Incentives Indeed

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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46 Responses

  1. j r says:

    This dynamic should, at the very least, raise troubling moral questions.

    It should, but that boat has sailed. Prepare to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the future as all sides in the political arena began orienting themselves almost entirely inward and increase to the degree to which they refuse to acknowledge perspectives from outside the ideology.

    The big trend in the online consumer sector is for everything to be curated; that is, for every piece of news and every recommendation to be delivered by a trusted source. The same thing is happening in politics.Report

  2. SaulDegraw says:

    I heard about the Goldman recordings.
    I can’t remember where from.

    I think a lot of liberals just feel despair over anything happening to encourage more regulation.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to SaulDegraw says:

      That’s great news, for Hillary.Report

    • Zac in reply to SaulDegraw says:

      Well, we’d feel a lot less despair if the party hadn’t been more or less entirely bought out by the financial sector over the past 25 years. It make it hard to hope for reform when their real masters aren’t the voters, but Jaime Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Zac says:


        Hey, you are preaching to the choir man. But basically, there are still a lot of Wall Street Democrats and the polls want their money. Plus lots of people still believe that deregulation is a complete good.Report

        • Zac in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          “Hey, you are preaching to the choir man.”

          Well, that’s how you get ’em to sing. 😉

          “But basically, there are still a lot of Wall Street Democrats and the polls want their money.”

          Which is why I think Lawrence Lessig is right when he says robust campaign finance reform has to be the left’s top priority. We can’t make real, permanent progress on any other issue until we fix the ability of the moneyed classes to buy our political system wholesale.

          “Plus lots of people still believe that deregulation is a complete good.”

          And they are wrong and need to beaten. Politically. Although the other kind probably wouldn’t be a bad idea either. 😉Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Zac says:

            Yeah I agree with Lessing though his campaign is sadly going nowhere. I’d love elections that are one hundred percent public financed but that could take a while. How long did it take the Democrats to get something with a large scale health insurance plan passed? Since the Truman administration by my reckoning.Report

            • Zac in reply to Saul Degraw says:

              Nobody ever said it would be easy. Of course, to my mind, to be truly successful you’d need to couple it with hard caps on wealth accumulation, but I suspect this is one of those areas where I’m a great deal more radical than either you or Lessig.Report

  3. Damon says:

    I’ve said this before…

    Investigative journalism? Why do some much hard work when you can sit on you ass, wait for the press released, re write it, call a “source” for background, and get your story out in time to go home? Bonus since you don’t piss off advertisers and you still have “access” to people and events (for free!).

    It’s lazy and irresponsible but it’s what we got now. I see this in my life daily. “Has x given you that info you needed to do y?” “No, I sent him an email”. They guy is less than 50 yards away and you’re too damn lazy to get off your ass, go up to his office, get in his face and get a response.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    The incentives for this sort of gotcha journalism were there in the past. In the late 19th century, they called it yellow journalism. Most people were never really into deep and important investigative journalism. People read newspapers as a source of entertainment. What was different back than is that many publishers and after radio and television, broadcasters, did believe in providing accurate and deep investigative journalism as a public service. The smaller media markets also made local news more profitable.Report

    • James K in reply to LeeEsq says:


      I think you’re right. In particular media used to be less competitive and media companies could use their supernormal profits to fund public interest journalism. With the greater competitiveness of modern media, there’s not the same financial scope for that kind of journalism.Report

  5. InMD says:

    The problem is that there has become an easy market for what I’d call bias confirmation journalism. Everyone can see great examples of it on their Facebook feed at anytime. The OP dug deep for his left wing example of it but all you have to do is google ‘uva’ and ‘rolling stone’ to see the same dynamic on the left that Fox News and the O’Keefes of the world have set up on the right. The lesson is that we all need to become more sophisticated consumers of information, lest we start believing in fairy tales about abortion as big business and rape culture.Report

  6. zic says:

    With Acorn, the Dems in Congress caved, and voted to defund; we didn’t get to see the real video until months later, to see what an absolute sham the whole thing was.

    We know that someone will bring fourth a bill to defund Planned Parenthood; and I hope there’s enough spine to stand up straight this time.

