Winners and Losers
How the Zero Sum Mindset Shapes Society
"You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win,” observes Donald Trump, in his 2007 philosophical treatise, Think Big and Kick Ass. "That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win — not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself."
If Trump has a core belief, it’s that life is a zero-sum game: a game in which gains for one person or group always come at the expense of others. The term zero-sum comes from economics. It describes a ‘game’ - any set of circumstances where two or more people take decisions that affect each other - in which one side’s gain is equivalent to another side’s loss, with the result that the net overall gain is zero. Dividing a cake is a zero sum game; if you get a bigger slice, mine will be smaller. And let me tell you right now, that is not acceptable.
A non-zero sum game is one in which the cake magically grows as you’re dividing it. Science is a non-zero-sum game - individual scientists might compete to make discoveries, but everyone in the field gains when knowledge is advanced. One way of summarising the argument of my book on productive conflict is that we should strive to treat our disagreements as non-zero-sum - as opportunities for all parties to come away smarter rather than as contests in which one party is triumphant and the other is destroyed.
The most important non-zero-sum game in history is economic growth, of the kind we discovered about three hundred years ago. Malthus assumed that human welfare is a zero-sum game. In the Malthusian mindset, there was no point trying to make the poor better-off, because then more of them would survive and fewer deaths inevitably meant lower living standards for everyone else. That’s how Trump still thinks about it. But innovation-led economic growth allowed us to break out of this miserable trap, and generate the greatest human flourishing in history. Done right, economic growth means that the better off others become, the better off we are.
It’s not always easy to say with certainty which games are zero-sum or non-zero-sum. Much depends how you see them. Zero-sum is not just a theory or a model. It’s a mindset, a lens through which to view life, and it isn’t confined to rapacious billionaires.
The American anthropologist George Foster spent years studying impoverished Mexican farming villages. In 1965 he published his “theory of limited good”. Foster didn’t use the term “zero-sum” but this was essentially the same idea. The inhabitants of these peasant societies believed there was a finite amount of good stuff in the world, and that everyone competed with each other for access to it. “Good” could mean lots of things but to the Mexicans it mainly meant money and luck; it was both physical and metaphysical.
Foster identified envy as a manifestation of “limited good” thinking, along with beliefs in witchcraft and evil eye. Since anyone who got a little richer must be hurting everyone else’s chance of doing the same, there was a strong resistance to the accumulation of wealth. Those who got rich were expected to distribute their wealth to the villagers in exchange for political influence. Foster argued that the idea of “limited good” was keeping the Mexicans poor.
More recently, academics have been looking at whether and how the zero-sum mindset shapes modern societies.A group of Harvard economists have carried out an extensive study of this mindset among Americans. They asked over 20,000 respondents a series of questions to establish how zero-sum they were in their thinking. Did they believe that gains for some come at others' expense - between countries, racial groups, immigrants vs non-immigrants, and income groups?
From the answers, the researchers constructed a ‘zero-sum index’ - an indicator which captured how likely any one respondent is to see the world through a zero-sum lens, regardless of context. By matching this score to other information about political attitudes, income, age and family background, they gathered some rich findings. For instance, younger generations are much more zero-sum than older ones:
Why? The researchers’ hypothesis is that younger generations grew up in more straitened times than their forbears. The post-war economy delivered on President Kennedy’s promise that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. In the 1950s and 1960s, some Americans got a lot richer than others, but all Americans gained. Good times tend to breed non-zero-sum mindsets. But when lower or middle-class incomes stagnate, a zero-sum worldview finds more purchase. This relationship holds good across countries:
The politics of this are interesting. The zero-sum mindset seems to cut across the left-right divide. Trump is a zero-sum guy but overall, the researchers found that the mindset is more associated with left-leaning political views. High zero-summers are more likely to favour policies that redistribute income from the wealthier to the less wealthy, and to back affirmative action for African-Americans and women. But they were also likely to favour more restrictions on immigration. High zero-summers can thus be found among both Republicans and Democrats.
This helps to explain Trump’s rise. We can think of him as the first zero-sum president of modern times. Until he came along, presidents of either party told the JFK story. They stressed the unity of the American people, and framed their policies - whether tax cuts for the rich or higher welfare - as good for all Americans. Trump came along and said, hey, there are winners and losers here, and you want to be a winner, right? If you were a working-class Democrat who had seen both income and status shrink while others got rich, this message had a visceral appeal.
Of course, Trump didn’t actually do much for those voters once in office, at least materially, which is partly why he lost in 2020. Still, there was force to his message. The non-zero-sum story had started to seem like a rather moth-eaten brocade, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Some of the gains of the rich did seem to come at the expense of the middle-class. Some of those jobs did go abroad, without being replaced. For all that he has a reputation for lying, Trump was perceived by his voters as brutally honest. When the economy stops working for so many people, zero-summers like Trump and Farage will thrive.
It’s a pity that many of Trump’s most passionate enemies share his zero-sum mindset. Left-wingers tend to assume that there is a fixed amount of wealth to go around, and that the fundamental problem of modern economies is therefore one of distribution; Clinton-era enthusiasm for non-zero-sum economics no longer holds much sway among Democrats. (To measure economic zero-sum-ness the Harvard researchers used a question from the World Values Survey, which asks respondents to agree with either, “People can only get rich at the expense of others,” or “Wealth can grow so there’s enough for everyone.”)
Zero-sum thinking underlies some of the bleaker aspects of modern culture, like the jostling for position among the highly educated classes described by Peter Turchin as the problem of “elite overproduction”. According to a 2021 study carried out by psychologists, people with a strong zero-sum mindset tend to view status in terms of power and dominance, rather than prestige (knowledge, skill), and are more willing to employ intimidation to get their way; if were an employer I’d be testing for this mindset and avoiding it like the plague. The same study finds that strong zero-summers exhibit more distrust towards democratic institutions, which isn’t surprising since democracy is, in essence, a non-zero-sum idea. Some of the attitudes we group under ‘cancel culture’ or ‘woke’ stem from a view of society in which there is a limited amount of status or income to go round and some must “make way” for others.
If the researchers are right, our increasing zero-sumness is rooted in economics. In short, if we want a kinder, more generous society, and a less bitter and hostile public discourse, we can appeal to each other’s better natures, but our best hope is stronger GDP growth.
`After the jump, a bit more on this study; in particular what it tells us about the mindset of immigrants and how (non-)zero-sum attitudes are passed down through generations. Plus a note on Rishi Sunak’s controversial announcement on Net Zero measures, and why politics of climate change reminds me of Brexit. This newsletter depends on paid subscribers. Thank you to those of you have already signed up. I hope the rest of you will consider it. Taking a paid sub is good for the Ruffian and even better for you - a win-win proposition.
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