Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Five

Bob Fiske

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Five

CLICK HERE to go to Part Four

Erasing the debt.  Our relationship to the earth has been one of taking and not of giving.  We—all of humanity—have accrued a huge debt.  We have not made a sincere, planet-wide effort to begin making payments to repay the loan.  The big question that will get in our way is this: Who’s going to start?  Which person?  Which neighborhood?  Which city?  Which state?  Which country?

This is not an idle question; it’s a central one.  Just witness the difficulty we are having with climate change related to global warming.  The collective efforts to reign in human production of greenhouse gases (so-called atmospheric carbon and carbon equivalents) continue to stall.  The talks are marked by in-fighting and failure to come to consensus.

What most people fail to recognize is that global warming is just one of several “overshoot problems” looming on, or just over the horizon.  If we’re having this much trouble with the global warming problem—for which replacement technologies already exist—then how are we going to deal with other pollution excesses and resource shortages, not to mention destabilization of the greater biosphere beyond the pale of human concern?

The new human nature.  My answer is a shift in values.  Change ourselves.  If we can flip our taking behavior over to giving behavior, then the question of “Who will start?” may evaporate.

For many, this new direction may be an almost insurmountable challenge.  In the book of Genesis, God instructs Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, and to take dominion over the earth.  In some religious traditions, these statements are regarded as God’s first commandments to humanity.  I view these statements as somewhat more than mere commandments.  They are concise, brilliant expressions of human nature.

Looking at the broad scope of human history, is it not obvious that our natural inclinations have lead us down the path of “mastery over the earth”?  Our successes in this regard are a logical outgrowth of our basic nature.  Or is it?  What is missing from this description of human nature?

What if we were to recognize that human mastery of the earth—the cause, one might say, of our unquestioned taking from the earth—is only one half of our nature.  In that case, it might not seem quite so impossible to change our nature. 

Changing our nature might appear to be a process of forcefully suppressing our “base desires”.  That is an unpalatable notion.  But the problem can be turned around.  Perhaps there are parts of our nature that are already being suppressed, making it seem as though we are nothing more than taking creatures.

I maintain that fully human beings are more than taking creatures.  Animals are taking creatures.  They respond to motivational forces and show no capability to restrain those motivations.  Only human beings can consciously exercise restraint.  It’s true that many times we don’t want to do that—unless we are provided with a compelling reason.  Nonetheless, it is a capacity we have that is unique in the kingdom of living beings.

What else can fully human beings do?  We can think about and judge our own actions.  We can look back upon something we have done and conclude that that action is not desirable or socially acceptable.  Again, we often do not wish to do this because of emotional barriers such as shame or guilt making us want to hide our actions from others or ourselves.  But if we have sufficient reason, we can override these barriers.

I have given just two ways that mark fully human beings as more than taking creatures: self-restraint and integrity.  Furthermore, if we consciously take ownership of these traits (and other fully human traits), it will become easier to reign in the part of us that exists only to take.  Our full human nature can “naturally” lead us away from fruitful multiplication and dominion over the earth.  Our full human nature can lead us to own that part of our humanity that is rooted in integrity and responsibility for our actions.

And so, I have a proposal to begin our reprogramming of ourselves into giving beings.  This is coming in the next section of this essay.

Another Path to Self-Worth: Nobility.  I have argued so far that our economic system has embedded within most of us a “deep value” that guides many of our choices.  This value is reciprocity, which can be understood as the drive to engage in fair exchanges.  We are so well conditioned in this way of thinking that many of us determine our sense of self-esteem or self-worth based on how effective we are at conducting fair exchanges.  For most adults this occurs firstly through the activity of earning a living.

To illustrate this I will ask you to imagine a person that has developed a severe illness that will require an extended period of recuperation.  Consequently, the person will have to stop working.  If the person is fortunate, he or she may have some kind of worker’s compensation that keeps some income flowing into the bank account.  Nevertheless, this person feels uncomfortable about not working and impatiently waits for the doctor to release him or her to return to work.  Have you ever met a person like this?  Maybe it was even yourself.

