Sunday, August 14, 2005

Incentives Matter

Describing late 19th/early 20th century Alabama:
Instead of receiving salaries, sheriffs and court officers were paid on piecework, by warrant served or arrest made. This created such an incentive to perform their duties that every year 30 percent of Birmingham's population was arrested. The fee system fed off Christian piety, which made not just drinking and gambling but "the playing of any baseball, or football, or tennis, or golf on Sunday in any public place" a misdemeanor in Alabama, subject to a $50 fine -- or, if the golfer couldn't pay up, work in the mines. On Sundays, the Jefferson County sheriff sent provocateurs into the mining camps to entice workers (mostly black) into gambling on cards or dice. In the midlle of the game, sheriff's deputies appeared out of nowhere and placed the miners under arrest. The sheriff pocketed his fee, the state collected its lease money [on convict labor], and Tennessee Coal and Iron or Pratt Consolidated put another batch of convicts to work, at a third the cost of what they'd been paid as "free" workers a day before they were foolish enough to roll dice with a stranger.
--George Packer, "Blood of the Liberals," page 37


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