The Zero-Sum Lens

There are many ways of seeing things.  One perspective – particularly appealing, perhaps, to those who believe in yin and yang, give and take – is that of the zero sum.

The concept of the zero sum is that everything has its price – that improvement in one area tends to entail loss or deterioration in another.  You grow smarter, but now some people think you are arrogant; you spend your money on one thing, but now you have less for something else.

Like other perspectives, the zero-sum lens is hard to refute.  If you look around long enough, you can almost always find something in the past, present, or future that is sacrificed for the sake of some other objective.  This hardly amounts to proof that the world runs on a zero-sum basis.  But it does suggest that one generally can – indeed, should – ask, “What are we losing?” whenever something is being gained.

Now, the time when we are experiencing our greatest successes is not necessarily the most pleasant time to point out how we are simultaneously failing.  People may not want to hear it.  In the mid-2000s, for instance, I thought about picketing a July 4 celebration with a sign that said, “Today we bombed a wedding in Afghanistan.”  My eventual conclusion on that project was that it would yield an ironic headline:  “Free Speech Advocate Stomped During Celebration of Nation’s Liberty.”  I was no enemy of irony, but I feared it might be lost on those most directly involved:  the party crowd is not known for its contemplative bent.  Yet if people like me had been more assured of safety in the exercise of honesty, the U.S. might have had better Afghan outcomes.  On multiple levels, there was loss as well as gain in the actions and inactions of that day.

That July 4 scenario raises the possibility that the zero-sum lens may be most profitably employed when it is least welcome.  People already tend to compare pluses and minuses in many parts of life:  the costs and benefits of buying a new car; the gains and losses from switching to a different job.  But what about other situations where people are not inclined to recognize downsides?

Consider food.  Nobody, it seems, thinks the world would be a better place if there were less of it.  So is food procurement an unalloyed good thing, for which there is no tradeoff, nothing being lost?  That seems unlikely.  There are, for example, assorted health problems linked to obesity and poor diet.  Beyond that, researchers seem to think that caloric restriction – a deliberate effort to eat less than one could eat without gaining weight – may help people live longer.  Many are unhappy with various disgusting and unethical aspects of the American food supply system.  Internationally, conversion of forest to farmland appears to be having adverse environmental effects.  Cannibalism tends to be frowned upon.  In short, there are quite a few ways in which one can say that food procurement is, and should be, treated as a relatively (not absolutely) positive activity accompanied by a host of actual and potential drawbacks.

As a different example, how about health care?  We all want to live longer and with less pain and sickness.  Yet we also encounter the phenomenon of medicine that can pour tremendous resources into the last six months of an elderly, dying person’s existence – even though doing so may make health care more expensive and less available for much younger people who have not yet had their fair shot at life.  And yet, while making and paying for these heroic efforts, we are entirely comfortable with an automobile-oriented existence that kills and injures large numbers of people every year.  We are also supportive of corporations that produce and sell military hardware to regimes that use such equipment to kill civilians.  In addition, we endorse a law enforcement system that punishes the weak and destroys families, as well as gross pollution and resource depletion.  Here, again, the initial tendency – to believe that America favors longer and healthier lives for its citizens – gives way to the reality that we do often favor shorter lives and more suffering, for our own generation and for those to come.  We do not make these choices in a conscious effort to promote cruelty, though there is some cruelty in our decisions.  The point is just that we do make these choices.

Education is yet another example.  For some years now, it has been common to hear about research indicating that college graduates have better employment outcomes – lower unemployment, higher lifetime earnings – than those who do not attend and graduate from college.  The conclusion to which many students, parents, and policymakers have leapt is that education up to and including college is a good thing, period.  Once again, though, one must ask:  what is being lost here?  Often, people promoting this viewpoint describe education as a route into the middle class; the implication is that the lower class has no further need of its best and brightest, since those future doctors and lawyers do not flood reliably back into the communities from which they came.  There is also the faith that college means an actual education, when there is considerable evidence that kids are graduating without having necessarily learned much.  It is presumed, moreover, that the purpose of an education is to qualify one for a job, which would imply that there is no point in getting educated if employment does not ensue.  There is certainly no point spending thousands of dollars on an expensive education that will pay off; but that seems to mean just that education has gotten too expensive, not that we need less of it (not to deny that even a perfect education would l.  There are also many ways to be miseducated, as in the examples of MBAs who have gone forth to run their companies into the ground, and lawyers whose efforts make the world a worse place.

It would be possible to offer other examples.  For instance, in another post, I’ve made a similar point with respect to employment.  The message is simply that a zero-sum lens seems to be useful especially in situations where it is unfashionable if not downright risky to express a contrarian perspective.  In the real world, there is no such thing as a sure thing.


(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)


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