When people are denied the opportunity to work they often feel inadequate and may even sink into a state of depression.  I would suggest that this makes perfect sense if generating income for the purpose of engaging in reciprocal exchanges (buying stuff) is the primary means that people have been taught for arriving at a sense of self-worth.  Consequently, people will become highly invested in maintaining a system where self-worth is organized around reciprocity, or fair exchanges.

However, this is a distorted picture of human psychology, as well as of the entire system governing the well-being of the world.

Martin Seligman, who wrote a book entitled Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment talks about a fellow psychologist who built a career on a phrase he learned from his mother when he was a boy.  If the mother found her son moping around, she would say, “If you’re in a bad mood, go find somebody to help.”  This idea brilliantly reminds us that self-worth is not only about exchanges.

Yet our economic system seems to have forgotten this.  It is no wonder, then, that the field of economics has lead us down a path toward ever-increasing imbalance.  It is no wonder that citizens of developed countries, and the United States in particular, are having trouble reclaiming a sense of self-worth.

Summary of Part Five.  In our relationship to the earth, it is time to start repaying the debt.  Who will take the lead?  Suppressing our desire to take might appear to be an insurmountable challenge.  Maybe the answer is to un-suppress other aspects of our nature.  The fully human being is endowed with capabilities such as self-restraint and judgment of actions as good or bad.  There may be other suppressed capabilities of the fully human being.  Expanding these capabilities will help temper our taking nature.  Additionally, our economic system is tied in with the methods we use to achieve a sense of self-worth.  If self-worth is primarily achieved through earning an income and buying goods and services, then this, too, will impair our ability modify our taking nature.

CLICK HERE to go to Part Six.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Four

Bob Fiske

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Four

CLICK HERE to go to Part Three

An Experiment.  The value of reciprocity is very hard to shake off.  To make the point, we can try a little experiment.  Suppose you find a penny on the sidewalk.  Then you pick up the penny and put a nickel in its place.  Then you tell all your family members what you did and suggest that they do the same.  I predict that the large majority of them will look at you like you are crazy. Even if you are able to explain to them why you did it (see below), they will not get it.

If you do this experiment, be prepared for responses like this: “You idiot, you just lost four cents.”  “Are you nuts?  You picked up a penny!”  “No wonder you can’t pay your bills, look how you handle money!”  “What?  Where’s your payoff for that?”

By the way, there are other ways you can act “crazy”.  Got a little spare change?  Put it in a vending machine when nobody is looking.  Or walk down a street that has parking meters.  See a meter set to expire, and add a quarter to it.  These senseless acts can do you no good and earn you no profit.  (Unless you count the possibility of making someone a little bit happy as profit.)

The world is imbalanced because the human system of exchanges is imbalanced.  We have been taught that nothing that people do happens without a payoff.  We are conditioned to judge the payoff before we choose.  Why does that make for a broken system?  Because while we are busy with our value exchanges, which we regard as fair, we are ignoring the debts we owe to the earth, to its people and to all other forms of life. That is not fair.  Our economic system, that we designed to keep exchanges fair has no room in it to account for “invisible” debts.  We mortgage the welfare of poor countries, the earth, the biosphere, and the future condition of the world that our descendants will inherit every time we make value exchanges that ignore the true costs of production and disposal.

The Other Side of the Coin.  If reciprocity is the underlying deep value that guides our value exchanges, and if it is not a trustworthy guide, then what might we establish in its place?  In a word, “non-reciprocity”.  Allow me to explain.  I am not talking about selfishness.  Nor do I mean a breakdown in a lawful society such that “might makes right”, and the strongest take from the weakest.  In fact, I would suggest that our reciprocity-based system has already moved us in these directions.

As members of one of the world’s “Major Economies”, we have bought the rights to natural resources buried in the ground of “Minor Economies”.  We have exploited impoverished workers by paying factories to hire them at non-living wages.  Who is going to stand in our way?

