The Economics of Shame

by Russ Roberts on September 4, 2007

in War

The U.S. military is giving away soccer balls in Fallujah trying to buy love. Noah Schachtman at Wired explains (HT: BoingBoing):

We walked past piles of rubble and hulks of rusted cars, alongside a
slow-rolling convoy of Iraqi trucks and American Humvees.  One of the
Hummers had a loudspeaker, telling the people to stop supporting the
insurgents, and to come get their treats.  A
crowd quickly gathered – children first.  They’re always the first to
show up.  “Meester!  Meetser!  Football!” they’d shout, holding out
their arms.  “Ani?  Maku,” I’d respond, brushing my hands together –
the symbol for being all out.  Then I’d point in the direction of the
Iraqi soldier tossing balls into a thickening scrum of pre-teens.  The
kids would race off, squealing in delight.

But, after a while, the number of balls started to dwindle.  After
every toss, there was a wrestling match.  The bags of food – mostly
staples like rice – caused a similar commotion.  An Iraq Police truck
would slow down.  A trio of cops would toss the yard-high white bags
onto the street.  People would shout and point and nudge each other out
of the way, demanding they get their fair share.  The cops would scream
at everyone to chill out.  Then they’d get frustrated, and start to
drive away.

We made a right onto a double-wide thoroughfare.  I stared at the
skeleton of an amusement park ride lay by the side of the road; kids
had repurposed it as a metallic playhouse.  Then we heard the crackle
of automatic weapons fire.  And then second burst.  “Get inside the
vehicle!  Inside the vehicle!” a nervous sergeant screamed at me.  I
nodded, and kept on walking.  The fire was way, way off in the
distance; no need to get overly-dramatic.

More concerning was the looks on people’s faces.  If the goal here
was to win hearts and minds, it wasn’t working.  Early smiles had
turned to blank stares.  Something feels wrong.  I couldn’t put my
finger on what.  But something.

"Standard" economic theory predicts that free soccer balls make people happy. But there’s more to life than soccer balls. Adam Smith understood that pride and shame and honor matter, too:

“Mac” Macallister, a consultant working for the Marines, shakes his
head when I tell him about the scene, the next day.  He’s spent years
on end studying Middle Eastern history and tribal culture – and the
Sunnis of Anbar are definitely tribal. 

He greets me a shout of “Utnapishtim!  Utnapishtim!” when we meet –
the ancient Mesopotamian name for Noah.  “Man, you’re from like… right
here!” he says, jabbing his finger at a patch of southern Iraq.  Mac
has a bushy, red-and-gray beard, and wider-than-wide blue eyes.  He’s
wearing a pair of faded jeans and red polo shirt.  It makes him look
more like a hippie professor than retired Army major.   And he talks in
rapid-fire bursts, paragraphs at a time, stopping only to light
cigarettes.

The first thing Mac tells military leaders coming into the area is to focus on shame and honor, not hearts and minds.

“I, as an individual, may want that kid to have a soccer ball.  But consider the effect, okay?” he says.

Shame and honor are “limited resources,” Mac explains.  “They’re
exchanged like currency.  And it’s a zero sum game.  If I embarrass
you, I take some of your honor, and you give me some of your shame.
Now you want to do something to get it back. 

“The father, off to the side, is thinking, ‘Hey, that’s my job.’ So
you’ve shamed him.  He might also know that the kid doesn’t deserve
it.  Shamed him again.  And if you give the ball to the little kid, he
could get beat up, since the bigger ones prey on the littler ones. More
shame.  So does that father grab an Ak-47 and do a drive-by, to get
back some of his honor?”

Okay, the soccer-for-shooting exchange is a little extreme.  But the
Marines on the scene realize this little excursion didn’t exactly set
the right tone.  So the next day, they go out again.  This time, the
Iraqi policemen carry the food bags to people’s doors, instead of
tossing them out into the dusty alleyways.  The hand the soccer balls
out, one by one.  This time, there’s no gunfire.  And happier faces.

 

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