What is a zero-sum game and how does imposing that model impact the way the world operates?
“If I win, you have to lose” and “If you win, I have to lose”….succinctly summarizes the import, if not all the nuanced tactics that go into the conversation. What happens in effect is that the option of both of us, or if there are more than two participants in the exchange, each of them, by definition cannot win. And if there are only two outcomes feasible, then in order to establish and sustain a dominant position, one has to present the outcomes from any negotiation as a “win”….thereby misrepresenting the truth and inflating the delusion and the illusion of victory.
To impose this model on each and every problem or issue, is to attempt to establish a dominant position prior to the opening of discussion. It is a cynical and deceptive approach dependent upon another presumptuous premise: that either the “audience” will not care about the details of the outcome, or that enough of them will let those details that contradict the facts slip through their memories. “Winning” at any cost, then, becomes the object of any engagement.
Let’s start with an adolescent or early adulthood date, in which one of the players has already adopted this mantra: if I win, you lose; if you win, I lose.
“Would you like to see movie X?” he asks.
“Well, I would really prefer movie Y!” she responds.
Thinking to himself, “Jeez, I really wanted to see movie X, so how can I convince her (bribe her, induce her, coax her) to change her mind?
“After the movie, maybe we could go out for dinner, and then a rock concert that is playing tonight,” he proposes.
“I really thought we were going to a movie,” she responds.
“Well, I really do want to see movie X, and perhaps you would reconsider and join me, if there were something “in it” for you,” he mutters.
“There are only a few minutes before movie X starts, so I guess we could see it tonight, and maybe another night we could watch movie Y,” she suggests.
And so, they both proceed into the theatre showing movie X.
The promise of extra inducements, naturally, falls into the dust bin of history, never to be invoked again, unless she brings it up. He “wins” in the immediate term, and she, grudgingly “goes along to get along”. A similar psychodrama could and does play out in reverse, with the “inducements” coming from the female. Although the specifics of the inducements will naturally be different, neither gender has a monopoly on “inducements” in order to get what they want.
While the precedent will leave a different imprint on the mind and memory of each participant, (He: that worked, I will have to try it again! And she: I think I might have given in too easily!), the relationship’s future will hold the key to whether or not the matter is discussed and resolved differently the next time. If the relationship ends, each person will proceed with the experience stored for future reference. He, for his purposes of designing a winning strategy for the future and she, for her own future boundaries.
If he moves from relationship to relationship, without pausing to reflect on the “high-handed” and transactional manner in which he imposed a zero-sum game on his date, he will likely find other persons who, too, will take the bait, enabling his growing reliance on what appears to be a “winning strategy”.
In business, where the presence, growth, decline, absence of dollars to the bottom line determines both the short term tactics and the long-term strategy of the organization, zero-sum games are the sine qua non of the enterprise. Since each player is competing for a finite number of dollars, (consumers, contractees, partners, or any number of resources, including human resources) then the strategies and the tactics that apply to each negotiation have to ensure a “win” for the player with the dominant position, in order to sustain that dominance. And with respect to inducements, “premiums” from a marketing perspective, we have all been the recipient of “the latest offer” to induce our purchase of some product or service. The provider of the inducement has carefully calculated the costs and the prospective returns from the “offer” so that, at least in the short run, the “ends” justify the means once again. Just today, Pizza Hut offers, for example, a two-topping pizza for $8.95, but only if ordered on line. One assumes that generating on-line traffic, requiring fewer workers to execute the orders, will reduce costs for the company. And the elimination of the cost of human resources is the primary path to enhanced profits.
So what’s wrong with all of this? After all it is the “way of the world” isn’t it?
Perhaps, and yet….
Reducing options to win or lose, however, has the high risk of turning each of us into either a competitor or an enemy of all others. Neutrality, mutuality, multiple “wins” and the balancing of multiple interests with a view to a much more complex and subtle, nuanced and both long lasting and more sustainable result…all of these options are virtually eliminated, or at least reduced to a minor significance. It is the need of the “top dog” to win, at all costs, and through whatever distortion, misrepresentation, deception and exaggerated trumpeting of success that the one side proclaims his/her win.
Today, for example, after berating the NATO leaders over both the Germany-Russia natural gas pipeline and contract, and also over the failure of members to pay the targetted 2% of GDP to the defense of the alliance, trump announced another of his proverbial “wins”…that all members agree to achieve the 2% and do it quickly, with a higher target of 4%. However, immediately following the two-day session in Brussels, Prime Minister Trudeau told the world his government was not going to double their NATO contribution (from 1.23% to 2%).
So that “win” trump proclaimed for his performance as the bull in the china shop is another hollow victory. Even his framing of the issues facing NATO, including his charge that Germany is controlled by Russia, as a consequence of that natural gas deal, is so far from fact-based, especially given Chancellor Merkel’s early life in East Germany under the former Soviet Union. She knows more about being under Russian control that trump will ever know, and would never permit her nation to fall into Russia’s orbit. Nevertheless, trading for natural gas, is one path to conversations for the mutual benefit of Russia and Germany, something the zero—sum protagonist will never comprehend.
The core perception that all the world is either a competitor or an enemy is a base for perpetual conflict, and exaggerated efforts to demonstrate “victory” at the expense of another, whether it be a peer, another military brigade, or a nation. The paradigm also has the serious and virtually unavoidable consequence of turning everyone into the means for another’s ends.
And that reduction effectively makes every human a potential agent in the pursuit of someone else’s ends, with or without any pretense of a process of seeking or attaining consent.
Zero-sum games also simplify the issues to suit the kindergarten paradigm of the perpetrator of the structure of the encounter. The option that a full-out, open, full-disclosure of the mutually agreed ground rules for the negotiation, mediation, arbitration or reconciliation is precluded from the start. So even the process, before any outcome is envisioned, is “fixed”….
Well, that may be the foundational structure of the real-estate development business in New York, if trump is their “role model”….And if it is, then there is a reasonable link to be drawn to the “process” and the structure of the mob and mafia. Only winners and losers are permitted, and damn the torpedoes with respect to whatever it takes to “win” in the end.
Zero-sum games are essentially a return to the wild west of decimating savagery as the only way to survive. And yet, some of us actually thought, and had been taught that human civilization has moved even if only a few centimeters toward a different structure, process and the options of more complex and mutually rewarding outcomes.
For a man of seventy or seventy-one to have slithered into the Oval Office, on the slippery skids of millions of zero-sum exchanges not only depicts the tragedy of a single life, but also the even more depressing and tragic trajectory of a once noble nation.
Transactions, under the umbrella of a zero-sum premise, eliminate level playing fields, eliminate all civil and decent expectations and outcomes, and suck the hope and optimism out of the culture.
How will the trump-bannon axis of evil explain that to their grandchildren?