Dealing With Less Than a Full Deck

When I helped negotiate thousands of contracts for UC Berkeley, I took as my guide Carlo Cipolla’s distinction among life strategies:

· Smart strategies produce a gain to both the individual and others.
· Selfish strategies produce a gain to the individual but a loss to others.
· Masochistic strategies produce a loss to the individual but a gain to others.
· Stupid strategies produce a loss to both the individual and others.

My aim was to negotiate smart contracts. It wasn’t always easy. Many vendors supposed that part of the public sector’s role was to absorb the risk of private enterprises. Others just wanted to get the better of us.

I would explain our position and then hold firm: as a public entity we’re not trying to screw anybody — we’re being quite fair in our allocation of risk, actually — but we’re also obligated to protect the public interest. If that wasn’t sufficient for the vendor and it kept trying to beat us — pushing a selfish strategy in hopes we’d adopt a masochistic one — I would reach out to the involved campus department and urge it to find another vendor. (The department usually resisted, but that’s another story.)

Pursuing smart deals isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s gratifyingly common — because it makes good business sense. Parties who mutually benefit from their relationship are more likely to continue working with each other and to recommend one another to additional partners, increasing the likelihood of long-term success.

I mention this because we have a president who takes credit for a best-selling book about deal-making (he didn’t write it) but does not believe in smart deals. Over the last few weeks he has trashed several agreements underpinning America’s seventy-year run of financial and military pre-eminence, characterizing them as masochistic.

Are the deals imperfect? Of course. There are no perfect contracts — there are no perfect anythings. But has America been taken advantage of? It’s impossible to square that argument with our position in the world. Unless, that is, you see it through the lens of right-wing political correctness, where good upstanding Americans are everyone’s victims, even Canada’s.

(It also doesn’t square with his unilateral concessions to parties who habitually negotiate in bad faith, such as North Korea [the suspension of military exercises with South Korea] and China [the ZTE deal], but that too is another story.)

Nor is he playing chess while everyone else plays checkers. As noted in an earlier post, he survives from moment to moment by keeping everyone around him anxious. His negotiating tactics make no sense from any other perspective. Assuming he persists in them — especially for eight years — it’s easy to predict where his compulsive reliance on selfish strategies (and demands for masochism from our partners) will lead. We’ve already seen how it played out in his personal business, where he had to declare bankruptcy multiple times and chased after cash from crooked Russian bagmen to stay afloat.

I doubt that’s the result his base wants for the country, but as the real writer of The Art of the Deal put it in the summer of 2016, “if Trump is elected president, the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows — that he couldn’t care less about them.”

It’s sweet of Tony Schwartz (the ghostwriter) to think the base will ever realize it’s been conned. I hope he’s right. But by the time that day comes, it will be too late.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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