As big-brained humans, the smartest species on the planet, we have over-exercised our might and our right to take from the earth.  In the name of inexpensive meat, we burn forests.  In the name of our personal health, we plunder the fish stocks of the oceans.  In the name of housing tracts and business development, we crowd out endangered species.  Who is going to stand in our way?

As a perpetually fertile animal, we have a natural ability to procreate.  We do this in the name of giving our children a better life than our forebears had.  We do it in the name of immortality.  Unlike other species, we have no predators to keep us in check.  And the earth itself cannot stop us from despoiling it except by damaging living conditions in general, both for us and countless other species.  Who is going to stand in our way?  (Perhaps the physical limits of spaceship earth will, if you choose to adopt such a belief.  Even then, it is not a pretty picture.)

Non-reciprocity.  Here is what I mean by non-reciprocity.  A non-reciprocal act is giving without receiving.  To many people, this idea is such a great departure from the norm that it would be rejected outright without being given any further consideration.  How can you give without receiving?  Why if we did that all the time, we would have nothing left and would end up as paupers!  And that is nonsense!

So who said anything about doing it all the time?  Let’s try to embed this idea in a larger framework in which it makes more sense.  In spite of the principle of reciprocity—which many equate with fairness—we already live in a society that has forfeited generosity for selfish gain.  How can I support such an assertion?  Perhaps through some examples.

How many people wait until driving a large automobile is economically unfeasible to switch to a small automobile?  How many people take the time to find out who they are really voting for instead of letting political advertisements decide for them?  How many well-to-do taxpayers use a tax-write-off as their excuse for making charitable donations?  How many of us get impatient, or even angry, when a cashier has a long line of patrons, and we have to wait a little while to reach the front of the line?

Far too few live by the true equation of life: if you take, you must put back, otherwise you doom your own existence.  It is a strange irony that indigenous cultures, such as the Maasai nomads in northeast Africa, know this better than we do.  In a land where water is precious, they guard this resource.  They manage vast herds of livestock, but they are careful to keep regional collectives of families from growing beyond resource limits.  Even their children learn that each water source must not be dirtied, and must be preserved.  (Source: Masood E., Schaffer D. (eds.), 2006. Dry: Life Without Water.)

Observing them you would describe their economic system as, “Put something back so that there will be something to take in the future.”  That is what non-reciprocity buys you.

The Unbalanced Economy.  In short, we have become so accustomed to reciprocal trade-offs that this has become the unspoken, unquestioned assumption in all of our dealings.  Unfortunately, this approach to dealing with life uses only one-half of our humanity, the taking half.  Meanwhile, our giving half atrophies.  Our consuming society has conditioned us to ignore this half.

This is like exercising part of our body while allowing the rest of it to wither.  Imagine the human species as a weight-lifter who has built up his left arm’s musculature and strength while ignoring completely his right arm.  The picture that comes to mind reminds me more of some aquatic crab with its asymmetrically enlarged claw than it does of a normal, well-balance person.

In fact, this is exactly like the philosophy that underpins most economic models and government policies.  According to these models the only rational and desirable outcome is to raise the general welfare of the citizenry and to promote growth of the economy.  These models have an unchallenged assumption that “good” equates to raising the bar, in general.

There is no room in that discussion for lowering the bar.  Yet, the time to lower the bar is upon us, and our definition of economic welfare is seriously in need of reformation.

Summary of Part Four.  We have become conditioned to give only for the sake of payoff.  Yet our system of exchanges mortgages the welfare of exploited countries, the existence of other species and the future that humanity will inherit.  Our system of exchanges is based upon the strong drawing upon the weak and the power to ignore invisible debts.  These are uneven exchanges, yet they are deemed “fair”.  If this is what we mean by reciprocity, then the proper thing would be to call for “non-reciprocity”.  This is defined as a giving act that does not expect a payoff to balance the loss.  This is defined as taking from the present world only enough, and putting back what you have taken to preserve the opportunity to take in the future.  Economic models in modern societies do not grasp this concept.  They are couched in terms of raising the bar.  In these models no credence is given to lowering the bar.

