If You're Happy, I'm a Loser
My youngest daughter’s computer broke down a week or so ago: no LED’s glowing, no fans blowing, and, in short, no vital signs showing. As a veteran of 24 years in the computer business, I of course did the professional thing: I procrastinated. But finally, over the weekend, I opened the computer’s case and took a look inside, just to see if the problem was something obvious like a loose connector. No such luck – everything looked OK, if inert. Ah well, time for a service call; luckily, the computer, which I’d purchased through Michraz HaMedina (roughly translated, the “National Auction”, an Israeli on-line bidding system almost entirely unlike eBay), still had three months left on its one-year warranty.
Or so I thought. Yesterday morning I took the computer to the people who’d assembled it and sold it to me, Galaxy Computers of Rishon LeTzion, expecting no special difficulties in getting the thing fixed. They cheerfully informed me that since I’d broken the little paper seal – that is, I’d dared to open the sacred computer – the warranty was void. The good news – and “good” is very much a relative term in these circumstances – was that the power supply (which I suspect is what had died) was only guaranteed for seven days in the first place; so even had I not dared to poke my inquisitive nose into the computer, I would have had to pay for at least part of the repair. (Needless to say, the part about a vital component of the computer having only a one-week guarantee wasn’t mentioned on the auction listing.)
All my expostulations, threats, and pleas achieved nothing. Galaxy would be happy to fix the computer at their regular rates (as if I’d give them the job under such circumstances), but beyond that, it was my problem.
The Game of Computer Repair
Now, it may well be that my Galactic interlocutors were acting within their rights according to Israeli law and the letter of their warranty (which is in Hebrew, far beyond my very limited ability to read); there is no question that consumer-protection law in Israel is rudimentary at best. I’m quite prepared to be told by the experts that my “foreign” expectations regarding fair business practices don’t apply to life in this little corner of Paradise. What I find most annoying, though – and yet it’s instructive, or I wouldn’t be blogging about it – is the underlying attitude this outfit displayed. Had this been a reasonably well-run computer shop in America or Great Britain (or even in Israel), the staff might have lectured me about paying attention to the fine print; they might even have let me know that they reserved the right to charge me for the repair if I’d altered anything inside the computer. But even if they grumbled a bit, they would have understood that having me as a happy customer was worth something as well; and in the end I probably would have succeeded (after promising never to be bad again) in having the computer fixed under the warranty.
But that kind of thinking is quite foreign to the Galaxy I visited yesterday morning. I had entered a region of space in which I was not a past (and possible future) customer whose good will was of some value; in this corner of the cosmos I was The Enemy, and if I “won” – if I managed to get my daughter’s computer fixed without paying full price for the repair, that is – my victory would imply cataclysmic Galactic defeat. By utterly and steadfastly refusing to honor the computer’s warranty, the Galactic Defenders gained a great victory over me; and the fact that I would pay someone else to do the repair, that I would never be a repeat customer, and that I would attempt to get them in trouble (e.g. by writing nasty things about them in an obscure blog) didn’t signify.
Clearly, the people I was dealing with viewed our interaction as a zero-sum game: If I won, they lost, and if I lost, they won – by definition. They didn’t look beyond the immediate confrontation; they cared nothing for their reputation or their relationship with me as a possible future customer. In reality, of course, their strategy created a negative-sum game: I lost, but – looking at the big picture – they lost also. And had they considered the value of relationship and reputation and worked out some compromise with me, they could have played a positive-sum game: I would have been happy to pay something for the repair, and would have thought of them as people with whom I’d like to do business in the future. We all could have come out ahead.
The Middle East Game
(or, At Last He Gets to the Point)
The kind of zero-sum/negative-sum thinking I encountered yesterday is all too common in the Middle East (and, I must admit, everywhere else on our planet except – maybe – Antarctica). Every Israeli has dealt with it a thousand times; and as long as it’s just a matter of getting a computer repaired, the consequences aren’t too terrible. Sadly, though, the same kind of thinking permeates our political discourse; and our Arab neighbors appear to have the problem as well.
In the run-up to the Disengagement from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank, I read an endless stream of articles and forum posts opposing the withdrawal. Some of them attempted to make a reasoned case against Ariel Sharon’s policy; but an awful lot of what I read boiled down to a simple, unexamined, zero-sum-game syllogism:
- The Palestinians are gaining territory that they want;
- We're getting nothing from them in return;
- The Disengagement is thus a victory for the Palestinians;
- The Palestinians are the enemy;
- Therefore, the Disengagement is a defeat for Israel.
Many Palestinians justify terror attacks against Israel using a mirror-image of this logic: The attacks hurt the Zionist Enemy, so by definition they must be good for the Palestinians – even though it should be fairly obvious by now that terrorism is the single biggest impediment to Palestinian statehood.
Egypt and Jordan, which are supposed to be at peace with us, also use zero-sum thinking when they oppose “normalization” between Israel and other Arab/Islamic states. Apparently the Egyptian and Jordanian governments (encouraged by the Palestinians themselves) feel that rapprochement between Israel and Islamic world would constitute an undeserved reward for Israel – and would thus, by definition, constitute a betrayal of the Palestinians. The contrary argument – that Israel would find it easier to countenance a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River if she felt less threatened and isolated – doesn’t seem to carry much weight.
Zero-Sum, Zero Progress
This kind of zero-sum thinking, with its narrow view of self interest and its rigid definitions of victory and defeat, inevitably leads to deadlock and impasse. All of us in the Middle East seem to be so obsessed with avoiding symbolic defeats and winning purely notional victories that we don’t have the time or ability to address our real problems. I know we’re not stupid in this part of the world – I think we’re not stupid in this part of the world – but at times I can forgive people who live elsewhere for thinking that we are. I’m not saying, Heaven forbid, that anyone should put others’ interests ahead of his own and behave charitably. But if we’re ever going to make the Middle East into a happy, peaceful, and prosperous part of the planet, we’ve got to learn to take a broader and more inclusive view of our own self-interest.
In the mean time, does anyone know a good computer repair shop?