Author decries cost of pervasive incentive rhetoric

Robert McDonald, University of Kansas assistant professor of communication studies, with his new book, "Works Like a Charm: Incentive Rhetoric and the Economization of Everyday Life."

LAWRENCE — Ever feel like a hamster on a wheel, being forced to race for crumbs? Maybe when you’re offered a break on your health insurance premium if you’ll take part in a daily 10,000-step challenge?

Robert McDonald said this sort of financial incentive works only too well, which is part of why the University of Kansas assistant professor of communication studies resents the intrusion of incentives into virtually every facet of modern life, from health care to education to the legal system.

He lays out how this happened and discusses ways to counter the false choices we are too often offered from on high in his new book, “Works Like a Charm: Incentive Rhetoric and the Economization of Everyday Life” (SUNY Press).

While tracing the history of the incentive back to its Greek mythical etymology, McDonald lays the blame for its alienating quality today mainly at the feet of 20th century economists – epitomized by the University of Chicago’s Gary Becker – whose “parsimonious” philosophies have now metastasized into every other sphere of American life, McDonald said.

“The argument is that the tools of rhetoric help me understand precisely how that happens, how economic causality — supply and demand — becomes a universalizing explanation for every person's behavior,” McDonald said. “The word incentive becomes increasingly a load-bearing term that explains virtually every precept of how we behave rationally.”

McDonald devotes two chapters in the book to the concept of “nudges” — things governments, corporations and others with power do to push us in the direction they desire.

“The idea behind the nudge,” McDonald said, “is that what economists call a choice architect is, instead of directly coercing people to do something or asking them nicely, constraining their available choices in order to get them to choose the thing that they would have wanted them to choose in the first place. Obamacare is a great example of this where you are nudged by penalties; you are nudged by cheap cost to sign up for health insurance.

“So the argument is that what nudges do, ultimately, is break the back of universal social goods because they introduce choice, rather than saying, ‘This is the thing we are going to offer people.’ Basically, it gives a kind of alibi for why people wouldn't do such a thing.”

After diagnosing the problem, McDonald said, “What I advocate for in the final chapter is essentially a shift in the way we see ourselves, because we're frequently told we are individualized. We are frequently told that we are largely alone in the world, that people are coming for our jobs and so forth.”

“So my suggestion is largely about collective ways of seeing things. I use the example of the West Virginia public school teachers. They struck. They put themselves on the line. They risked their jobs. They risked their livelihoods, because of a lot of changes that were happening ... including around nudges ... their health insurance premiums being raised, expectations for them to ... have their bodies monitored, etc.

“And so my argument is that we have to look toward collective solutions, because we are always going to be told if you want a little bit cheaper health insurance, sign up for this and get your biometric scan, stuff like that.”

Photo: Robert McDonald, assistant professor of communication studies, with his new book, "Works Like a Charm: Incentive Rhetoric and the Economization of Everyday Life." Photo courtesy of Robert McDonald.

Tue, 09/26/2023


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service