CLICK HERE to go to Part Five.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Three

Bob Fiske

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Three

CLICK HERE to go to Part Two.

Engines of Reciprocity.  The value of reciprocity is deeply embedded in our culture and our thinking.  I think we are well aware how intrinsic the engines of marketing and the engines of advertising are to the methods of conducting business on a daily basis. 

The actors in these sectors are hard at work dreaming up new and better ways to promote the idea that your giving away something of value (your money, your credit) will result in an even better return to you.  We need look no further than the advertising in print media, broadcast media, billboards and the Internet to appreciate how omnipresent this “value of exchange” is, and how actively it is being promoted.

Apparently promoting reciprocity—the good deal—works because tons of people respond to Black Friday mania, convert cash to precious metals (or vice versa), own over-priced and over-designed technology, etc., etc, etc.

The Crack in the Fishbowl.  But let’s remember that reciprocity is so ever-present, so woven into our lives that it is like water to fish. We swim in it, just a bunch of fish in a fishbowl.  Strangely, more and more folks are starting to notice the crack in the fishbowl.  They are becoming aware of, and are questioning, reciprocity.

There isn’t so much to go around anymore, and the efforts of the big, the rich or the powerful to keep their tubs full is starting to draw attention—and stimulate outrage.  That is understandable.  The deep value of reciprocity pretty much mandates that we keep our senses tuned to the frequency of detecting “unfair exchanges”.  More and more fish in the school are starting click and clack in distress.

But that is not the end of the story, as I recently recognized.  The imbalances in our society may be a good thing, insofar as they lead us to notice, question, and replace the deep, unquestioned value of reciprocity.

Recapitulation.  We have all been conditioned, not just to strive for payoff, but to hold out for the good deal.  Here are some examples.

I’m going to drag myself out of bed the day after Thanksgiving, and IN RETURN you’re going to give me half-off on all the Christmas presents I need to buy.  Or, I’m going to give four years of my life to this university and accept a debt to lenders, and IN RETURN you’re going to set me up for life.  Or, I’m going to give you all the labor hours I can, and IN RETURN, you’re going to assure me and my family of a secure life.  Or, I’m going to shop at your supermarket, and IN RETURN you’re going to print a number on my receipt that shows me how much I’ve saved (to make me forget how much I spent).  Or, I’m going to give you my vote, and IN RETURN you’re going to give me some promises.

The Hidden Debt.  The good deal is hard to resist.  Even knowing what I do, I will still choose the gas station that has $3.57/gallon over the one that has $3.59/gallon, as if it really matters!

What we are not told (or choose to forget) is that nobody in the United States pays the true cost for anything.  We are taking from Third World labor, irresponsibly mined resources, and the health of the planet without giving back to repay the debt.  The costs have been mounting for two centuries, at least, and the debt that Western civilization has been accruing is knocking at the door.  Reciprocity is a lie because the true costs have been hidden.

This question of unacknowledged debt is key.  Which brings me to my second proposition.  If you take something from someone or somewhere and do not return a fair share, you are a criminal.

We are all criminals because for two centuries we have been taking from the earth (our ultimate bank) and have not replenished what she has given us.  So, before I sit in judgment of someone else, I best remind myself that we ALL share responsibility for creating and maintaining a broken system.

How the System Got Broken.  Long ago, when financial accounting methods and money were being invented, we all bought into the idea we could make everything balance.  What was taken would be matched by what was given, and both parties would be satisfied.

Over time various social experiments tinkered with this.  Different models of exchange were tested.  Along the way, the methods of reciprocity and fairness got refined.  An evolution was underway, and the most widely accepted system would be declared “the winner”.

The capitalist ideology has become dominant.  In this worldview it is presumed that fairness is preserved.  Now, of course, many of us know that fairness is not preserved, but what I’m doing is arguing from the point of view of proponents of capitalism (at least for the moment).

