On Incentives

"Never penalize those who work for us for mistakes or reward them for being right about markets. It will go to their heads, is counterproductive and, in any event, material compensation will not correlate with their ability to predict the future next time."

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Temple Speech

As you all know, memory plays tricks on us.  It is typically suspect and self-serving.  Moreover, sometimes our memory reflects wish fulfillment.  We connect the dots in a way that reinforces some deep-seated desire for cause and effect.  I am not immune to those tendencies.  But nonetheless let me share with you some recollections.  For me, public speaking, debate, rhetoric, has been the center of my professional life and, for my friends and family, they also will say, my personal life.  Indeed, it started even before I entered Temple.  I was reciting poetry in my kindergarten class, imitating dialects and radio programs in grammar school, taking elocution lessons before my teens and making speeches on graduation from elementary school and high school.  But it was all rhetoric and technique—an almost 19th century oratorical style—imitating my father—a dynamic and highly effective public orator, but in a style that even then sounded overly theatrical.  It was not until Temple that I met John Roberts, Gordon Hostettler, Bob Haakenson and Harry Weinberg.  They tried to teach me, formally and informally, about logic, language and how to communicate.  I remember Gordon Hostettler asking how we would prove that Ploglies were not little creatures of the night who would come out while we are sleeping and invisibly turn on the electrical current to give us light when we later flipped the switch.  And Harry Weinberg, who taught general semantics, explained the futility of meaningless questions—those that could not be answered empirically, such as, “when does life begin,” is there a soul,” and “are we by nature loving or hostile.”  And Gordon taught us all about undistributed middles.  We were taught the difference between “blue is the most beautiful color” and “most people believe blue is the most beautiful color” and “most people will say that blue is the most beautiful color” and which of those statements could be proven true or false.  But of course Harry Weinberg would take the sentence and ask, what do you mean by “believe,” or “what is blue” and ask us then to define “what” and then what “is” is.  I remembered that with a smile when I heard, decades later, it depends on what “is” is. 

Since I left Temple, I probably have made hundreds and hundreds of speeches all over the world, seminars, lectures, even a TV program called Debates, Debates.  I tried to remember the lessons:  First, it’s the content, not the delivery.  Second, say what you mean.  Third, relax.  Fourth, the word is not the thing.  Fifth, know the difference between values and facts.  Sixth, between induction and deduction.  Seventh, find the hidden premise and pursue it.

We used to meet and hang out together—all of us on the debate team—not to discuss only stuff like that, but rather, politics, war, what is now called civil society.  The Debate Society was the place we went before, between and after classes.  It was the place where we decided we would not go to Washington to participate in a debate because one of our colleagues, Obidiah Poe, was not allowed to stay in the hotel because he was African American.  That was a high spot.  I also remember the elation of my debate partner, Sheldon Rappaport, who unfortunately cannot be here today and sends his regards to everyone, when we debated the University of Pennsylvania for the state championship.  They were represented by a formidable team.  I remember the names -Arlen Spector and Marv Katz. The subject was, “should Communists be allowed to teach in public schools.”  There were also some disconcerting aspects.  There was a men’s team and a women’s team.  Men could not debate women and women could not debate men.  Mary Hamilton was the coach and Anita Schmukler was the star.

Debate, argumentation, public speaking, became for me all encompassing.  As I said, it has touched every part of my later professional life.  Hopefully, it taught me to discourse with civility and to understand what drives the other side.  But, it also made me adversarial (there goes the specious cause and effect), always looking for undistributed middles, hidden premises, inconsistencies, and meaningless questions.  That never went away.  Thank you for honoring me here tonight.