The treadmill conundrum

We now have a Conservative government in power in this country (give or take a very strange attempt at a Liberal Democrat party). As a result, there’s lots of comment in the news about ‘reducing inefficiency’ and ‘getting the work-shy to do their fair share’ and other such political statements. It’s got me thinking about an idea I had ages ago to try and come up with a social setup that could be successful at encouraging everyone to do their fair share.

To try and reason out how this could be done, I thought up a fictitious room. In it, a group of people would be standing on a treadmill. They would run on the treadmill and thereby generate power. To keep them going while doing this work, food and drink would be given to them at regular intervals while they ran on the treadmill. This, in a very simple way, could represent a society. People work together to generate output and receive sustenance in return.

Now, in an ideal world, everyone on the treadmill would make the same effort, driving the treadmill along and generating the energy required to feed them. If that happened, then it would be fine for them all be given the same amount of food, however fast they ran on the treadmill. This would be the communist approach to the treadmill. A set amount of food for everyone, regardless of how hard they worked.

The problem with this is that if everyone on the treadmill finds out that they will get a set amount of food however hard they worked, there’d be a terrible temptation to go slower. If they were clever, they could all talk loudly about how much faster they were going, when in fact they were going slower. The communist five year plans did such a thing. They just kept making the targets lower and lower, year after year so everyone could still congratulate each other (reminds me of another marker of social achievement). Eventually though, the whole thing grinds to a halt. Perestroika doesn’t really help. By that time, the runners are so unfit that they couldn’t speed up if they tried.

One way to prevent this grinding to a halt is to set a minimum speed for the treadmill. Sounds like a great answer, but the problem with this is that someone is bound to be unable to meet that minimum pace, either out of lack of motivation or physical inability. They’d fall off or get off the treadmill. If that happens, what do you do with that person? You could feed them just like the others, but if you did that, most of the other runners would get off too. Instead, you could give them food, just not as much food as the others. This would be the welfare state approach.

This doesn’t sound too bad. If not too many people get off, the treadmill keeps going. The problem is that there’s less people on the treadmill and those people have to work a little harder. It’s also tempting for some people to get some food and sit about, rather than a full quota of food and run constantly. When the treadmill needs to be run a little harder, many of the runners will start casting resentful eyes at the sitters. ‘Give them less food!’ They’ll shout. The only problem with this is if you give the sitters too little food, they’ll be emaciated skeletons. They’ll soon be no good as runners anyway, particularly if some rest might actually help them run again.

Another answer is a lot darker. If they can’t run, shoot them! This is the Spartan approach. The only problem with that is you can end up killing people that could have been very good runners if you’d given them a bit of a breather. You also end up with less and less people. This is probably why the Spartan approach and every other ultra-fascist plan has lasted less time than the communist ones.

What if we tried to instil some material motivation? One possibility is to give a runner an big extra amount of food and drink if he or she puts in more effort; use the carrot rather than the stick. We can call this the bonus approach. There is a problem with this as well. The treadmill can only go at one speed. If one of the runners goes faster, the rest have to go faster. What’s worse for the rest of the runners is they’re going faster and they didn’t get a bonus. Only the first one to do it did. Running has just got a lot harder. One of them is bound to think ‘if I go faster, I’ll get a big bonus of food and be okay’. They do that and they are okay. The only problem is, now all those who haven’t had a bonus yet are running even faster on the original amount of food. There’s some historical precedence for this one. A generation or so ago, one member of the family could work for forty weeks and pay for a house and other costs. Now, it is standard for both adults in a family to work for forty seven weeks a year. In America, they work for fifty weeks a year and many don’t even take their two weeks holiday for fear of showing lack of motivation. The treadmill runs very fast in the States. By comparison, France’s treadmill is a much more easy-going pace but they all get food. Why such a difference? Considering its vast mineral wealth, you have to wonder where all the U.S.’s extra treadmill output goes.

What else can we try? We could inflict pain on runners who slowed down but that would only make them ill and injured. That wouldn’t help for very long. I’m stumped. We could try and change the minds of everyone so that they would all want to run and alter their physical bodies so that they would all be able to run. You could call that the mad scientist approach but we’d just be left with a bunch of robots, or clones.

If anyone can think of a treadmill system that works, do send me a message. I’d love to see a successful plan. There must be some way we can all happily run together...