Reciprocity: The Art of the Deal.

June 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

Early childhood memories are inevitably fuzzy, even more so when they involve fluffy toys. For all that, one of my earliest, from 3 or 4 years old, remains stark and vivid. My first love affair was with a stuffed kangaroo about the size of a Teddy bear. It was scruffy and careworn, having been picked up by Mum at a jumble sale, but for all that when it wasn’t sitting on my lap being jabbered at, I would tuck it under my arm and take it everywhere with me. My memory wants to tell me the toy was called Skippy but I suspect that’s a bit of retrospective wishful thinking.

Yes, Skippy and I went everywhere together; it spent so long in the garden with me that Mum would give it a bath every few days in the sink. Skippy and I would often be joined in the garden by the lad from next door. He was about the same age as me and as this was in a time before all this pre-school nonsense, we spent most of our time either in each other’s garden or exploring the back alley-ways of the local streets. There was a woodpile in my garden and the lad and I would often sit on it, me bouncing Skippy up and over the jumbled wood and him playing with whatever his favourite toy was that day. I remember one particular day, it was hot and dusty and Mum had told me to avoid the dust as I was recovering from a bout of impetigo. It wasn’t because I was covered in purple lotion, which anyway was quickly hidden by the dust, that I remember the day. No, it was because the toy the lad had brought to the wood pile really caught my eye and made me realise that I didn’t really love Skippy, it had been an infatuation all along. After some exploratory haggling we agreed to exchange toys for the afternoon. It went well, I felt that Skippy had been respected and was in good hands, and so when the lad climbed back over the fence we agreed that we would ask our mums if we could permanently swap the toys.

It didn’t happen straight away, we met a couple more times and had temporary custody of each other’s toys while our mums quietly negotiated both between themselves and us whether or not this was truly what we wanted. A week later Skippy spent his first night in the lad next door’s bed and the transaction was declared done and dusted the next day. Now, when we sat together on the woodpile it was the lad who was teaching Skippy how to ski-jump. The realisation was awful: my feelings for Skippy had truly been love after all rather than infatuation and I yearned for its fluffy return to my arms. A week later I was crying myself to sleep as I mourned the loss of my fondest love. Then the tantrums began, each fit of screaming and thrashing of legs emphasising the point that I couldn’t live without my love.

Okay, I was a noxious brat but I was only 4 years old and certainly not spoilt. Mum was a bit more grown up than me and cautioned patience, telling me it was far better to stick to my word, be brave, accept my loss and soon I would forget my relinquished love. (Come to think of it she had a few similar conversations when I was a teenager!) It didn’t work as I sensed the tantrums would pay off. After a few more nights of crying in my pillow and refusing to eat, Mum reluctantly agreed to talk to the woman next door. It was a slow process with Mum alternating between trying to persuade me to let the lad keep the kangaroo and begging the next door neighbour to have him return it. I was just about to go with the nuclear option of “Running Away From Home” and was sorting through the washing basket to find a handkerchief sufficiently garish and big enough to hold my belongings when there was a shout from next door and Skippy came flying over the fence. He slept soundly in my bed that night, me not so much as I was kept awake by the sounds, through the terrace wall, of the lad next door’s howls and screams.

Now, you are probably thinking: “you callous bugger, you don’t even give the kid a name, to you he was just “The Kid Next Door””, and I confess I don’t remember either the lad’s name, nor the toy I swapped Skippy for. I guess that’s understandable because from the moment Skippy flew back into the garden I never spoke with the lad again. Not from my choice, he would have nothing more to do with me, nor would his family. Mum could get on with anyone but even she was shunned by the family next door. Even common place interactions took on an entirely different hue. Whereas once when Mum shouted over the fence something like: “Mrs R, I think there’s an alien in the outside lavvy, I’m just down the police box to let the constable know, can you keep an eye on the kids?” the immediate response would be: “Not a problem Mrs H, you get off, they can come over here while they wait.” Now even a simple request over the fence like “Can I borrow half a cup of sugar, Jim’s due back from the pub and I’ve run out?” was met with a mumbled “I’m busy right now Mrs H, the budgie’s escaped and I have to get him back in the cage before Jack gets home for his tea.” Yes, it all changed, an atavistic four year old had breached the ambiguous rules of reciprocity and his whole family was shunned. My love for Skippy also waned shortly afterwards. In the absence of the lad next door I explored further afield and a few doors down discovered another lad about my age. He had a pet tortoise, it was amazing, its little head would poke out and it could, albeit slowly, move without being pushed. I offered a swap but the lad’s mum just laughed and gave me an ice cream instead. Anyhow, a shared tortoise became more fun than Skippy, who rapidly receded in my emotions.

The memory of Skippy remains vivid not because of my tears or my tantrums but because I remember sensing even at 4 years old that what I was doing was out of order, that breaching my agreement with the lad next door was both intrinsically unfair and ultimately counterproductive. I recognised that but was too unformed to do anything other than mindlessly pursue my own short term self interest. Of course there are wide (and wild) fields of political and psychological debate that suggest that mindless self-interest is a primary driver in economic and social development. You don’t need to be Aryn Rand to believe that selfishness leads to success and should be revered. Yet there is also considerable evidence and argument that reciprocity, cooperation and having a long term perspective that transcends immediate self-interest is a powerful force for civilisation, a belief that even as a four year old I intuitively recognised even if I was too immature to act on it.

