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.

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