By Mike Gold, a retired entrepreneur "living the dream in the Pacific Northwest."
Quid pro quo is Latin for “something for something.”
The term has been all over the news in the past couple of weeks. It has appeared relative to President Trump's request to the President of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden's son’s dealings with an energy company before releasing monies to be used in the Ukraine for their fight against Russian-backed separatists.
If true, that is problematic for Trump. It is illegal for a U.S. official to ask a foreign entity to help gather information on a competitor in an upcoming election for purposes of helping that U.S. official.
Other common explanations of the expression include: “Tit for tat,” “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” and “One hand washes the other.”
In fact, I suggest this is one of the fundamental economic laws of the universe. Otherwise, why would you do anything for someone else unless you were going to receive something worthwhile back in return? And while we all can think of things we’ve done for others without any expectation of a return, I suggest if you look deeper, you will find that connection.
One example is family. We’ve all extended ourselves for our family. We’ve done things for our family members without regard for a return. But really, if you look deeper, you find that you extend yourself in return for love of that family member. So, while we don’t put a “price” on that thing we did, there really is something of value that you hope/expect to get back.
I thought I’d look at some of my quid pro quos to get some perspective.
I got my first really “great” bike at about age thirteen. It was a three-speed road bike that was the envy of many of my friends. I kept it in front of our family car in our garage. The garage door was difficult to lock so often it wasn't.
One day I returned from school to find the bike missing. When my mom got home from work that day, she for some reason immediately thought of my friend “Walter.” He was from an economic background significantly lower than ours (at that time, economic background was a very “relative” term – as no one in our neighborhood was “well off”)
So we walked over to Walter’s house, knocked on the door and my mom confronted him. She almost barked at him: “I know you took that bicycle.” (Things would be handled very differently today.)
Walter confessed and showed us where he’d hidden it. Back in those days, one would routinely report such an event to the police and the “perp” would have been punished – perhaps even with the creation of a “JV” record – which would have stayed with Walter into adulthood.
I decided not to go through this process and asked my mom not to report the incident. The quid pro quo was the satisfaction I got by not getting Walter into serious trouble. A contribution “for humanity.” And Walter was no longer my friend.
Many of us had both bottle cap and baseball card collections back in the day. Why bottlecaps? Why not? If you worked at it, you could wind up with caps from brands from all over the world. We thought it cool to have foreign language writing on the cap (in those days, there were no “pop top” bottles or cans).
We also collected baseball cards. Growing up in NY City, we were all either Dodger or Yankee fans (some were NY Giants fans as well – Willy Mays, et al). So, all us kids would “trade” cards back and forth, “I’ll give you a Heinekens Dutch language Cap for a Pee Wee Reese baseball card.”
That taught us all the value of the quid pro quo. Those lessons stay with you for your entire life. Is this a good trade – is the “value” equal?
A couple of decades ago I was negotiating a very large multi-million-dollar computer deal with a Dutch newspaper. Turns out one of the family owners had wrecked his expensive BMW sports car. He was very upset as he had just spent thousands of dollars rebuilding the engine.
So to “close” the deal, I offered to give them a discount on the computer system in exchange for him giving me his sports car. I told him I would import it into the U.S., fix it up and drive it myself.
That “cinched” the deal. Quid pro quo. Something of great value to him but not worth much to us other than a very large order.
It turned out that it was not possible to register that European model for use on U.S. roads, so, the other family members and I quietly arranged to have the car sent to a wrecking yard in Holland (an additional value to them was getting that sports car out of the hands of the family member – whom they didn’t trust to drive such a fast car at his age)
Or in the words of that great comic Henny Youngman:
My friend told me, “I got a car for my wife.”
I replied, “Really? - Where can I get that same deal?”
Quid Pro Quo.