Altruism has sometimes challenged theorists. Why do people sometimes act in ways that not only are against their immediate self interest but may also threaten their own survival? Richard Dawkins tackled this dilemma by suggesting that although individuals may appear to act altruistically, at least within their own tribes, the genes of the individuals were acting selfishly to promote their own longer term survival. Alternatively, the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, having discovered the fossils of early hominids with severe disabilities and healed wounds who couldn’t possibly have survived with the support of others, concluded that human beings are genetically programmed to both act altruistically and to cooperate and it was this trait that drove the development of civilisation. The debate that continues to rage both scientifically and politically is not however: is it either selfishness or altruism that drives humanity? Instead, it is how do these two factors quantitatively and qualitatively interact to create the types of reciprocal cooperative partnerships that are undoubtedly the basis for human development. The one thing that marks out humanity is that we do deals both at the level of individuals and at societal level. These deals can often just be simple short term exchange relationships: you give me this and I will give you that. Generally, however, they are complex reciprocal agreements that encompass both long and short term outcomes as well as intertwined abstract and objective intentions. It is not just in, say, marriages that the concepts of trust, good will and keeping your commitments are important. The whole essence of both nationhood and international diplomacy is reliant on these subtle elements of the social contract.

A couple of days before Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate agreement, Warrant Officer First Class Andy Peat of the Royal Logistical Corps was in Copenhagen meeting with Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark. He was receiving the Anders Lassen Foundation Award for attempting to save the life of a Danish soldier René Brink Jakobsen at an IED factory in Afghanistan. According to WO Peat, it was no big deal, he was just doing his job, part of which was keeping his commitments and not walking away from his mates. In this case that involved him in defusing an IED and then laying his body over another live device to protect the medics as they evacuated Jakobson. I doubt if WO Peat thought much about what he was doing but implicit in his actions was the glue that binds together most social contracts. That is, you don’t walk away from your commitments just because at a given moment you decide that your own self-interest is better served by unilaterally reneging on an agreement. You don’t because reciprocity is complex, subtle and far reaching. WO Peat may not have thought about it but almost certainly his actions mean that the next time a Danish soldier comes across a wounded Brit soldier on the battlefield he is more likely to give assistance.

When you withdraw from commitments that have often been built up through complex reciprocal negotiations over many years, even in moments of collective madness like Brexit, you don’t just destroy the agreement, you also destroy trust, goodwill and any willingness on the part of the other parties to engage with you again. When the British Prime Minister, Teresa May gets on her moral high horse and starts lecturing European leaders on getting a good deal for the UK, one cannot help but be astounded by her naiveté. I doubt that any European leaders have any animosity towards the UK but what they will have is a deep sense of mistrust. A sense that whatever commitments the UK makes the minute it defines its self -interest, however short term, as being threatened it will withdraw from that commitment whatever the cost to others.

Even more so with Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, an accord that took nearly two decades to negotiate and reached agreement across all the worlds nation states, with the exception of Syria (too busy with a civil war) and Nicaragua (which considered the agreement to be too weak). There is much debate about why Trump withdrew when it was clearly such a destructive (to the States as well as the world) action that flew in the face of any even half reasoned argument. Does he truly belief that climate change is a hoax? Was it to shore up his eroding electoral base? Was it because Steve Bannon threatened to put a hex on him if he didn’t? Was it pique because President Macron’s handshake was stronger than his and Angela Merkel, however bravely she tries, is finding it increasingly hard to hide the contempt on her face when she meets Trump? What commentators do agree on is that whatever matrix Trump used in deciding to withdraw, the primary factor was his own perceived self-interest. Whatever the merits of the altrusism vs self interest debate one thing that most commentators agree on is that any nation, organisation or individual which only appears to act out of blatant self-interest is profoundly mistrusted. Isolationist countries invariably degenerate into entropy and selfish people die lonely.

Given that as a tantruming obnoxious 4 year old brat I was able belatedly to recognise the primacy of keeping to commitments, it is somewhat disconcerting that the most powerful man in the world has less insight than I did. Perhaps the natural and logical consequences of his short sightedness will prompt a learning curve. No, I’m not talking about global warming, as many State and City leaders in the US have made it clear that whatever Trump says they will stick to the agreement. So glaciers are unlikely to recede more quickly but what will diminish is the US’s leadership role, the trust that other countries have in the US and reluctance on the part of any other nation to engage in any reciprocal arrangement with the States.

So the next time Trump telephones Angela Merkel about a problem, say intellectual property rights in China, or the fact that he has discovered a mild little country in Central America that he fancies invading and would Germany like to join in (There’ll be something in it for Germany, Angela!) I’m pretty sure I know what her response will be:

“Sorry, I’m busy right now Mr T, the budgie’s escaped and I have to get him back in the cage before Joachim gets home for his tea”.



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