quality of finding pleasure in professionalization rather than tumult and combat and compromise and self-reification. I feel the same way about making music: As long as I have no ambition other than to get together with my friends and make music, I enjoy the pleasures of creation; but if we begin to try to market our band as cultural producers, we're likely to enjoy it less and see it as yet another job, a set of imposed responsibilities from without. But I still perceive these feelings as a kind of failure in myself, balking at the moment when "reality" requires me to summon up ambition and confront the world as it is and integrate the product of my creativity with it in the only apparent way possible: commercially. This is probably why I resent certain bands who are on the brink -- because their music suddenly seems about making those compromises and finding the wellspring of ambition to be more than dilettantes, to be content with more than just their own pleasure.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

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Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

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Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

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