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.

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