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.