Zero-Sum Thinking Makes Our Fights Much Nastier

(Bloomberg View) -- Remember “war”? That thing where countries (or kings, or religions) would gather up a bunch of people, give them weapons, and have them slaughter each other and pillage the countryside? For most of the past 3,000 years, war was a more-or-less constant feature of human life. Psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” chronicles the transition from a world where violence was the norm to one where it’s a startling, even shocking rarity.

That doesn’t mean war is over, as gruesome examples such as Syria attest. And a giant nuclear war could wipe us all out tomorrow. But the disappearance of war as a normal part of daily life poses a great mystery. It might be that modern weapons are so destructive that they deter countries from embarking on war. True, wars before advanced weaponry were brutal too: As a percentage of population, the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s was more lethal than World War II. It might be because modern populaces are too rich and satisfied to fight. But another reason might be that in the modern age, war doesn’t pay. Agricultural land -- the objective of most territorial grabs in pre-modern times -- just isn’t that big a source of wealth anymore. Even if your enemy has rich oil fields, seizing and exploiting them generally isn’t worth the cost of the war itself.

In other words, war is a negative-sum game. For the last few decades, more and more of humanity has turned its attention to positive-sum games, like commerce and peaceful social interaction. The turn to positive-sum thinking was facilitated by more-or-less steady economic growth -- a rising tide that lifted many, if not all, boats. Economics, once known as the dismal science, became the cheerful priesthood of win-win situations, emphasizing the gains from international trade and free commerce and downplaying the fact that some benefited much more than others.

Now, though, growth in rich countries has slowed:

Zero-Sum Thinking Makes Our Fights Much Nastier

Meanwhile, inequality has risen within most of these countries. In the U.S., this is compounded by the problem of lower economic mobility. The falling tide has gone out, but the dips and swells have become more uneven -- the same winners keep winning big, while everyone else keeps losing. 

In an environment like this, a certain amount of zero-sum thinking is necessary and healthy. When growth is slow and inequality is high, distribution begins to matter more. House Speaker Paul Ryan was rightfully jeered for bragging that the recent tax reform bill -- which will create big windfalls for wealthy Americans -- had raised a secretary’s wages by $1.50 a week. A buck-fifty -- maybe enough to buy a candy bar -- isn’t much of a rising tide, especially in a country where wealth inequality continues to soar.

But it’s easy to take zero-sum thinking too far. On issues such as immigration, trade, urbanism and universities, too many Americans are beginning to ignore the potential of win-win situations -- or to push for destructive policies that end up being lose-lose.

When thinking about immigration, restrictionists tend to worry that low-skilled immigrants will drag down U.S. wages, despite plenty of evidence that this effect is small or nonexistent. When high-skilled immigration is proposed, though, some fret that poor countries will be brain-drained. The notion of a virtuous cycle of “brain gain” -- where high-skilled immigrants accumulate American know-how, capital and technology, then transfer these back to the old country via investment -- doesn’t seem to cross their minds. And the idea that immigrants’ energy, drive and purchasing power can revitalize struggling American communities is all too often ignored. Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans too often see immigrants in terms of how they’re expected to vote in elections, ignoring their economic effects.

On trade, the country is haunted by the memory of the China shock in the 2000s, when Chinese competition devastated American manufacturing workers and put the lie to free-traders’ Panglossian predictions. But this has caused both the left and the right to oppose deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have been much more of a win-win for the countries involved.

Housing policy is another example of zero-sum thinking. Local landowners, sometimes aided by progressive activists, are sternly resisting new housing and transit development in highly productive cities like San Francisco. The landowners fear that more supply would lower housing prices, while the progressives fear it would raise rents. Neither is thinking about the economic growth that would come from allowing more people to live in the countries’ top cities.

Universities, meanwhile, continue to be the engine of American technological dominance. But they are increasingly under attack from conservatives who worry they serve as engines of liberal indoctrination, causing Republicans to threaten to cut their funding. Strangling the world’s best university system might make the U.S. a bit less liberal, but it would certainly make the country significantly poorer.

In all of these cases, zero-sum thinking is replacing the win-win thinking that prevailed throughout much of the 20th century. In a world of slow growth, inequality and reduced opportunity, there’s a seductive tendency to think that one can only be enriched if one’s neighbor is beggared. The danger is that policy becomes something like war was for our ancestors -- a struggle of interest group against interest group that ends up harming all the groups at once.

Our ancestors spent millennia trapped in a self-destructive cycle of constant warfare. Let’s try not to get trapped in a cycle of bitter zero-sum policy battles. In such a world, there are no real winners.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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