Sunday, November 18, 2012

Two monkeys walk into the EEOC . . .

A friend sends me this link to a video of research done on Capuchin monkeys concerning payment for learned tasks. The essence of the video comes at the very humorous moment when one monkey discovers that the other monkey is being paid "unequally" for the same task. It is said that the first monkey is "rejecting" the "unequal" pay with the implication that you as a human should do the same. The caption/punchline below the video reads, "If monkeys reject unequal pay, shouldn't you?" We can't really assess from the brief video the meaningfulness of the research. This isn't about the Capuchin, Donnie. But we can comment on the implied call for pay equality and the rather pedestrian approach to the argument.

It would really be something if the second monkey rejected the "unequal" pay (actually getting a more desired grape instead of a less desired cucumber piece). Or if a third monkey went on a hunger strike in protest. The fact that the first monkey only realizes the visible grapes are actually available for payment after the second monkey attains one is impressive (or at least interesting--perhaps this says something about how little we expect of monkeys).  But it is only upon completing the task a second time and then not being awarded a grape that the protest begins. The first monkey didn't connect the "unequal" pay backward to the prior task--she didn't protest immediately upon seeing the second monkey get a grape. Maybe this is the truly remarkable part: The first monkey learned something about the market price for completing the task and appropriately raised her reservation raise.

Higher life forms (those who understand economics like this monkey) understand that the market is a discovery process. It isn't so simple to say what is or is not equal pay. The second monkey seems to get this too in that he doesn't feel ashamed for receiving "unequal" pay. In fact in the human world there are a number of reasons why two people apparently in the same situation presumably performing the same task would in fact receive different compensation. There is nothing inherently unjust or inefficient about it. To assume so is to beg the question about under what circumstances the difference arose.

It seems the first monkey not only understands economics but also understands property rights as well. By reserving her protest for higher wages until after completion of the task a second time, she makes clear that she doesn't believe she deserves the same deal the other monkey got. Rather she is just insisting and aggressively negotiating a new compensation package. She knows that a fair deal isn't "fair" simply and only because it is "equal" to another seemingly identical situation. It is fair if all parties to the deal agree to it freely without force, coercion, or fraud regardless of the comparable deal struck by other parties in another situation. While most monkeys have been diligently working themselves up from nothing into a state of extreme poverty, this one has been studying Locke not Marx.

Yes, I'm reading into this a little too deeply, but live by the exaggerated metaphor, die by the exaggerated metaphor.

If monkeys reject bad economics and faulty understanding of property rights, shouldn't you?