Give Bloomberg an A for Effort and an F for Research

Mike Bloomberg was on NPR this past week touting his plan to pay poor people (from private funds) to go to the library, get good grades, etc. (Listen here and also hear Steven Inskeep ask Bloomberg whether he's running for President about a half dozen times. Bloomberg says no each time.)

Traditional liberals have been cool to Bloomberg's proposal, arguing that it insults poor people. (See Diane Ravitch's reaction here.) But Bloomberg has three reasonable responses: 1) This is a capitalist society in which people respond to incentives; 2) If it's not insulting to pay wealthy agribusinesses not to grow crops, it shouldn't be insulting to pay poor kids to go to the library; and 3) It's just a pilot program so let's see if it works.

I'm all for experiments and thinking outside the box, but the problem here is that we have tons of evidence that paying people to do things usually undermines their intrinsic motivation to do those things. Translation: Give a kid $50 to go to the library and he'll go each time you give him another $50, but won't go just for the joy of reading.

It's possible to get around this effect: Perhaps the idea is that the kid gets $50 the first time simply to go somewhere he wouldn't otherwise go, then gets there, looks around and says "omygod, this library is the most totally awesome place in the freakin' world. i'm gonna borrow the complete works of Proust." Aha.

Given the wealth of empirical evidence on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, it's a little odd that Bloomberg concocted this plan. Perhaps he hasn't seen the studies. Maybe he needs to go check them out of the library. I wonder how big a check it would take to motivate him to do so.