Sunday, April 22, 2012

Economics of Chocolate Custard

OR: Why "Pay It Forward" is holding us back

Measure what can be measured, and make measurable what cannot be measured.

Galileo Galilei

Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.

Professor William Cameron; Dr. Stephen Ross; attributed to Albert Einstein’s chalkboard

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

Werner Heisenberg Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958)

There’s a decent chance that I will miscommunicate to some of you in this posting. Those of you who really love the “feel-good” genre of movies should stop reading right now because this is not meant to be a “feel-good” post. Those of you who are all about incremental human conscious evolution should go on Netflix or Hulu and rent a movie about the triumph of the human spirit and get fired up about cheering on George Bush’s thousand points of light. And for those of you who have given up on humanity entirely, well, don’t read this either because there’s actually some hope and this post will just convince you that I’m naive. For the few of you left, let’s try this on.

Last week’s post discussed the Three Audacities, the third of which will be the bridge into this week’s observation. For those of you who missed it, I’m referring to the Audacity of Transaction. Now, we need a little Werner Heisenberg – yes the one that you all know and love for his Principle – to help us clarify a simple linguistic but complex epistemological distinction; namely, the difference between “Action”, “Transaction”, and “Exchange”. Heisenberg stated that, “the more precise the measurement of position, the more imprecise the measurement of momentum.” This observation, when applied to economics, is rather profound as our current practices and metrics reward a predisposition towards artifact (how much / what kind) rather than the nature of counterparties (transaction) or the thermodynamics of flow (exchange). We’ll revisit this at the end of my story but, here’s what happened.

On Thursday evening four of us went to Rita’s in Knoxville Tennessee a few minutes before their 9pm closing time. A well-dressed couple in their late 50s came in a minute later engrossed in a smile-punctuated conversation. Behind the counter was a young woman who was the personification of enthusiasm. I don’t know whether it was the frozen custard, the ice, or the toppings but she was effervescent.

“What would you like this evening?” she asked with a passion you’d expect from your most sympathetic friend.

“I’ll have chocolate custard in a cup with Reese’s and sprinkles,” one of my companions replied.

“That’s a GREAT choice – well done! Chocolate with Reese’s and sprinkles is fantastic,” she responded.

All the way through the orders, each of us had apparently divined the elixir of karmic bliss based on her sheer admiration for the brilliance of our selections. You couldn’t have been more validated as a human being in that moment than realizing that, for some mysterious reason, your choice of frozen custard had somehow unleashed a confirmation of brilliance and genius heretofore unmanifest.

I reveled in the moment. The couple behind us ordered two chocolate custard dishes – no sprinkles or improvements of any kind – from the other server behind the counter. No praise. No enthusiasm. No brilliance. And when the young man went to ring their order in the register, I told him to put their order on our tab.

“Do you know them?” he inquired coolly.

“No,” I replied.

“Whatever,” was his thoughtful reply as he shuffled off to close the store.

A few seconds later, our server, having completed her service with precision, began ringing up our purchase. I told her to put the couple’s order on ours.

“Do you know them?” she echoed the question that had just been asked by her colleague.

“Nope,” I replied.

“Oh my gosh,” she gushed. “That’s soooo cool! Wow, that’s awesome.”

“Don’t tell them,” I instructed her. “Just let it be their lucky evening.”

“That’s awesome,” she half whispered.

We turned to leave the store and the couple went up to pay.

“It’s already covered,” she said, beaming.

The couple exchanged glances and then looked back at her. “Thank you very much,” they said with incredulity.

Now had the interaction ended precisely at that moment, there would be no blog post. Had it ended there, I would not be about to puzzle the aforementioned people who I advised against reading this blog. In that moment, the celebration of the server’s enthusiasm for life, the anonymous action of creating mysterious goodness, and the expression of gratitude from the recipients of an unknown surprise would have been magical, playful, and what life fully lived is about. But alas, there’s a blog post, in large part, because what followed was: a) the tragedy of Transaction, and b) why our endemic behaviors (even in goodness) are so pathologically incapable of unleashing system level change.

“Don’t thank me,” she shot back, “thank them. They paid for it.”

And then the cancer of our system.

The gentleman, who up until that moment had been engrossed in a delightful celebration of affection for his companion lit by smiling faces, looked at me changing his demeanor.

“Now I suppose I HAVE TO pay it forward or something, right?” he said totally devoid of the joy that had punctuated the small time we shared together.

