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.