Tuesday, December 30, 2008

the zero-sum game

" In game theory and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant...Cutting a cake is a zero-or constant-sum because taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others. Zero sum games are also called strictly competitive." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the zero-sum game theory.

In contrast, the non-zero sum theory holds that, "assuming the parties are acting rationally, any commercial exchange is a non-zero sum activity, because each party must consider the goods he is receiving as being at least fractionally more valuable to him/her than the goods he is delivering." Wikipedia, supra.

On December 23,2008 Ali Gharib reporting in IPC quoted senior counsel on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead on his concept of how the Palestinian Israeli conflict should be addressed: "The Obama administration needs to accomplish a kind of Copernican shift in perception: looking at the same sun, moon, planets and stars that others have seen , it must reconceptualize the relations among them". Mead went on to say that the U.S. must "understand conceptually that there are a lot of non-zero sum issues on the table in Israeli-Palestinian issues".

We are now staring at an ever escalating conflict regarding the Gaza strip. With Israel declaring an all out war against Hamas in this region, there is clear evidence of a mindset to eradicate. In this scenario, there appears no option but winning or losing.

David Brooks, writing in the NY Times on September 21, 2006, viewed the ongoing battles involving terrorist groups as "chaos theory in human form- an ever shifting array of state and non-state actors who cooperate, coagulate, divide feud and feed on one another without end." The resulting conflict was always to be zero- sum victory for one side or the other.

The fallacy of that logic is discussed by Robert Wright in his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Therein, he quotes former President Bill Clinton,from a Wired interview in December 2000, as follows:
" The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero sum solutions... we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accomodate each other".

President elect Obama faces a world in which non-zero sum theory must prevail. We have just witnessed 8 years of the devastating results of the alternative through the misguided actions of President Bush.

It often feels like our universe is incapable of realigning its fundamental approach to conflict. I know that the new President will undertake a task that makes the trials of Sisyphus seem gentle by comparison. But, unless and until the folly of the theory of destroying and and conquering is embraced , and the benefit in sharing our toys becomes paramount, we are doomed merely to repeat past failures. That would be a zero sum game in which there are no winners.

1 comment:

Jared Alessandroni said...

Maybe if we stopped thinking in historical and religious terms, the factors could be honestly calculated. If we look at capital, land, even politics, we can make rational decisions about what's fair. But how do you make fair when "God" tells you you're entitled to something, or that the other guy isn't? It doesn't have to be zero-sum, but we could get closer if we had non-magic variables in the equation.