In this Transaction, the magic of humanity was lost. In truth, our server’s joy may well have been my inspiration for an ACT of joyful human sharing. My decision to pay for the other couple’s custard was not BECAUSE of her – she merely was filled with positive energy that was flowing and, in that environment, more positivism flowed. I was already in a great mood and may have had the impulse to surprise the couple with our without her energy (as this impulse is frequent enough in my life as to suggest that it can emerge without external stimulus). My ACTION was not in response to anything and my admonition to keep the ACTION anonymous was specifically to avert the social corruption that follows the mistaken belief that reciprocity is a necessity. To ACT in the anonymous present is human. To TRANSACT with expectation or as a reflex to external stimulus is socialization.

When the gentleman said, “Thank you,” it was appropriate to express gratitude for the anonymous impulse and, as I was present, had I desired to be involved in a social TRANSACTION, I would have heard it and would have been rewarded. In that moment, an EXCHANGE in an identity-less context would have been another celebrated moment.

It was in the server’s ‘correction’ where the EXCHANGE went off the rails and became an unfortunate TRANSACTION. By implying that his gratitude needed to be directed away from her (remember, I was thrilled with her generous goodness for which I had thanked her too) and replaced to a person who had specifically said, “Don’t tell them,” she reinforced a deep social pathology that it was unfair or inappropriate to accept gratitude perceived to be undeserved. Ironically, her impulse to correct his errant “Thank You” overrode the explicit social agreement of keeping the identify of the ACT opaque. And then, by feeling that a social contract had been foisted upon him so that he would HAVE TO pay it forward, the complete erasure of magic was assured.

Much of what stands between us and what can emerge in our systems is our enslavement to reciprocity and equivalence. Our myths are filled with causality and transaction. Even our hero stories of transcendence are told in transaction-justifying language. ‘Unconditional love’ is celebrated above Love. Generosity is celebrated above acknowledging abundant stewardship. ‘Getting’ or ‘Receiving’ “Credit” is more important than putting positive energy into flow or perpetuating that which we want to see manifest.

Which leads me back to a simple observation. Light (be it a particle, wave or something else) is NOT the property of a photon. To be Light, photons (remember, it’s plural) have to be activated and be willing at any point in time to be both progenitors and propagators of excitation. Otherwise, it’s not Light. No credit. No ego. Just always ready to BE ON. Let there be Light.



  1. Our transactions are rife with archetypes (reflected in socialization) subliminally channeling (flow/exchange)

    Moondog, a darling of the NYC avant guard music scene, fancied himself a Viking, dressed and looked the part, a Norse god from central casting, or stepped out of a Wlm. Blake depiction of Yahway.

    Attending an Avery Fisher Hall performance that included Moondog, I was struck by the sense that had he been, say, a young black man beating the same drum in the same monotonous way there's no way he would have been lauded with such acclaim, stature and prestige. It's not the person we elevated, but what resonated with our own archetypal socialization. The presence of mind to over ride these patterns seems as rare as their unchallenged presence is ubiquitous. Proactive anonymity may well be where our humanity is most alive but gets no more respect than the ghost of an exile.

    The fellow who reverted into default expectation of reciprocity may have felt assailed in his hunter-gatherer archetype. Maybe his primary frame that evening was that he was providing, treating, re-winning a heart. Intervening in an exchange/expectation between Apollo and Daphne won't endear us to Apollo, but we can reasonably expect a course of expectation(s) to keep expectation central to its orientation. R&D, marketing count on it. Snapping out of the trance of transaction is taboo.

    A lesson drawn from the blog is that apparently ancient programs of Action as archetype, an old unconscious magic, can be the surest impediment to what new magic comes out to play in arenas already populated by the gods who rule where ever humanity falls shy of itself.

  2. woops, that first sentence is unfinished. To complete it:

    Our transactions are rife with archetypes (reflected in socialization) subliminally channeling (flow/exchange) patterns from so far behind us they're insidious to face, acknowledge, and choose alternatives to.

  3. returning again I decided to check into the figure, Moondog, and find that he offered his own manner of critique of our systems, and expressed care for the Commons. His song, Enough About Human Rights, like the intro to this blog entry, also casts doubt on status quo(s), whether maintained through modes triumphal or apathetic. So I want to strike a note of appreciation for him beyond the dull thud of an old impression.

  4. "Presence of mind" is a wonderful notion to develop in this conversation as it is pausing in presence that allows us to reflect on those assumptions we don't see ourselves engaging. At the speed with which many of us engage our frenetic lives, we seldom activate our reflex to be considered.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave