First Words

Life is not a zero-sum game

Neither is religion.

Zero-sum game theory, in which one party’s gain requires another party’s loss, is not a theory to live by. The scorekeeping and power displays inherent in this win-or-lose approach are uninspiring at best and vengeful at worst. There’s nothing lovely in thinking that my happiness requires someone else to be unhappy or that my appreciation for what I have in life depends on someone else having less. I don’t require other children to be seen as failures in order for my children to be viewed as successful. My wife’s beauty doesn’t necessitate the conviction on my part that somehow other women are ugly.

Zero-sum thinking doesn’t make for good politics either. The idea that somebody must win and somebody must lose in every economic, legislative, or geopolitical transaction makes for a broken body politic and an anguished world. When congressional politics become entirely zero-sum politics, each side will viciously protect its interests. Legislative gains on one side of the aisle mean, by definition, an equivalent loss for the other side.

President Donald Trump isn’t the first president to use zero-sum thinking as a political tactic, but he may be the first to make it the cornerstone of his presidency. When, for example, Trump recently announced that the country was “full,” he couldn’t have meant that he was personally convinced the US could not physically accommodate a single additional migrant or asylum seeker in some apartment on some street in some neighborhood of Portland, Pittsburgh, or Poughkeepsie. He was suggesting instead that menacing losses would be in store for US citizens if new immigrants were to receive food, shelter, and other legal and humanitarian accommodations.