Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Cobra Effect

Famous economics smart guys and frequent statistic manglers Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt talk about The Cobra Effect on their Freakonomics podcast.

This, according to them, is a case of financial incentives misfiring. The example is from the British Raj days of India, when the British offered a bounty on dead cobras. Far from reducing the number of cobras, this led to an increase, because people were breeding cobras just to get the bounty.

I think of that a lot in this job.

Basically, I work for a contracting company in a government / military program. We teach English to Middle Easterners for a year, prior to them joining a certain technical training program.

They get a very generous salary for this; somewhere between 3 and 5 thousand dollars a month plus accomodation and airfare and all that.

The problem is that only about 25 percent of them had any desire or intention to pass the technical training program, and most of them didn't care much about the English part of it.

See, rather than choosing the 200 students who came here through some kind of aptitude testing or choosing them based on their achievements or even asking for volunteers, they seemingly just chose them at random. (Although they chose them from a random pool of military people with good driving records, I understand. They are cracking down on crappy driving over there.)

Most of them arrived with practically no English, and not too much desire to learn. We only have 6 or fewer students in our classes, so it's not too much trouble to deal with them, but most of them really could care less whether they pass the tests or not.

And to complicate matters, if they voluntarily drop out of or quit the program, or if they get sent home for discipline reasons, they will have a splotch on their record which will endanger future career prospects, even at the oil companies or other industries. If they fail out, it's no big deal, they just get sent back home.

Basically, the only way to get home and see your family with no problems is to fail. Otherwise you might get stuck here studying for years, or even worse, you could finish the program and end up doing some difficult technical job.

Most students didn't care much one way or the other. Pass the tests? That means you keep getting salary. Fail the tests? You get to go back home, and continue to get salary.

There are a lot of changes going on in the ME now, though, due to the low price of oil, and as 2016 rolled around they started paring the dead wood out of this program.

Oh, how the guys laughed and cheered when they were told they'd failed out and were going home.

This program started out with 200 students towards the end of 2014; currently we have about 40. About 20 or 25 students have graduated and passed into the technical program. About 150 have been sent home. The remainder are now desperately trying to pass the tests before Ramadan, and many have sort of "accidentally" not managed to fail yet. (That's how easy the multiple-choice tests are.)

But as I said, this isn't the worst job I've ever had, though it's far from the best.

Fortunately I seem to have something better lined up for September -- although no contract signed yet -- but I'll keep that a secret for the moment.