Typically, experiments involving the administration of random rewards and electric shocks are conducted on rats in laboratories. These experiments - all hellish enough to serve as Peta (People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals) recruiting material - have revealed much about rodents' reactions to cruel and totally arbitrary environments, in which there is no "right" or "wrong", and consequently nothing to learn. But if you look outside the cage - I mean, the box - you will see that the same kind of experiment is now being conducted using human subjects, and on a population-wide scale.
Consider the case of Stephen Crawford, former co-president of Morgan Stanley in the US, who was rewarded for three months of presiding over the company's decline with a $32m pay-off. That's $32m for screwing up - or, if we generously assume he put in 10 hours a day at this task, about $30,000 an hour. Contrast that with the person who cleaned Crawford's office during his brief tenure, and is likely paid far less than $30,000 a year for doing first-rate work. At least no one is attributing Morgan Stanley's problems to a build-up of dust bunnies in the executive suites.
Within the corporate culture in general, achievement is no longer connected to reward or failure to punishment. CEOs routinely see their earnings rise by millions while their companies' stock plummets. Meanwhile, at lower levels in the hierarchy, white-collar folks get laid off simply because they have been successful enough to make their salaries a tempting cost cut. Thus the relationship between accomplishments and success seems to have been inverted. "Wall Street has traditionally rewarded people who succeeded," a consultant on executive pay is quoted as telling the New York Times. "Now they are rewarding people who fail."
Moving into the realm of politics, take the case of Karl Rove, the man who - all the current evidence suggests - outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson in retaliation for her husband's refusal to go along with the myth of an Iraqi nuclear threat. If a Democrat were to reveal the identity of a CIA agent or otherwise leak classified material to the press, you may be sure he or she would be tarred, feathered and suspended from a lamppost within hours of the crime. But Rove carries on with his vicarious presidency - continuing to promote Bush's voter-repelling social security plan and playing a visible role in the selection of the new supreme court justice.
Far more serious crimes are no less amply rewarded. Of the top perpetrators in the various prisoner abuse scandals, Donald Rumsfeld still holds his post as defence secretary; Condoleezza Rice has been promoted to secretary of state; and torture-memo lawyer Alberto Gonzales has moved up to become the US attorney general. Only one general with a hand in the abuse - Janis Karpinski, the former head officer at Abu Ghraib - has suffered a demotion. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of US forces in Iraq, is being considered for promotion to four-star general, and Maj Gen Barbara Fast, his head of intelligence-gathering in Iraq, has been given command of an Arizona army base where soldiers are taught interrogation techniques.
And what about the war itself? Four years ago, a Saudi militant, based in Afghanistan, engineered the 9/11 attack, leading the US to invade ... Iraq. What message does this send to Norway or Lesotho? That when it comes to US foreign policy, there is no connection between crime and punishment, or even cause and effect?
It is too soon to say what the results of this first ever experiment on humans will be. Animals subject to "non-contingent" punishments and rewards - ie, those unconnected to any prior choices or behaviours - tend to get a little psychotic. In a classic study undertaken by psychologist Martin Seligman, dogs subjected to unavoidable shocks for no reason at all developed a condition called "learned helplessness", and lost the ability to avoid future shocks even when avoidance was possible. Similarly with rats: after being subjected to undeserved torments, they simply give up and huddle in a corner of their cage.
And never doubt for a moment that our leaders are capable of conducting such experiments on humans. In a recent edition of the New Yorker, Jane Mayer revealed that Seligman's results with tortured dogs have been of interest to the military, and may have influenced the bizarre treatment of "enemy combatants" in various detention spots around the world. Not to mention the fact that being held indefinitely without charges is itself a supremely non-contingent punishment.
I'm not saying "we're all in Guantànamo now", or anything as melodramatic as that. Most of us, after all, enjoy infinitely more comfortable day-to-day living conditions than those offered to detainees. But we are all being subjected to the same sort of experiment - and will be until we overcome our "learned helplessness" and get up on our hind legs again.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a social critic and essayist. Her book Nickel and Dimed (2002) was a national bestseller.
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