Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Unanticipated Pain of Intended Consequences

If you want to encourage a certain behavior, you reward it. If you want to discourage an annoying or dangerous behavior, you punish it. I know this because I've had a number of behaviors discouraged in my life.

When I was a lad sitting in the front pew of the Mennonite church I was expected to sit there quietly. (Traditional Mennonite churches are rarely described as boisterous.) There was one particular Sunday, however, when Dad wanted me to stop rolling a penny up and down the pew. I was at first whispered at. This was followed by a threat. In retrospect, I would have saved myself a lot of shame and horror had I learned my lesson one penny-roll earlier.

I was taken by the hand and paraded from the front pew (where my Father, the chorister, sat during the service) for the 25 or so child steps it took to reach the door. Each agonizing step brought with it compounded fear. The shame of being paraded in front of the congregation was, at least during that fateful "dead kid walking" march, a fleeting secondary concern when compared to the agony my backside was soon to experience at the hand of a man who professed to be pacifist.

Birds took to flight when the warm and still Sunday morning quiet was briefly interrupted with the agonized wailing of a very repentant and tear streaked seven (or so) year old boy.

Behaviors that are discouraged become, over the course of time, fewer in frequency. This is not to say that every member of the masses responds to punishment, but simply that a majority of those within the masses will modify their behavior in favor of either reward or the avoidance of further punishment. As the numbers of those who are impacted by the reward or punishment increases, the impact of the behavior modification becomes more obvious.

Along those lines I submit to you two articles that highlight this phenomenon. First from Michigan where the state's recently enacted smoking ban in bars has greatly reduced an integral revenue stream earmarked for public education.

“We can definitely attribute that to the smoking ban,” said Andi Brancato, director of public relations for the Michigan state lottery. “Once that went into effect, the sales dropped.”

The losses in the county are reflected statewide, where Keno sales fell by about $22 million, down to $371 million.

The loss of revenue from Keno and other lottery games hurts school funding.

Contributions to the state’s school aid fund declined by 3.2 percent last year. The lottery disbursed $701 million to the school aid fund in 2010, down $23 million from 2009. Revenue from the lottery totals about 6 percent of the state’s school aid fund.

Then we go to Illinois where a smoking ban in casinos has cost the state an estimated $600 million since the law was enacted in 2008.
``I'm a non-smoker. I'm also an asthmatic. But I can count,'' state Rep. André M. Thapedi, D-Chicago, told the House Executive Committee as he presented the bill.
In case you were not aware, both Illinois and Michigan are struggling financially. They are both effective in one thing, however--punishing smokers.

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