    The Goldman recordings are from This American Life; I wrote about it as a guest post here.Report

  7. CK MacLeod says:

    I agree with much of this post (TOD’S RIGHT!!!), but, if the problem of perverse incentives presents “troubling moral questions” at all, they are are different questions than the ones that interest Dan and most initial recipients of this fraudulently doctored video. (Tod’s wrong…)

    Firemen have an “incentive” to produce fires. Professional soldiers need wars, cops need criminals, doctors need disease, climatologists need the Day After Tomorrow, and conservative activists need liberals to be evil. The perverse incentives even point to real and complex problems from time to time, but I don’t see much moral trouble here in any immediate sense. Most everyone thinks that performing acts of arson in order to increase fire department funding or save fireman jobs would be wrong morally and ethically. So, no trouble so far.

    The unique problem that concerns Dan and and others is a different, more obviously moral question: They believe that the conception of children is a sacred matter, that it not only would be better but that it is morally (and soteriologically) necessary for us to treat the life of the unborn child as sacred, as the basis for any coherent and consistent concept of the sacredness of life at all. This matter is not one that can be sorted out abstractly and perfectly according to purely individualistic yet in theory universalizable abstractions, as attempted by OG Likko on his comment rescue thread, or solved by any particular policy as compared to any other, since every decision will seem to involve contradictions in the form “why does THIS matter so much, but not THAT?” If you do believe that the unborn child represents innocent life and all human potential in pure or as pure a form as we can know – symbolically that every baby is an image of the baby Jesus – then our treatment of it – as garbage or as tissue to be traded or experimented upon – must say very many supremely important and supremely troubling things about us. If you do not believe it says much about about us, because the “tissues” and the lives of which they were once a part do not matter or matter much – do not even need to be discussed, certainly do not need to be mourned – then that may also say something about us that is also important. To Dan, that we don’t seem to find ourselves even a little disturbed is itself disturbing.

    I can certainly see that the system of perverse incentives raises or ought to raise troubling ethical questions for journalists and politicians, but, as I noted, there doesn’t seem to be an authentically morally troubling question raised by it directly. Everyone thinks it’s bad, though we differ over who is primarily at fault and who is mainly resorting to self-defense. Is there a “moral” question raised indirectly by the fraudulent and empty nature of our political culture? Regardless of where you stand on the underlying question relating to abortion or choice, could the thing that disturbs Dan and others most fundamentally be connected? If so, then these repellent anti-abortionists would themselves be the proof of the moral decline they fear, perhaps in multiple ways.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      Man those tiny letters were so tiny I couldn’t quite make them out! I’ll just assume they said “Tod’s right.”

      As to the rest, well, yes… and no.

      I’ll add more to that unsatisfying answer tomorrow. but for now I be very sleepy and the bed she is singing to me…Report

    • SaulDegraw in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      I think this is partially what Lee has called the illiberal problem and liberal democracy. Democracy is a very fragile thing that operates on trust. Lots of trust.

      I get that there are going to be lots of issues that are very important and produce substantial disagreement. But the problem with this stuff is that it seems like a slippery slope to more authoritarian and less democratic techniques. Why can’t O’Keffe and others win on rhetoric? Why do they need to go to heavily edited sting operations?Report

      • aarondavid in reply to SaulDegraw says:

        Why heavily edited sting operations indeed. And why the bad reporting at Rolling Stone or, well we could both probably name thousands of issues like this.

        Because partisans gonna partisan.Report

      • James K in reply to SaulDegraw says:


        Because it’s easier to win an argument when you’re unconstrained by the truth. To anyone whose primary goal is winning arguments, the truth will eventually become an intolerable burden.Report

        • CK MacLeod in reply to James K says:

          That’s not right: It’s not an “argument” that is being won or lost, it is a power struggle that is being won or lost. It’s easier win a battle when you’re unconstrained by rules of war. You just make it much more likely that your enemy will employ the same tactics against you, or treat you very poorly if you happen to lose the war. Victory in the argument, if it’s an authentic victory, is independent of who happens to win the power struggle.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to SaulDegraw says:

        People like O’Keffe can not win on rhetoric because they believe the stakes are too high to win honestly and lucre.Report

  8. Will Truman says:

    the since debunked video

    This is one of the really interesting things to me. Which is to say that both sides seem relatively confident that the full video vindicates them and exposes the other side. Not just the charlatans and the dupes on the right, but… pretty much universally outside of the staunch libertarians (stalwarts and heretics, pro-lifers and pro-choicers) The video demonstrates that the initial claims are fundamentally true or sufficiently true to be disturbing. Whereas here it has been pretty objectively debunked to the point that people who can’t concede that… bad, in one form or another.Report

    • zic in reply to Will Truman says:

      The video demonstrates that the initial claims are fundamentally true or sufficiently true to be disturbing.

