On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B

Out of all the reading I did in my undergraduate classes, there’s one piece that stands out: Steven Kerr’s “On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B.” Written in 1975, its plain articulation of the mismatches between what we want versus what we reward – whether CEO’s who we hope will do long-term good with their companies but who are held accountable for quarterly results, or athletes who we hope take one for the team but who are compensated according to individual stats – shattered the innocence of my idealistic teenage self. Where is the hope, then, of getting what we really want out of others if our entire incentive structure is wrong?

The article continues to flavor my outlook as an urban Christian. Do politicians want to do best by their jurisdictions and residents, or do they want to maximize their chances of getting reelected, even if it means torching those jurisdictions and immobilizing those residents? Do non-profit leaders really desire to work their way out of a job (i.e. by eliminating once and for all the problem their organization is built to address) or do they seek instead to entrench that problem so as to guarantee the viability of their entity? And, shining the light back onto myself and my co-workers, do we consultants seek to add maximum value to our clients, or do we create dependency relationships such that we guarantee repeat work from them?

It is easy to tsk-tsk such behavior, except that we ourselves do it all the time, and not only do we not feel guilty, but we feel good about it. We make choices to move to better school districts so that our kids will get a good education, instead of sticking around to take part in the positive change that our current districts need for the benefit of all young families, most of all those who don’t have the upward mobility to be able to move around. Or we change churches in search of better programming, instead of banding together to be part of a potential solution at our current location. Or we start driving more again once gas prices sag or the new highway interchange gets built, opting for economy and convenience and forgetting all we’ve heard about the unpaid costliness to the environment of each additional car trip. These are all rational, even intelligent or noble choices. And yet we all would hope for B from others even as we choose A for ourselves.

What will it take to effect true change? Are some people just so incredibly altruistic that they will suffer personal hardship to do the right thing, and to call others to the same? Does it take trading short-term conveniences for long-term glory? Do we use big government to regulate our way to the right behavior? If these are the only approaches, I am left decidedly pessimistic and fearful.

But what if there were a critical mass of people who were not living for this world? Who had a value system that was all about being emptied out for others, about seeking justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with their God? Who were able to forego both immediate gratification for self and artificial praise from others, because they believed that their deeds were helping them store up treasure in the life to come?

Are not people who are wired this way those that can truly be businesspeople who run their operations for maximum community benefit and not just financial profit? Politicians who seek the good of their jurisdictions and their residents, and are not just looking out for the next election? Non-profit leaders whose greatest triumph isn’t institutionalizing the status quo that justifies the existence of their organization and their salary, but fundamentally fixing the broken parts of that status quo?

The Bible states that if we have believed in the resurrection for this life alone, we are of most men to be pitied, so there is a sense in which being a true believer means doing things that aren’t always appreciated or understood. And yet the Bible also states the importance of a good name, and celebrates and does not denigrate being a person with a good reputation. I think gets at a little of that apparent contradiction. This isn’t our final destination, there are no final treasures here, this isn’t even the body we’re stuck with. We’re free, then, not to not care about the very real issues and hurts and injustices and complications of this world, but to care about them in ways that others cannot. It should make us peculiar, even to the point of being thought of as a little loony; but it should also make us a little bit admirable, for being able to really give ourselves, in ways that are more authentic and vigorous and pure than if we didn’t have this particular worldview.

Alas, I can speak for myself that I am far less committed, far less genuine, and far less selfless than many others I know, who do not share what I claim as my belief system and yet who run circles around me in terms of their service and devotion and care and sacrifice. It is no wonder more do not believe in the Christian narrative that there is a life to come, for they do not see those who have bought into that narrative living as if it were true. Lord, work in us that we might trade in our shallow and worldly desires for grander and loftier ones; it is folly to hope for A while rewarding B, but it is no folly to believe in future glory and to order our present lives in response.

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