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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Faith in human nature

Depending on where you live and the sum of your life's experiences, your faith in human nature might range anywhere from wildly optimistic to pessimistically jaded.

I grew up a part of southern New England whose proximity to New York lent its denizens the mores and habits of the Big Apple.  However, many of our family vacations took us to northern New England where puritan values and work ethics still held sway.  A prime example of this could be found in rural areas of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine where farmers often set up self-serve roadside stands to display/sell their wares.

I have vivid memories of seeing these rough-hewn wooden stands stacked with melons, sweet corn, blueberries, honey or some other seasonal/regional specialty, along with a hand-lettered price list and a small metal box where you were supposed to leave your payment and make change for yourself!

Now, it doesn't take a Nobel prize in Economics to understand that this kind of arrangement depends much more heavily on the honesty of the buyers than the good faith of the sellers.  However, the seller's participation in such endeavors is undoubtedly essential to the process, since without it the buyer would never have the opportunity to demonstrate his/her honesty.

A few years after university I found myself in Maine with an Israeli friend on a warm summer day.  On a lark I stopped the car and bought a small basket of fresh blueberries from one of these roadside stands.  This pretty Sabra was absolutely gobsmacked at seeing the unattended produce and money sitting there along the side of the road.  She insisted that such a system couldn't possibly work in Israel since the 'honest' Israelis would take only the produce while the 'dishonest' Israelis would take the money as well.

After living here in Israel for almost five years I can sort of see her point. 

Most transactions - whether interpersonal or financial - seem to be based primarily on what can best be described as 'do unto others before they do unto you'.  Where my American upbringing tends to make me view most transactions as 'there's enough for everyone so what is all the pushing and grabbing about?', the typical Israeli seems to view every opportunity as a pie that has only a finite number of slices [thanks Yonah for this description], and therefore just about anything goes when it comes to getting one's 'fair share'.  According to the typical Israeli point of view, anyone left without a slice at the end of the exercise is basically a 'frayer' (sucker).

I've written a few times about the vet who saved our older dog's life, and who is now our regular practitioner for both Jordan and Lulu.  His small office is in a residential section of Jerusalem and is comprised a one-room surgery/office which is accessed via an unattended entry hall-cum-waiting room.

The entry hall/waiting room is lined with shelves and stacks of every kind of cat and dog food imaginable, as well as various grooming aids, pet toys and specialty products.  The vet and his assistant spend all of their time in the surgery/office with the door closed and if someone is inside with their pet when you arrive, you'll have to wait amongst the bags/cans of food and assorted pet products in the entryway.

Early in my relationship with this vet's practice I began wondering to myself how he could leave all of that valuable inventory unattended where anyone could come and take what they wanted with impunity.  I mean, there has to be $10,000 bucks worth of stuff out there if there's a dime!  I remember one time while waiting out there I spent ten or fifteen minutes looking for hidden cameras or some other anti-theft technology... but found nothing.

I'd finally decided to ask the vet about his seemingly misplaced trust, but for the past few weeks there has been a young female vet filling in whenever I've brought Jordan in for chemo treatments so I didn't get the chance. *   So last night I asked this other vet if she didn't find it strange that the owner of the practice left so much valuable stuff out where anyone could steal it.

Her answer was instructive.

She told me that she too had been surprised to see so much pet food and product left unattended when she'd first started working there.   But when she'd asked her boss about it, he'd simply told her he was "a big believer in human nature". 

When I pointed out to her that this statement could be taken two very different ways, she nodded and said, "It's funny, but I think he meant it both ways.  The people who who are basically dishonest will find a way to steal from you no matter what.  But the rest of the people who walk through our door are one of two kinds of people; those who might take some pet food simply because they can't afford to pay for it all the time... and those who walk away with a good feeling simply because someone trusted them not to steal." 

