Have I Got a Deal For You!


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Back when my wife and I first got married, we did the garage sale/flea market tour about once a month. As graduate students with little money (and not much pride), we picked up our furniture, dishes, and clothes (no mattresses or underwear–we did have some standards). Early in our shopping days, we struggled with the haggling, almost always offering either too much or not enough. No one scowls quite like a garage sale worker insulted by a low-ball offer.

Eventually, experienced hagglers learn the artful dance of making an offer without actually making an offer. You begin by discussing flaws, sighing loudly as if your mere interest is a favor to the seller, walking away, wandering back (as if on accident), and then feeling out the seller. All the while you recognize haggling Rule #1: never make the first offer. Nothing feels worse putting your new found treasures in the trunk than wondering if you overpaid. “He took the offer too quickly. I should have offered $.25 less!”

This is a negotiating tactic that we see at all levels. When my two boys were younger, we did our level best to teach them both how to share and how to negotiate a fair deal. I’m not saying we were cheap, but our approach to gift giving was somewhat communistic and revolved around shared ownership. Why get two toys when we can just learn how to share? Unfortunately, for those of you with children, elementary-school morality is a little less communal and a little more capitalistic–he who has the most toys wins. Or, more apt, possession is 9/10’s the law for the bigger kid.

Don’t misread our goals and methods as achieving success. Negotiation worked as long as the bigger, older son controlled the conversation. (Or their mother stepped in–“You agreed to clean his room for WHAT!?”). The younger brother, and I’m a younger brother too, always has to navigate dicier waters and the smaller, younger brother always learns Rule #1 first: never make the first offer. (Rule #1A: Hold out and hope mom steps in.) The hope is the older brother, in his arrogance and power, will slip up and offer too much. Maybe you get the toy for longer or you get a supplemental toy or you get some future relief from torment. Honestly, my wife took the lead here, being much more willing to step in and broker a deal. (Evidently, she didn’t appreciate my survival of the fittest ideology when it came to the boys.) The problem was the older brother negotiated until he got bored: then he just took the toy. There was a point where he realized talk didn’t cook rice. (And bedtime was looming so play time was getting shorter.)

The drawback to this approach is that the dinner table eventually becomes a little like the market square. “I’ll eat my peas, if . . .” and “If I take out the trash, can I have . . .” but, in theory, this can help kids realize that we are constantly negotiating with the varying ideas and expectations around us. Life, in essence, is about negotiating our wants and needs with the varying groups and individuals around us. Decisions, actions, and negotiated agreements have consequences. Yes, we might tell the older son, you can trick your brother into giving you the toy, you might even be able to beat him into giving you the toy, but at what cost? (That, by the way, sounds really good in retrospect, but if your older son is anything like mine, his answer is that there was no cost. “I’ll always be bigger than him,” he says as if I’m the one who doesn’t get it.)

As we head toward the Fiscal Cliff, I’m reminded daily that our political leadership either imagines life and the financial health of our nation is like a flea market or they’ve never stopped acting like elementary school students. Neither party is willing to make the first offer, preferring to wait, afraid that if they offer a cut here or a revenue increase there, they will have offered too much or too little. The difference, though, is that our garage sale businessperson and our buyer at least seem interested in making a deal. While there is some measure of ego wrapped up in the transfer of goods, at the end of the day, I want a truck full of “necessities” and the owner wants an empty garage.

My kids are a good bit older now and while the younger one is still smaller than the older brother, he’s learned enough to avoid making bad deals. Negotiation is a little less dangerous and tends to end much more amicably in our house. They aren’t always happy, but such is the nature of living with and around other people. They are also figuring out that haggling might give you a chance at a better deal, but it slows the process down. The quickest way to make a deal is to make an offer. You don’t for instance argue for days over the last piece of cake. Cut the damn thing in half and enjoy.

As we inch toward December 31st and economic chaos, perhaps our political leadership needs stop acting like a bunch of 8 year olds and stop treating the tax code like a worn out couch and knickknacks we don’t want anymore. If they can’t do that, let’s get their mothers in the room and see what happens.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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