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Income inequality

By Jim Killebrew

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[January 09, 2014]  The president apparently thinks he is going to have a winner in this off-year election in the form of preaching to the people about "income inequality." His same tired, old line of "class envy" he was preaching in 2008 and 2012 has been resurrected to take the stage again during the upcoming election to use those whose incomes are lower as a slap in the face to those whose income is higher. It is warmed-over "redistribution" in newer, more classy terms.

Over the past four years plus his policies have essentially decimated the middle class. While it is true since the feds have dumped a ton of newly printed money into the stock market, the rich have indeed gotten richer. Those who have individual retirement accounts have seen their portfolios engorged by the effects of the feds' money tsunami into the market. Those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, however, who have no investments nor the types of jobs that partially contribute to IRA accounts, are feeling the effects of their inflated money buying fewer things. This is the condition the president seems to like to point out to the nation's citizens, that somehow, there is an inequity between those who have money, jobs and resources as compared with those who have no jobs, money or resources.

The major thrust of the president's solutions center around increasing taxes, spending more on social programs, providing "bailouts" for those he deems are in trouble, increasing wages to a much higher "minimum" wage and of course, increasing the amount of time unemployment insurance pays out benefits. The flip side of that coin seems to be the actual practice of that type of economy that can be studied in many countries in Western Europe, where indefinite unemployment benefits have stretched to years, higher minimum wages are paid for entry-level positions, and social programs have pushed economies closer to bankruptcy or government insolvency.

Just for fun, let's try to use some of the tried-and-true learning principles on the president's ideas to end the problem of income inequality.

Most everyone has heard of behavior modification. If not, then many people have at least heard of the Pavlovian dog that salivates at the sound of a bell. This classical form of conditioning operates almost innately in our own lives. We have been "conditioned" to respond to certain environmental stimuli at the moment our senses perceive them. On a cold, brisk fall day, after working hard all day, we stop by the grocery store to pick up something for dinner. The butcher shop has cleverly cooked up a giant pot of chili that wafts the aroma throughout the store. We walk through the front door, immediately our mouth waters as we pick up the aroma, and the bet the butcher made with himself wins. As we pass the meat counter, we pick up a package of homemade chili to take home for supper. That is a learning principle. We have behaved in a way through a classical sense of responding to a certain set of environmental stimuli that propelled us to the meat market, allowed us to "choose" a certain food for our next meal that had not been even considered prior to arriving at the store.

Another scientist, by the name of B.F. Skinner, later took the other side of that learning principle and focused his research on the responses to that behavior rather than the stimulus to that behavior. In the educational world it has been taught as "operant conditioning." In operant conditioning researched thoroughly by B.F. Skinner, who was called the "Father of Behaviorism," a major component in that theory and learning methodology is that, anything that is reinforced after it occurs is usually strengthened and tends to be repeated. The more it is reinforced positively, the stronger it becomes. This is so ingrained in learning theory that teachers all over the world rely on it in their teaching. Conversely, anything that occurs without contingent reinforcement has a tendency to weaken in strength and ultimately disappear. This is sometimes referred to as extinction. So, if a child does appropriate things and is reinforced with positive reinforcement, those appropriate things tend to strengthen and the parent sees more of them. On the other hand, if behaviors like tantrums are ignored and not followed by reinforcement, the tantrum behavior tends to weaken and ultimately disappear.

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Going back to our unsuspecting shopper in the grocery store, we have seen the effects of classical conditioning through the choice of chili for supper. Now, the wise and well-educated store owner uses another learning theory related to operant conditioning to further enhance and strengthen his "repeat" business. It is a mild punisher to be told the "bottom line" cost of the groceries just purchased. In normal circumstances that may act as a "punisher" and thereby cause the shopper to reduce the amount of shopping at that store.

However, through operant conditioning with reinforcement, the cashier, with a broad smile, announces you have "saved" $10.40 on your shopping for the day. Additionally, you are rewarded for shopping there by receiving an entire list of "coupons" printed on the back of the register tape that will give you "cents off" for your next purchase. Additionally, you may even receive some "savings stamps" you can use toward obtaining some item you wanted. Finally, a cute, energetic, young teenager will cheerfully help you out to your car with your purchases and pleasantly say, "Thank you, and hurry back to (this store)." You have just been classically conditioned and reinforced (operant) for your choices and behaviors that will have you revisiting that store many times.

If this principle is so ingrained in the learning paradigm, and people respond to it in the natural environment, what is the rationale for extending the practice of paying people for as many as two years a salary for not having a job? A person making minimum wage of $7.25 working 40 hours would receive a gross paycheck of $290 a week. At the same time a person who is unemployed, drawing a gross of $400 a week, the payment for not working is $10 per hour.

Isn't the same principle in effect? If each week a person is paid almost $400 for not having a job, or $290 a week for working 40 hours, what would be the motivation for getting a job after the person has been paid each week for two years? Isn't that process exactly the opposite of learning theory? Just asking.

Don't misunderstand what I am saying. I want everyone to have a job; I want everyone who needs and wants to work to have a salary high enough to support themselves and their family. I just don't understand the logic of the government politicians who are insisting we pay someone more money per week for not working for as many as two years, with a higher non-working salary than those people who are working 40 hours per week for $110 less than those who are not working. It makes sense only in the fact it is a job-killer rather than a job-motivator. Perhaps someone can explain the dynamics of this and how it works contrary to learning theory, and yet still makes sense.


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