Knowing this vet for several years now, I could totally see him subscribing to such a kooky ideology.  He rarely seems to take much more in payment than he needs to cover his expenses... and I've personally witnessed him performing small acts of kindness for random people ("Don't worry about it... you can pay me next time.") who have shown up with their pets.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that, while I'm in general agreement with the jaded outlook held by my Israeli friend who insisted that New England's roadside 'honor system' could never be made to work here in Israel, I also think that this country is chock full of exceptions to the rule

Israelis like my vet seem to be able to maintain deep faith in the duality of human nature; accepting the worst in people while continuing to expect the best.

I like that.

* Unrelated to the story, it turns out the reasons my vet hasn't been around is that he was in a motor scooter accident and is in the hospital.  Ouch!

Posted by David Bogner on February 20, 2008 | Permalink

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"She insisted that such a system couldn't possibly work in Israel since the 'honest' Israelis would take only the produce while the 'dishonest' Israelis would take the money as well."

"But the rest of the people who walk through our door are one of two kinds of people; those who might take some pet food simply because they can't afford to pay for it all the time... and those who walk away with a good feeling simply because someone trusted them not to steal."

Did you purposefully word this in such a way that in no cases does it say an honest Israeli would take some of the products AND pay for them? I'm confused - are you saying that honest Israelis would "only" take the fruit (rather than the fruit AND the money?) and, in the case of the vet, not take food but feel good someone trusted them?

Or do you mean what I think you mean: that they would take what they want AND leave the money?

FYI when I was at Michlalah, back in the days that you had to use tokens for pay phones, people who found tokens left behind in the phone would leave them on top of the phone with a note that said "someone left this." Or they'd take the tokens and leave a note saying "I found three tokens in the phone - if they are yours, come to my dorm and I'll give them back to you." It was really special.

Posted by: Sarah | Feb 20, 2008 5:12:57 PM

Sarah... Personally I think there are probably plenty of Israelis who, given the chance, would take the fruit and leave the correct payment. But if you read my post you will see that the the two statements you objected to were quotes from other people, not my own feelings. As to your experience at Michlala, I don't think you can make a fair comparison between what happens at the payphone of a hyper-frum girl's yeshiva and what goes on as a rule throughout the rest of the country. Yes, there are plenty of tzadikim walking around our country, but there are also many rasha'im. Most Israelis (myself included) fall somewhere in between.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 20, 2008 5:36:26 PM

I much preferred your discussion of human nature in Israel a year and a half ago.

Posted by: soccerdad | Feb 20, 2008 7:38:41 PM

But...Israelis are definitely an enigma when it comes to certain sociological behaviors - such as life on a bus.

I don't know if they still do this, but I remember the feeling of awe, when the few times I got on a city bus when it was so crowded and like a fire line, people just passed up their money through the many hands to the driver and your change or ticket would be passed right back to you - without anyone stealing it. Its in those times that I really loved living in Israel.


Just another thought, this reminds me of the many panhandlers that we see on the road. When the kids are with me, I usually will give something, if I know that they are not part of the "organized ring of drop-offs". I feel that even if they aren't really in need, if they are going to humiliate themselves by being out there, than they need it more than I do. The same when it comes to Halloween. When taking the kids out, we will leave a bowl of candy. Yes, we risk the greediness of the kids to grab more than their share, but so be it. Most of the kids don't empty the whole bowl into their bag and if they do, great, it's to our advantage of not having all that left-ver candy around. : )


Posted by: Jaime | Feb 20, 2008 7:46:57 PM

Set your expectations low and people will stoop to meet them.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 20, 2008 8:27:15 PM

I believe in the goodness of people, even (no, especially) Israelis. But being here for the past six months, I have noticed that Israelis have become, well, bitter. They (We) are totally disgusted and demoralized by what's been going on here the past decade or so, and I think many people feel hopeless because our leadership is such a joke. I don't mean to insert politics into what was a non-political post, but the national mood has got to affect general behavior, don't you think?

Posted by: Baila | Feb 20, 2008 11:38:46 PM

I believe in the goodness of people, even (no, especially) Israelis. But being here for the past six months, I have noticed that Israelis have become, well, bitter. They (We) are totally disgusted and demoralized by what's been going on here the past decade or so, and I think many people feel hopeless because our leadership is such a joke. I don't mean to insert politics into what was a non-political post, but the national mood has got to affect general behavior, don't you think?

