The Problem of Zero Sum Economics

Tony SigIn a recent video release, President Obama turns his attention to economic growth, and here specifically to green energy.  Far be it from me to be critical of investing in clean energy alternatives to oil (though he did mention natural gas in there, which is by no means “clean”), but I was deeply concerned by the way he framed this with respect to other nations.  For him, jobs are apparently a limited and scarce resource, and so an uptick in jobs in one place will mean that there will be a stagnation or loss of jobs in another place.  So the fact that jobs are being created in other countries by investment in green technology is not a good thing – who cares if they are keeping their people from poverty, or securing a positive ecological future? – it’s a threat to our well being.  The solution, he says, is to “out innovate and out compete” other countries.  “I don’t want other countries to win the competition for these technologies and these jobs, I want America to win that competition, I want America to win the future.”  And we can do this, as divine providence has shown, “because America has the most entrepreneurial, most industrious, most determined people on earth.”  Wow. Can we at least get a Barna survey to show that is true?

Among the many, many problems underlying these kinds of statements is the social ‘ontology’ that understands countries as competitors for a limited common good.  Or rather, it destroys anything like an idea of a common good, there is only our good, my good, which can only be had at their expense, your expense.  The us/them mentality is only strengthened by the American exceptionalism in the statements.

The Church does not believe that one must nor ought to secure one’s good at the expense of another.  Neither does she believe that it is the necessary way of the world to be at perpetual war with one another, in economics no less than in meeting the needs of stability and peace.  Part of the role the Church has to play in international politics is a very strong critique of the racial and/or ideological barriers set up by the organization of modern politics into nation states, because we believe that as the Church, any of those kinds of “local” distinctions are irrelevant in Christ.  Unfortunately, we’ve played the major role in the formation of these states, and far too often we are divided internally, and have forced others to be divided by these artificial barriers, by, frankly, sinful barriers, barriers that mock the Gospel.  It’s not that we need to tear down “that wall,” but we need to tear down all walls.



  1. Agreed! Well, at least I agree about the Non-Zero sum options. Even atheists agree that an economic view point that only sees benefits as a limited commodity is not only mistaken but destructive. That is the problem with economics — it is very counter-intuitive much like many other areas of life.


  2. Let me preface my comment with an important note: I could be completely and utterly wrong, because I haven’t studied economics properly—only indirectly via philosophy and theology.

    But as I understand it, you may be framing it backwards here. As I understand it, an emphasis on zero sum economics is precisely that which leads us to emphasize the importance of maintaining “the common good.”

    Capitalists promote non-zero-sum economics. Socialists promote zero-sum economics (as I understand it): We live in a world of finite resources, and thus gains of the global North are at the expense of the global South.

    So, perhaps Obama’s comments meant U.S. companies exporting new energy jobs overseas to other countries. In which case, it’s still zero sum: the gain of jobs overseas is at the expense of jobs for Americans. Or alternatively, if he meant other countries developing their own indigenous industries (and thus not the U.S. exporting its own jobs), then that would situate his comments about the U.S. needing to out-compete other countries.

    In any case, I think your conclusions are spot on: Rather than the competitive construal of the world, Christians are called to imagine the world otherwise. And the trans-national Church catholic is the perfect agent for this. We need to recover a notion of the common good, but often this comes with being sensitive to the zero-sum nature of a world of finite resources.

    P.S. Hi Sabio, long time no see, my friend =).


    1. Hey Aaron,

      This post is much less about economic theory per se and more about how we narrate our economics. So as far as the tale Obama is telling, the competition for jobs is a zero sum game. Clearly this is neo-liberalism in full array – it’s not so much countries that are competing amongst themselves as it is companies competing and states do what they can to lure capital to their area, notice his emphasis on “private sector jobs.” Whether or not capitalism sees itself as non zero sum, I don’t know. Inasmuch as labor and ecology suffer always under capitalism I don’t see how it could possibly be a sustainable position.


  3. Yeah, I completely agree with your sentiments. I’ll have to watch Obama’s video to make more educated contributions here. But it just seems that pitting “the common good” against “zero sum narrations of economics” is the wrong target, as usually these are bedfellows contra the capitalists.


  4. Obama is clearly employing zero-sum, combative language, but this is boilerplate for political figures. There’s no reason to think that this speech is representative of what Obama actually thinks about the global economy.

    I suspect that what you’re seeing here is Obama struggling to motivate the US without a foil. He wants to follow in the footsteps of Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy & Reagan by giving some stirring address in the country’s time of need, but he has no Civil War, no Hitler, no Space Race, no Berlin Wall.

    So he can’t use the same triumphalist language as previous presidents to discuss the challenges facing the US. What does he say then? He’s not sure, so he falls back on the old narrative of American triumph even though it doesn’t quite fit. But even if he did know what to say, I don’t think the nation as a whole could accept it. Could you imagine the field day Fox News would have if Obama said “we need to tear down all walls!”

    So basically, Tony, I agree with you.


    1. Yeah, I didn’t take it that Obama was doing anything other than political pandering, but it doesn’t change that at a popular level, it has been difficult and mostly impossible yet to shake the American myths. How we tell our stories makes all the difference.