      The video, as originally presented (and presented here,) was a claim that Planned Parenthood is selling baby-body parts for profit. That’s been fully debunked.

      Are fetal tissues from abortions used for medical research Yes. Are the sold? Not for a profit, but for the cost of handling that tissue properly so that is is useful for research. One of the real troublesome things to people outside is the that a woman’s decision to donate the tissue for research means the provider will considers how the abortion will be performed based on the researcher needs. The optics and ethics of this, on the surface, discomfort.

      But we need to ask some other questions, too. Is that research important? Obviously, Parkinsons, spinal-cord injuries, heart disease are all subjects of research; more importantly (in the long term, not the short,) is understanding the mechanisms that activate fetal tissue to specialize; sci-fi zic sees that this is where we’ll get our ‘star trek’ medicine; learning how to tell our own cells to turn on and repair and replace.

      And when we’re discussing rights, the anti-abortion arguments about the rights of the fetus totally gloss the rights of the mother, and the rights of the mother are constitutionally protected. Were those rights better protected, there would be far fewer later-term abortions, first of all. the barriers of poverty and access and social condemnation are wait periods and unnecessary medical procedures (and their cost) are significant, and cause much delay. In fact, there are fewer and fewer later-term abortions, and for the third trimester, they’re virtually all due to medical necessity.

      So how do you square it? First, I’d say that if the research is valuable, then maybe those cells, when used in research, are a way to honor that life; to give it a sacred path in participating in the greater good of humanity. And the better we are at eliminating unwanted pregnancy, the fewer abortions we have, the more precious those few are for scientific research that will benefit all of us.

      I don’t like abortion; nobody likes it. But I still hold women’s right to their body first; and say that as adults, that right is linked with that responsibility; an unwanted pregnancy that ends in abortion is tragic, like donating organs of a dead child so that another child might live is a profound way to honor the child, perhaps this research is a way to honor a potential child.

      We are not going to eliminate abortion ever; too many pregnancies are complicated, birth control fails, rape happens. But we can minimize it, and we can recognize that when it does happen, donating the cells to research might help save other lives, and is a way to honor that potential life.

      But holding this discussion without the moral imperatives of the woman firmly in view — something that Dan never acknowledges might even exist — means he’s willing only to hold one side of the talk. His moral grounding, he demands, gets reckoned with respectfully; but his silence to me and my demand for equal respect (even if just in conversation,) is met with emotional execution. I don’t exist except as an abstract in his mind, I’m not worthy of even a response. That is bad form, particularly given that his original point — incentives to delay an abortion — is absolute nonsense.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to zic says:

        For personal reasons, I’m not going to get into the weeds of the argument, especially the ethics of it. I’ll just state that the notion that their making money on it has been thoroughly debunked by the full release remains contested on account of “a little better than breaking even”, some StemExpress literature, and believing that PP is not acting honesty.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Will Truman says:

          As I said up above, PP is not charging researchers for donations & tacking on a profit margin. Researchers offer a fixed amount for a donation, and if PP can keep their costs for acquiring and providing the donation below the fixed amount, they’ll be doing “a little better than breaking even”.

          These are two different things.Report

          • They are distinct things, and in some contexts different things. Here, though, I am not sure they would be different things as it pertains to the initial charge.

            I’m not going to go to the mat over this. This is really the last thing I want to be talking about at the moment. It’s just that outside of here it has not been so thoroughly settled as it has been here, and I don’t think that’s precisely because of what the people here think it is because.

            I’ll (try to) leave it at that.Report

        • Road Scholar in reply to Will Truman says:

          Well sure, it’s contested. But that’s not a particularly remarkable statement. “Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969” is contested, “President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman” is contested, “Bin Laden was responsible for 9/11” is contested … need I continue? Nearly every proposition beyond “my mind exists” is contested by someone. That the allegations are uncritically accepted as factual by folks who are already inclined to view Planned Parenthood and at least some of the work they do as immoral is particularly unremarkable. It’s also completely uninformative to the question of the validity of the claims. The real question is what are the strength of the arguments and evidence.

