Thursday, September 01, 2011

token time in the moronic inferno

There’s a passage in Control, John A. Mills history of behavioralism in America, that strikes me as a key to American capitalism as it goes through the autoimmune disorder that is so rapidly destroying the middle class.

Because behavioralism did not have a place for the mind, it was very dependent on experiments on animals, where one could supposedly see everything – such as the rats in the maze work that was so popular in American universities from the 30s until the 70s. It is from work with chimpanzees, according to Mills, that token economics developed into the ultimate control:

“Lindsley also conducted a study with Azrin on the effects of reinforcement on cooperation between children.47 They reported that cooperative behavior could be conditioned and extinguished without any verbal instruction regarding the tasks from the experimenters. Thus their study suggested that cooperation could be learned for the sake of reward, without recourse to

more complex explanations of the behavior.

Operant principles found their most ample application in token

economies. Token economies are staff-operated operant systems in

which the delivery of tokens controls the target population’s actions;

these economies are designed for use in institutional settings such as

mental hospitals, institutions for the mentally retarded, and schools.48

Versions of token economies were also used in jails. These systems

broke new ground in that the principles of behavioral science were applied

directly to nonlaboratory situations. As Kazdin commented, “it

is especially important to single out token reinforcement because it

has permitted a larger extension of programs than ordinarily is the

case with type [sic] of reinforcing events.”49 In institutions tokens are

awarded for the performance of basic social tasks, such as getting

dressed or helping to keep the ward tidy. In schools the usual “target behaviors” are the maintenance of an acceptable level of academic

performance or maintaining acceptable social behavior. Tokens can be

used to buy desirable items (e.g., cigarettes in mental hospitals) or to

gain access to social privileges (e.g., going to the cinema or gaining a

day pass in a mental hospital). Token economies provide us with a

paradigm for studying the role of operant reinforcement in the institution

and maintenance of acceptable patterns of social behavior.”

It is instructive to see the parallel between token economics and the Reagonomics/Neo-Keynesian paradigm under which the developed world has learned to accept the most absurd wealth inequalities and a lifestyle of decreasing reward for labor and increasing reward for shopping. In the world in which credit cards replace pay increases and zero down enters the bloodstream like the wickedest bit of cholesterol (was that your mortgage blowing up or a heart attack?), we are their chimps - in this moronic inferno, we have learned to keep the wards sparkly so long as we get a discount on the cell phone, plus some future flyer miles. The prob only really comes to a head when the scientists disband the lab, or the financial welfare queens disband some economy. Then all the tokens are worthless, because all the chimps have been guilty guilty guilty – in the eyes of the bond trader. Who, as is well known, is the only prophet we have left.

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