Ladder Matter

June 18

Here’s a small idea, but an immensely important idea, and a very relevant idea in a nation that claims to be built on a foundation of incentive and the economic benefits of work.

Those who say ‘I worked hard and therefore this and that’ may be saying true things, but they are also missing something crucial too. It would be super if the motivations around work were as simple as people would like to believe, but across history and nations, the evidence is otherwise. Yes people want to climb ladders. But if the rungs are impossibly far apart, only a few superheroes will be leaping super-leaps.

CEO’s who like to brag about how hard they work also like to ignore the fact that working hard toward or for prodigious paychecks is just psychologically very different than working hard for next-to-nothing and few hopes of advancing. Upper-middle-class people who like to prattle on about deferred gratification like to gloss over the support-system encoddling of their heroic gratification-deferral, and the very low-risk nature and high-reward probability of those efforts.

It’s a simple fact that the psychological incentive structure looks, and feels, VERY different from a poverty-eye view. Want evidence? Look at the evidence then. If your fallback position is that the poor will best be motivated by out-and-out desperation or fear of starving to death, well, that can work too, I guess. But if that’s your best idea, then at least be honest and say it out loud.

Tom Toles is the editorial cartoonist for The Post and writes the Tom Toles blog.
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Tom Toles · June 17