  5. I don’t think Obama’s lying, at least not consciously. To steal Tony’s words, he’s trying to tell the US a story about who we are and who we need to be (the first job of any leader,) but America’s public language is stunted — sometimes even hostile — regarding public goods & common pursuits. So Obama is cobbling together the most coherent narrative he can out of what’s left: vague libertarian sentiment, American exceptionalism & a distrust of public institutions.


  6. I agree that from a Christian perspective the zero sum game is not viable to follow as a state policy.

    Technology has replaced many old jobs not because of greed but effeciencies that benefit society collectively while pushing (as in jobs lost) on an individual basis.

    Our countries problem is that a high school education is no longer viable to support a middle class income. We have entered into a barbell effect where middle income jobs are exported or displaced by technology and low end service jobs like Mickey D’s is the alternative career.

    Additionally undergrad and graduate education only provides the opportunity to “get” or develop a middle to upper middle class job. This is why there is such a disparity in wages IMO. Today one graduates and develops their own job, one doesn’t apply and get a new career.

    China has to develop 100 million manufacturing jobs over the course of the next 15 years or social unrest will turn to civil war. Those jobs will come one way or the other from the US & Europe. In fact all of those jobs will go there with none of the manufacturing base left stateside as far as I can tell. The jobs the President talks about are IMO just as unrealistic. Solar and wind receive subsidies of over $23/Mwh (megawatt hour) compared with $1.59/Mwh for nuclear, $0.44/Mwh for conventional coal, and $0.25/Mwh for natural gas. Eco-friendly jobs will only become viable when gov’t either regulates nuclear, coal and oil to the point were no one can aquire it (which seems to be the current course of action). Since solar and wind are 50 times more dependent on subsidies, prices in general will have to move to unrealistic levels to become sustainable.

    We have natural gas to carry us for 100 years and coal for 1,000 years. IMO all available research should be plowed into coal since it is the resource God gave us in abundance and much of it is in the possession of the gov’t.

    Our most criminal policy curently (renewable fuels -ethanol) while paved with good intentions has made basic food items to expensive for the third world. IMO we can’t continue to support “clean air” at the expense of starving our brothers and sisters in the third world by burning corn as a fuel source.

    1) Until all countries can come to an agreement on what a just wage & benefit package is the US & western Europe will continue to lose jobs. This is where the church should place its Gospel message.

    2) Domesticly the church has to start preaching marriage as the poverty preventor it is and eliminate children out of wedlock which is now at 40% which translates to 75% of the poor in this country.


  7. Sabio,

    Well my intent was more general than preaching from the pulpit.

    Gov’t stats are clear that single parenting whatever the source of the problem equates to poverty.

    Now that the country has 40% of its children born out of wedlock, political policy IMO should be directed towards supporting marriage via economic incentive for marriage and economic disincentive for single parenting if nothing else at the political level and churches IMO should work/dialog towards that effort.

    That’s likely not going to happen because of a few factors:

    1) most Christian communions have little difficulty in accepting broken families as the norm, seeking to address the aftermath of the problem, rather than admit tacit approval of adultery and fornication which cause it.

    2)One political party while its initial intent was good, has made a living out of creating incentives for single motherhood and would be opposed to repealing them because of political fallout.

    3)The other political party gives lip service to supporting the family but not economic incentives and actively undermines it via its corporate culture.


  8. @ QuickBeam :
    All this is about causality, and not correlation.
    As you said, government intervention with supplementing single Moms was disastrous. I suspect that the next clever economic incentive or disincentive will be equally disastrous.
    Evidence points at the fact that when people are more prosperous they have less kids.
    Preaching, I think, will solve none of this.


  9. Sabio,

    “All this is about causality, and not correlation.”

    Sure that’s plausable, however I think marriage is more likely a correlation then prosperity. Education also has a causal link as well.

    “Preaching, I think, will solve none of this.”

    Well again “preaching” at least for me is much more than a sermon on Sunday morning. Currently there are 5 Catholic’s on the Supreme Court, four of which I would say attend weekly.

    Catholic’s make up about 30% of Congress including the Speaker of the House and the minority leader.

    Those are ties which can be influenced in both political parties, clearly its not a slam dunk, but I believe laws and regulations can be influenced(preached) to appeal to those objectives.


  10. @ Quickie

    OK, you can redefine “Preaching” if it helps.
    Either way, it appears you fall into the “Morality needs to be Legislated” camp — and so you are going to want your guys in power to legislate your morality.
    Is that fair?


  11. LOL very good,

    Me personally I’m against personal and corporate income tax so there wouldn’t be any attempts by either the secular or religious camps to right their personal civil inbalances. If however we are going to have them then the church should utilize those avenues which support the Gospel and defend marriage.

    As far as morality goes western civilization is re pleat with moral laws. The basis of our justice system is to take an oath to a higher power when giving testimony and a host of others.

    That the current state of the church is so poor that it has lost most of it moral authority is it’s own fault. Its a given when the church chooses to influence political institutions to uphold moral guidelines is as much an indication of just how sick our society is in general as it is the poor condition of its religious institutions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s