Monday, April 16, 2012

On Capuchin Monkeys And The DPRK

Corey Wallace recently wrote a lengthy thought piece on the options of Ozawa Children in the face of the Democratic Party of Japan's low popularity ratings and the Noda government's likely contractionary imposition of a higher consumption tax. I think he gives the Ozawa children a little more freedom of choice than they possess, unless they have the personal resources (i.e., personal wealth) to pay for their own reelection campaigns or, barring that, an appetite for self-destruction.

Wallace has also just posted up on Facebook a TED speech by the animal behaviorist Frans de Waals of the Yerkes Primate Center. In the speech, de Waals reviews the possible evolutionary origins of morality. Take the time to watch the full 17 minutes of the video, if only for your edification and amusement. (Link)

I have always thought that the Capuchin experiment, where the monkey who receives the cucumber becomes so angry about being cheated out of getting a grape that it throws the cucumber at the experimenter, provided an insight on how negotiators, particularly American and Japanese ones, get played by negotiators from the DPRK. Coming from societies where reciprocity is valued and presumed to the point where it becomes invisible, the American and Japanese negotiators have time and time again been willing to throw away whatever they have gained when they see the DPRK getting more out of a deal.

In the video, de Waals, by being a little too funny, fails to nail down the point the audience should be taking away from the presentation: not that Capuchin monkeys have what have been previously thought to be a human sense of fairness, but the obverse, that we humans, when raised in a normal environment, are no more than tall, hairless Capuchins. We react emotionally to unfairness because we are programmed to do so.

In the horrible Stalinist nightmare (in George Orwell's immortal image, "Imagine a booted foot, stamping a human face, forever") that is the DPRK, those who have risen in the hierarchy and/or survived it have had much of their organic humanity ground out of them. They are true economic animals, treating every meeting as a one-off (because one never knows if one will be meeting that person again) and always seeking to maximize one's profit immediately, without seemingly caring about what happens in the future.

This startling capacity to go against the fundamental programming of the human species is at the base of the insane/logical dispute over the nature of the DPRK regime. Seen from the point of view of normal human society, that is to say from the point of view of the Capuchin monkey, the behavior of the DPRK is insane – it constantly rejects reciprocity in favor of bat-excrement crazy threats and cheating. At the same time, analysts, when looking at the results the DPRK has managed to extort with its behavior, see a basic outline of reasoning and calculation.

The two supposedly contradictory views of DPRK behavior are actually two sides of the same coin. The superiority affected by the analysts and commentators who see logic in the behavior of the DPRK is unmerited: those who see the DPRK as insane have an equally vital an insight into the true nature of the regime.

So what does one do with a negotiating partner who is ultimately unreliable?

1) Take the damn cucumber – When dealing with a purely economical partner, one has to accept whatever small profit one attains. This will be hard, especially to explain to legislators and a populace who expect you to walk away from a negotiation having received a grape for a grape. If it is necessary to drop down to the level of popular culture to explain the hopelessness of trying to walk away from a negotiation with the DPRK with one’s honor intact, quote the Ferengi Rule of Acquisition #109: “Dignity and an empty sack is worth the sack.”

2) In the long run reciprocity pays, whereas purely economic behavior is the road to penury – This assertion seems to run counter to primitive economic reasoning, where the maximum benefit for all is achieved through each individual attempting to maximize his/her own profit. However, societies with a strong sense of fairness, or "trust" as Francis Fukuyama chose to call it, become rich out of an ability to plan ahead, thanks to the faith that a sacrifice or act of altruism done today will be paid off equally or even in excess some other time. Societies where reciprocity runs deep -- United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea -- are rich: the DPRK is a basket case.

3) When all you really have is cucumbers, a cucumber is costly – For immensely wealthy nations such as the United States, Japan and the R.O.K. a tiny reward is close to nothing. For immense poor nations like the DPRK, every sacrifice is costly, in real and relative terms. In terms of Capuchin behavior, every cucumber the fat monkey accepts from the thin one brings the thin one pain. It would rather consume the cucumber itself.

So what would a rejection of our natural programming – i.e., our Capuchin monkey brains – direct us to do?

The first step would be to stop the silly nonsense of going to the UN Security Council for stronger sanctions or a condemnation of the DPRK after its failed rocket launch, or of cutting off promised food aid (the official euphemism is "nutritional assistance" – which sounds like a vitamin supplement drop from the back end of a C-130) because the DPRK ingnored a warning to not test "ballistic missile technology." Insisting that the rocket launch was a test of ballistic missile technology focuses on the rocket as a technological object, ignoring the more important function it had a political object – a function it failed to perform, due, it must be said, to its shortcomings as a technological object. Cutting off assistance and going to the UN Security Council because the DPRK humiliated U.S. negotiators of the Leap Day "agreement" (for the reason why the word agreement should be in quotes, see this post by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis) is just the sort of Capuchin behavior that will give the DPRK justification to conduct a nuclear test.

Second, test the nerve of the DPRK’s new leader. The U.S. and Japan should put the rocket launch "under consideration" pending the perpetration of further provocative acts. Let the DPRK leadership be torn over the outside world's willingness to forbear retaliation. Make it hard for them to really go forward with a nuclear test, as that will certainly bring all hell down upon them, and they would lose the grape they got out of February's face-to-face meeting with the United States.

Japan and the United States should give the DPRK something to lose, rather than nothing to lose. Let us rely on what we know of the DPRK: that they neither assume generosity nor operate without a certain logic. If the DPRK goes ahead with the currently prophesied nuclear test, the outside world loses nothing – since it will turn out the test was inevitable, no matter what the outside world did. Furthermore, the outside world will gain valuable piece of information: that the DPRK regime is not coldly calculating but instead profoundly, irredeemably stupid.

1 comment:

sigma1 said...

Mission achieved re: using Capuchins in DPRK post!

As for the freedom of movement of the Ozawa crew - I think for those who were elected in SMDs it really may not make much of a difference anyway and some may decide to not go down without a fight. As I understand Ozawa instructed many of them to keep their heads down and work on building relationships in their electorates and have very little to do with national politics for the first two years of the DPJ. It was good advice, but it might end up that the visibility some of them have built for themselves may come in handy for another party at some point. But, you know, who knows and all that!