          The statement “a little better than breaking even,” viewed in context, including the context of scarcity of funding, says little more than “we can’t afford to lose money” and “exact costs are difficult to assess” and “therefore, we maybe have to bias our charges toward the upper end of the estimate.”

          Is that a charitable interpretation? Sure, because the statement is maybe a little ambiguous, but only if you strip it entirely of context. Don’t you prefer people to interpret things you say and write in context and with the charity of the benefit of the doubt?Report

      • PKR in reply to zic says:

        The second video that has been brought forth shows a negotiation over payments. Presumably, like most organizations, PP has an idea what its costs are, and could just say “here’s the amount we need to cover our costs.” Negotiating a price makes it sound like they’re trying to get as high a price above cost as they can, which is, by definition, profit-seeking.

        I don’t think that’s a slam-dunk interpretation, but I do think those who are so certain PP is doing no wrong don’t have a slam-dunk interpretation, either. Neither they nor their opponents are willing to think slow, hard, and honestly about this issue.Report

        • Chris in reply to PKR says:

          “We don’t want to be in a position of being accused of selling tissue and stuff like that,” Gatter says in the video. “On the other hand, there are costs associated with the use of our space, and all that kind of stuff.”


          • Chris in reply to Chris says:

            (The price she asks in the second video is $100). From here:

            We also asked experts in the use of human tissue for research about the potential for profit. Sherilyn J. Sawyer, the director of Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s “biorepository,” told us that “there’s no way there’s a profit at that price.” She continued in an email:

            Sawyer, July 20: In reality, $30-100 probably constitutes a loss for [Planned Parenthood]. The costs associated with collection, processing, storage, and inventory and records management for specimens are very high. Most hospitals will provide tissue blocks from surgical procedures (ones no longer needed for clinical purposes, and without identity) for research, and cost recover for their time and effort in the range of $100-500 per case/block. In the realm of tissues for research $30-100 is completely reasonable and normal fee.


        • Kim in reply to PKR says:

          Honestly? I’d rather we do something about the rampant child slavery and prostitution going on in America, rather than worry about children who can’t feel pain (or who, if they do feel pain, will do so only for a very brief amount of time).

          At least that’s where I’d point those who insist on seeing things in black and white — to a problem that actually has villains.Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to Will Truman says:

      There are several issues, and associated assumptions, involved at once. One issue would be whether the video offers any evidence at all for “PP is doing something wrong.” That issue is really a set of issues that break down into different notional wrongs, the most crucial of which opponents already assume to be true, and whose factual basis – that PP is involved in providing abortions, and that those involved accept payment for their work – would be borne out by any examination that even touches on the truth.

      Another set of issues revolves around how whatever case is made. I’m not sure how anyone who examines what was presented in the video versus the full video can reasonably deny that the latter was edited down deceptively to strengthen the case against PP: to make ambiguous or qualified statements pointing to lesser charges at worst instead look like certain, unqualified statements pointing to flagrant wrongdoing, or to make the PP executive look like a completely depraved individual rather than someone cognizant of moral and legal issues.

      That the evidence has been distorted doesn’t mean that PP is innocent of all charges, or that the video doesn’t contain actual evidence conceivably relevant to some charges, but it does mean that this case is tainted, and that encouraging the volunteer prosecutors is to encourage bad practices. For “political” people, who seek victory rather than truth, who don’t care who is defamed or destroyed in the process, and who don’t care about preserving the bases for a civilized sorting out of differences in a diverse society, the second set of issues are secondary, a distraction, or the kind of thing that only wimps and idiots unsuited to fighting and winning the real struggle worry about.

      We have had people on this site arguing from the “other side,” but on other issues, proudly proclaiming that point of view, that what matters is that the designated evil ones are defeated, not that we employ honorable or decent tactics in defeating them. I put the “other side” in quotes because on this matter the sides do not conform to our current configuration of “left” vs “right” coalitions. It’s not “both sides do it,” it’s a different two sides that divide both coalitions, that, as Saul and Lee note, fall into “liberal” and “illiberal”: Many on both sides “do it,” belong to the illiberal side of the liberal vs illiberal divide. The latter are people who tend to view what they’re doing as “war” or “combat” and who treat their political agenda as a holy crusade whether or not they use those terms.Report