On Consequence

5 minute read

Webster defines consequence as “something produced by a cause or necessarily following from a set of conditions”, e.g. the economic consequences of war. We often think of consequences as a direct reaction to some action, positive or negative. My dog knows there are consequences when he decides to have a snack out of the litter box, namely I yell “WRONG! BAD DOG!” a couple of times, open the door, and he gets to spend some time outside thinking about what he’s done. However, there are times (and I know this because I clean the litter box and there is never enough proof that two cats live in this house) when he’s home alone and gets to snack sans consequence. That’s because the consequence of my yelling at him and tossing him outside resulting from his action of eating cat poop is largely an artifact of whether I find out about his actions.

Typically, the severity of consequences that result from an action are dependent on the action. Drive home drunk from a bar and there is a chance that you will suffer the consequence of being arrested and charged with DWI. Drive home drunk from a bar the wrong way down the highway and kill three people and you WILL be charged with manslaughter at least. Consequence is a probability function based on both the action being discovered and the severity of the action. When my dog gets to stay at home alone and snack on cat poop at his leisure with no consequence, this is a bad thing as it relates to his good behavior because dogs don’t have the ability to rationalize past events with current or future consequences. For a dog, the consequence needs to be delivered in close proximity to the action. If I come home and find the cat box clear of all poop and yell at my dog, it does exactly zero good because he has no idea why I’m yelling at him.

If I want the canine behavior of eating kitty poop to cease, I have to take two steps. First, I have to prevent said behavior from happening when I’m not around to deliver consequences or I need to set up some sort of consequence delivery method for the times I’m not around. For example, if every time my dog sticks his head in the litter box, an RFID transmitter sets off an electric collar around his neck and gave him a little jolt, it would not be long before he ceased sticking his head in the litter box. This is how retrievers are taught to avoid snakes and it’s pretty effective. Alternatively, I could close the door to the room with the litter box when I’m not home eliminating the behavior entirely. Of course, that action has the consequence of having Rocky the cat take a dump in my shoe and thus instead of enforcing a desired canine behavior, my actions get negatively reinforced. I digress.

Second, I need to consistently and forcefully administer the same negative consequence every time the dog gets an inappropriate snack. If one time I congratulate him and give him a Milkbone and another time kick him viciously, he won’t connect the consequence with the action no matter how immediately the consequence is delivered. Negative behaviors must be reinforced with negative consequences and positive behaviors must be reinforced with positive consequences. If B.F. Skinner taught us anything, it is this.

With no consequences, behavior can run rampant. In the case of my dog, the behavior isn’t really that bad. Eating cat poop doesn’t seem to negatively affect his digestive tract, only my Puritan sensibilities. He doesn’t have any evil intentions when he does it. It’s just his poop eating nature. But when humans and corporations discover they can avoid all but the most minor of consequences, especially if the actions were malicious to begin with, then intentions can quickly become pointedly evil.

Last week, Halliburton the company pled guilty to a single criminal charge in relation to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. The company admitted to destroying evidence related to computer simulations of the number of collars used to keep the pipe centered in the well. Halliburton recommended twenty one collars but BP installed only six on the Deepwater Horizon. The computer simulations showed there was little difference between the two scenarios. Upon completion of the simulations, “unidentified individuals” directed employees to destroy the simulations in what must have been an attempted act of self-preservation.

For their crime, Halliburton was fined $200,000 and placed on three years of probation. The probation was probably from dying of laughter at a $200,000 fine, a sum smaller than many employees’ bonuses I would imagine. In contrast, BP agreed to pay $4 billion in its settlement with the Justice Department in regards to Deepwater. Transocean, the builder of the rig, paid a fine of $400 million. And yet Halliburton, a company that is pleading guilty to destroying evidence in what is one of the worst environmental disasters in our country’s history, paid a fine of $200,000. For some perspective, in the second quarter of 2013, Halliburton recorded a profit of $679 million on revenues of $7.32 billion (with a big capital B).

This is but the most recent example in a long line of sordid and sad examples of our government, sworn to protect the people, dealing out consequences to a corporation that couldn’t possibly incent the behavior we’d prefer. No one was fired. No one was even paraded up the courthouse steps. The company, not people, was fined and placed on probation. In what way could this possibly send a message the next time a decision has to be made on keeping evidence around that is damning to Halliburton? “Unnamed individuals” who direct employees to destroy evidence should be hung up by their toenails in the public square, not quietly allowed to remain anonymous. Without consequence, only anarchy reigns. To change society as it currently stands, we must actively police those who would take advantage of an era of no consequences and we must impart swift and meaningful consequences on those who break the rules. Without the accompanying shock of punishment, those amongst us who are immoral and power hungry will continue to run amok.

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, we have found ourselves increasingly immersed in a culture of moral hazard driven by the financiers of Wall Street and implicitly aided by the weak and ineffectual government we have created. The costs of these disasters are foisted upon the public at large and rarely find a roost with those who conceived and implemented the plots. The large banks are back to raking in billions of dollars while the people of America are left to struggle. Halliburton pays a laughable fine and continues with business as normal while the people of the coast suffer the consequences of Halliburton’s actions.

Until the destructive actions of these responsible parties are met with swift and vengeful consequences, we will continue to limp along barely existing while the rich and the powerful continue to feast on the spoils of the system.