Summary of Part Three.  Marketing and advertising promote the idea of reciprocity every day, and help it become a deep value that is barely noticed.  The system of “fair exchanges” is more and more out of balance.  Some are reaping far more rewards than others.  The result of this is that significant segments of the world-society are recognizing that reciprocity does not necessarily lead to balance and fairness.  The good deal we have been conditioned to seek out may hide important costs.  The spirit of accounting, in which all benefits are matched by costs of equal value has been tinkered with.  Experiments in economic systems produced a dominant form—capitalism—that expertly hides so-called externalized costs.  These are debts we owe to the natural world and to exploited workers who remain beyond the view of our consuming society.

CLICK HERE to go to Part Four.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Two

Bob Fiske

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Two

CLICK HERE to go to Part One.

Deep Values.  Let us propose that not all values are equal.  Some values may be woven so tightly and deeply into the fabric of a culture that they are held by virtually every person who has grown up in that culture.  Deep values of this type are so common that I compare them to the water in which fish swim.  Do fish notice that they are constantly surrounded by water?  Similarly, how often does a person in our society notice he or she is guided by a deep value?  Not only that, but the rare person who goes even farther and dares to question whether a certain deep value is good or necessary may be regarded as crazy or threatening.

Now, some fish may be in a position that allows them to become aware of the water.  (Think of flying fish or trout leaping at bugs buzzing over the pond.)  By the same token, some people may be in a position to recognize a deep value in their culture long before the majority of that culture’s inhabitants do.  Perhaps that person is forced by a quirk of history to inhabit a social niche in which that value is not such a certainty.

Or, recognition of the deep value might occur because it has negative consequences.  This can happen if “the system” is already in a grotesque state of imbalance.  An imbalanced system is in a state of stress, therefore, negative consequences can add to that stress.  If so, then it becomes harder and harder to ignore the damage that a deep value is doing.  (By way of analogy, imagine a cracked fishbowl in which fewer and fewer fish can rely on the presence of water.  In this stressed system, all the fish become aware of water.)

I now wish to discuss one of these deep values, reciprocity.  This value has been central to civilizations for thousands of years.  It must have occupied an important place in the social structure to have not been displaced.  Yet, modern society has pushed this value to such ridiculous extremes that terrible consequences are unfolding.  Later, I will discuss an alternative to reciprocity and why that alternative’s importance should be elevated.

What is Reciprocity?  Reciprocity is an important type of value, the type that we use to evaluate the worth of things and actions.  We also use it to regulate our use of another precious commodity: time.

Reciprocity—this sounds like I’m using a fifty dollar word where a fifty cent word would suffice.  Well, I’ve been known to do that…  Let’s see if some related phrases can clue us in to the idea: return on investment, payoff, fair trade, good deal, not ripped off, equitable business transaction.  Reciprocity has to do with fair exchanges, and that idea has been with us for millennia.

I believe that ever since people recognized opportunities to exchange things—call it what you will, barter, trade, exchange of goods and services—they were confronted by the issue of fairness.  Why even children show a propensity to think this way.  There is an underlying concern about being taken advantage of, or giving away more than you’re getting in exchange.  In fact, I find it plausible that the institution of monetary currencies owes its existence to this concern about fair exchanges.

And why does this concern exist?  Because it is natural and tempting for a person to want to maximize his or her resources, even if this means that a trading partner ends up with less than a fair share.  (By the way, there are interesting similarities in biology.  Nature learned to deal with these issues long before the thinking brain appeared on the scene.)

Think of the business person or the private investor.  It is “natural” to want to maximize your return on investment or to leverage your profit.  Why, it is simply a case of efficiency, of doing more with less, and who could question that?  When a deal profits us, do we question that?  Does it occur to us that our good fortune might be a distortion of true fairness, or reciprocity?

In an earlier age, the earth appeared to have plenty of everything humans needed (space, water, resources, labor).  Therefore it was easy to accept the efficiency of maximizing return without regard to what might be happening on the side that you weren’t inhabiting.  But as the human population approached and crossed the three-billion mark, the system began to display strain.  Hence the concern of a few individuals to come together in the Club of Rome.

