The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Most Zero Sum Games Are Negative Sum & So Are Most Positive-Sum Games

In economics there’s the idea of how much a “game” nets, where a game is any economic activity. The ideal is to have positive sum games, where more good comes from the game than bad, and ideally all players of the game win. A classic zero-sum game is if you and I bet $10 on a coin flip: any win is precisely mirrored by loss. And a negative sum game is where people come out worse: a lot of wars are like this, no matter how much plunder, both sides are worse off at the end.

Just because a game is negative sum doesn’t mean it can’t be positive sum for a few people. War, again, is often like this. Masses of people may be killed, huge amounts of wealth destroyed and certain war profiteers may come out much richer and some politicians or generals much more powerful. Some soldiers may loot enough that war was better for them than peace.

The fundamental environmental critique of capitalism and industrialization is that it only looks like a positive sum game: that the damage we are doing to the environment (which includes climate change, but not just that) and to our health, makes it a negative sum game if one uses the proper time horizon (aka. if you won’t die before the bill becomes due) or if you include everyone (aka. being conquered by Britain was not good for Indians; being conquered mostly Europeans was not good for native North Americans, almost all of whom died) and capitalism has not been a marvel for most of the third world. Which is why, by the way, there are all those “best time to be alive ever” books which try to use dubious extreme poverty statistics to claim this is the closest we’ve ever gotten to utopia: they want to argue that capitalism and industrialization are positive sum games, at least for now.

These folks have no real argument against climate change and environmental collapse and tend to hand wave it with “technology will fix it” as if technology can un-extinct half the world’s species.

So in the big picture we’ve been playing a negative sum game for a long time. The destruction of the native civilizations of North America was a negative sum game. The impoverishment of India under the British East India company was a negative sum game (India started out with more industry than England, by a fairly wide margin.) Africa’s exploitation, from the slave trade to colonization was a negative sum game, which is not to deny they didn’t get some railroads and whatnot out of it. (The Belgians were the worst, but the French who are still making African nations pay them for having been conquered are mighty bad. England’s evils are well known.)

But we’re in a lot of local negative sum games. Wall Street types like to brag they “eat what they kill” and it’s accurate in all sorts of way. The entire run-up to 2008 was negative-sum: that’s why it took trillions to bail them out. All their profits came from creating much larger losses than their profits, then having other people pay them off and suffer a long light depression. And Central banks didn’t then go on to print trillions more because value was being produced after 2008, they had to print to keep covering the fact that real economic value was being destroyed.

Your average Wall Street executive is a sort of super-optimized human locust, getting fat by destroying real value. Private Equity as a whole is so clearly massively negative sum that if you try to deny it you live so far in a fantasy world there’s no point in talking. The entire neoliberal movement, with its poster-child policy of austerity was and is about damaging the real economy to make a small number of people richer.

A lot like those war profiteers we discussed earlier: they cause widespread misery, illness and death but they get very rich doing so.

(The military industrial complex is obviously negative sum, which, again, doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit some people.)

The job of governments is to create positive sum games and to stop negative sum games. In some ways that’s almost their only legitimate function. (Any crime system with high recidivism, or large numbers incarcerated is negative sum, by the way, but boy, a lot of people get rich locking other people up.)

A society with a lot of negative sum games running can be compared to an animal with a lot of ticks attached, a tapeworm, and some nasty diseases. It’s supporting a lot of parasites, but one day it falls over dead after a great deal of suffering, and then the parasite have to try to find a new host. If they can’t, because they’ve infected the entire herd (or destroyed the grazing land), well, then they too die.

Welcome to the fin de siecle of capitalist society.



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  1. someofparts

    So I guess instead of asking for help for the displaced refugees from Ukraine, we will have to pivot and start asking anybody who still has money to help the poor British who can’t afford to feed themselves and heat their homes.

    and here’s another good one –

    So Alito thinks the reason Boris Johnson lost his position is because Johnson did not take birth control away from women in the UK. Abortion shouldn’t just be legal in the first trimester, it should be legal retroactively in Alito’s case.

  2. someofparts

    This is the one I was really looking for – a blistering account of conditions in the UK –

    Reading it again just now made me think of the contrast with the emerging prosperity in Asia. In the past it has crossed my mind that as Asia becomes prosperous the West might descend into the kind of poverty that used to blight the third world. Even though the thought crossed my mind I didn’t really believe it. But now, considering the UK’s future, and ours as well in this country, I wonder how wrong I may have been. Maybe it’s happening faster in the UK than it is in the US right now, but that may change once the Republicans take control of the government again, with Trump back in the White House for good measure.

  3. bruce wilder

    It is an odd peculiarity of human political psychology that so many see clearly the opportunity to benefit from inflicting harms on others while not acknowledging the harm they do.

    It is true that doing any good at all has costs — not just the subjunctive “opportunity costs” beloved by obfuscating economists, but the inevitable and indeed “necessary” costs of consumption of resources (depriving others, human and not) and the costs of output as by-products, of waste. And it may require religious philosophy to fully accept the “necessity” of physical and biological reality at the most basic and fundamental level.

    But leaving compassion to the Buddha, I still marvel at the obliviousness of those who passively accept the arguments of the privatizers, the de-regulators. Indeed those who can themselves argue for cruelty or fraud and call it just are quite marvelous. These are not those who fear a vengeful and righteous G-d.

  4. VietnamVet

    The game players control the West. The world is a free trade scheme that relies on solely on markets to increase corporate profits. Russia, China and Iran are trying to leave it and set up their own commodity-based financial system. Sovereign national governments in the West that base decisions on the public interest were dismantled.

    The only response in the West to the shortages due to the Ukraine Russia proxy world war and ongoing unmitigated coronavirus and monkeypox pandemics is to raise prices. The elite bubble is so impervious that that the rising energy prices that are unaffordable will force many to face an unheated jobless winter. But there is no diplomatic contact for an armistice or talk of opening the NORD Steam 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe. The world is at war but with no functional sovereign nations in the West.

    The shell game is to ignore the looming disasters due to the proxy world war, climate change, pandemics, and the shortages of goods, energy and workers, as long as possible, to increase profits, now, no matter the future consequences.

  5. Rangoon78

    The “best time to be alive” people in high places. Warren Buffett: “While the investor urges that the stark wealth inequality in America needs to be addressed, he says capitalism and the country’s growing wealth help make this the best time to be alive.”
    “Those in power cook the books and spin data to make their case for maintaining the status quo, and how The Neoliberal Optimism Industry is, at its core, an anti-intellectual enterprise designed to lull us into complacency and political impotence.”

  6. someofparts

    “Sovereign national governments in the West that base decisions on the public interest were dismantled.”

    Indeed. Well said. Seems like now that I know the pattern I see it everywhere, like the assassination of Shinzo Abe, or the ongoing coup attempt against Imran Khan. Or, in the shoot-yourself-in-your-own-foot category, the failed coup against Erdogan, which has led Turkey to build ties with Russia, mend fences with Syria, and prepare to work with both of these allies to get the US out of Syria. All of this while the biggest failed coup attempt of all, against Putin, is about to destroy Europe, severely damage the US economy and absolutely ruin the US reputation as a reliable trade partner globally.

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