Posted by: Baila | Feb 20, 2008 11:39:58 PM

(Oops, sorry about the duplicate posting, my computer was acting strangely for a moment)

Posted by: Baila | Feb 20, 2008 11:41:27 PM

Your contrast of our American "abundance" mentality and the Israeli "scarcity" mentality is basically the difference between someone raised in free-market capitalism vs. socialism.

Even my (our?) grandparent's generation - the greenhorns who landed in America with the clothes on their back - had an attitude of "there's plenty of opportunity out there".

In the bad old days of socialism in Israel - as in other socialist countries - there often was quite literally not enough to go around. Politics and culture revolved around dividing the centrally controlled "pie", rather than encouraging individuals to grow their own "pies".

Not very easy to be charitable when faced with real shortages - and a predatory political culture.

This explains a lot of Israeli behavior. And these attitudes run deep. Two stories:

1. Guy who does international marketing for Israeli companies was retained by a firm to build an international network of distributors. Obviously his pitch emphasized how the prospective distributors would benefit. The result? The Israelis saw his materials, and decided to try and set up their OWN distributorships - even though they knew intellectually that they needed local help and presence to boost sales, they couldn't bring themselves to leave the distributor's profit margin on the table for someone else to take. The notion of SHOWING SOMEONE ELSE how to profit from the deal was totally foreign to them - if you can, you pocket the difference yourself. Giving others incentives is "being a sucker".

I've heard similar stories of Israelis shopping the Far East for knock-offs rather than paying to import a quality, name-brand product. They must know that they will be stuck having to service these faulty products - but they can't bring themselves to pay more now, or to invest in building a reputation.

2. I almost fell off my chair when discussing the recent bread shortage with my coworkers in hi-tech - folks who are quite tangibly benefitting from the free-market approach. When I asked "what can be done?" they all said "the government must do something".

When I suggested that maybe government price-setting is the problem here - that maybe the market should determine the price of bread, and then the government can give food stamps to those who need help - I got blank, even shocked stares.

Free markets are just not part of most adult Israelis' lived experience, and therefore not real - this is why so many otherwise intelligent Israelis think Bibi is an ogre for simply fixing our finances. Try to connect the dots - to point out WHY things are so much cheaper in "Chutz La'aretz" - and you draw an incomprehending blank most of the time.

Posted by: Ben-David | Feb 21, 2008 12:28:35 PM

so perfect is this post right now. yesterday, a woman stole my parking spot in a local lot. i had been waiting for a spot to open up and had my blinker on and she simply came around the bend from the other direction and tried to slide right in. because of the way the person leaving was pulling out, there was no way for me to get in before this woman. so i called her on it. her self-righteous response to me was that she saw me but she was actually there first, she had decided to circle around rather than wait so the spot was really hers (by that reasoning, i had been in that lot last week...). she didn't like how i questioned her, and after she parked, she walked over to my car and asked me if i would dare talk to my mother that way! i was livid! how dare she question *my* integrity after she clearly and purposefully infringed on me? so i responded, "there'd be no need. my mother doesn't take what doesn't belong to her." her eyes widened and and she hurriedly walked away.

Posted by: nikki | Feb 21, 2008 1:07:54 PM

Fine, well-written blog. New discovery for me. I followed the link from the Wikipedia entry on "L'esprit de l'escalier" -- the (original) French, as most of you probably know, for "Treppenwitz" -- which I was about to use, incorrectly, in a letter.

I gained from this post not only an interesting, stereoscopic perspective on New England and Israeli mores (by the way, I've seen the same same-serve roadside stands in my neck of the woods, East End Long Island), but also a salutary warning to ride my motor scooter more carefully. Because I, chaverim, am cruisin' for a bruisin', and indeed have already cruised to one (more of a FRACTURIN') on said scooter.

Posted by: Jack Huberman | Feb 22, 2008 3:08:17 AM

Great post, David. It sounds like you guys have a very special vet. Hope he has a refu'ah shelema really soon.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted by: psachya | Feb 22, 2008 4:21:28 PM

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