I believe that right now it is much easier to question the value of maximizing “payoff”.  Why?  Because the earth is crowded with seven billion of us (and growing).  Every negative effect of a deep value is multiplied many billions of times.

Summary of Part One.  Some values are “deep values”.  They are woven tightly into the culture and are held by virtually every person.  But deep values are hard to recognize unless the system is in gross imbalance.  This essay focuses on the deep value known as reciprocity.  Although reciprocity suggests the idea of fair exchanges, it is usually modified by the natural human tendency to maximize payoff.  Some people justify this as efficiency, or doing more with less.  Our huge human population is causing this distortion of reciprocity to deliver more and more damage to the world system in which we live.

CLICK HERE to go to Part Three.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part One

Bob Fiske

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part One

Prologue: Why Now.  These thoughts have been in my head for some time without achieving escape velocity.  Something had to goad me into action.  What lit the fuse?  It was the news that the Occupy group near me, Occupy Long Beach, would be discussing “What We Value”.  Suddenly, I knew I had to try to share this point of view.

Are Values Central?  There are diverse ways that people use to explain human behavior.  Why should values stand in relief against the backdrop of the other qualities of experience, including thoughts, feelings, perceptions, points of view, beliefs and attitudes?  I believe that values have a primal distinction.  Values—those things that tell us who we are and what we want—sit at the well of being, situated so deeply that many people may have only dim awareness of their power.  From there, values motivate so many choices, and we scarcely appreciate that they are the primal reasons for much of what we do.  So I will propose that, if you change a person’s values, you will change his or her beliefs, actions and social affiliations.

The Politics of Values.  In the early 1970s an international group of businesspeople, academicians and politicians formed “The Club of Rome”.  They started with a realization that humanity’s progress was so rapid that none of us could lay claim to knowing—much less planning—our collective destiny.  Consequently, one of the Club’s first acts was to produce a white paper that attempted to define The Predicament of Mankind.  (See .)

A result of the early efforts of the Club of Rome was a project whose hub was MIT and which integrated the knowledge of experts from many countries.  This project was published in 1972 as a slim paperback entitled The Limits to Growth.  Using the method of system dynamics the MIT investigators built a “simple” computer model of the world and tested it to understand how the many components might affect human destiny.  The book sent shockwaves through the halls of policy-makers, for it suggested that, without careful management, human civilization could collapse fairly rapidly.

The phrase “without careful management” is hinted at in the book’s title, the limits to growth.  It is a statement of values: new choices would be necessary, a new definition of “what is the measure of a good life”.  Perhaps that explains what happened in the years after its publication.  In a show of massive denial, the governments, financial institutions and economists of developed nations (especially in the greatest consuming nation, the United States) belittled the Limits to Growth project to such an extent that nobody talked about it anymore.  “Progress” continued.

That demonstrates the powerful nature of values.  Many values that dictate human behavior are mutually dependent with a vast infrastructure of industry, financial systems and political institutions.  The response to the Limits to Growth project suggests that this infrastructure reacts somewhat like a living being.  If you attack the values at its foundation, it will move swiftly and forcefully to maintain its methods of operation and the values that motivate those methods.

To say this somewhat differently, the values underlying modern Western civilization (which, of course has spread to all parts of the globe) may allow certain modest changes.  Thus, we regulate auto emissions, and it is possible to buy recycled toilet paper, and some people are installing sustainable energy systems on their houses.

However, if you ask the system to examine and change out its core values, that is like trying to turn an oil tanker with the force of one finger.  (It can be done, true.  But, alas, humanity may not have that much time.)  Thus, we can understand the tremendous resistance to quitting fossil fuels, defunding weapons companies and ending cruel exploitation of cheap labor.

Summary of Part One.  If you change a person’s values, then you can expect a change of his or her beliefs, actions and social affiliations.  Many values connect with the larger, containing social infrastructures.  These include industrial, financial and political structures.  The social infrastructure reacts like a living being.  If you attack its values, it will forcefully maintain its values and its methods of operation.

CLICK HERE to go to Part Two.