Zero-Sum Games

I am becoming increasingly concerned about growing divisiveness in our country. 

The danger of sharing my thoughts on this matter is that it ignites further political vitriol. That’s the last thing I want to do.

Setting ideology aside, is it possible we’re becoming unhinged because the fundamental operating premise of both political parties is wrong?

Both parties behave as if they are playing a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games involve winners and losers, the fit and the eaten. Me against you. We love zero-sum games. Last year, every one of the top twenty TV audiences involved sporting events that produced a winner and a loser. Half the viewers of those shows went away upset.  

We face significant problems. But, instead of working together towards solutions, we’ve divided ourselves into two tribes that are locked in mortal combat. No matter how reasonable one side’s ideas may be, the other side opposes them to rally their base. 

We have devolved to a state where progress without warfare is becoming impossible. Each side believes in its wholesomeness, viewing the other side as depraved. Each side commands roughly half of the voters. At present, the best-case scenario is that nothing gets done. In fact, that’s a design feature of our democracy. I fear this best-case solution is slipping away.

Let’s assume for a moment that we stop playing this zero-sum game!  

What if we asked everyone to submit their votes for the most pressing problems our country faces. For instance, they could choose from a list of twenty-five issues assembled by the League of Women Voters. Votes could be submitted via text message, the same way finalists are selected for the popular television show, “The Voice.” Candidates for election would then campaign on their plans to address the top issues. The process could be repeated each election cycle with candidates answering to progress made.

This, of course, is a naive and unworkable solution. There are probably better solutions. The key point I want to make is that dropping the zero-sum approach is doable. Even when opposing parties are pitted against each other. 

Before retirement, I led a team responsible for negotiating billions of dollars of annual contracts. At times, the power in crucial negotiations was evenly split between ourselves and the supplier. We wanted to buy at the lowest price, the supplier wanted to sell at the highest profit. Can you guess what the most successful negotiating strategy was in such instances?

For starters, each side had to agree that concluding a deal was better than walking away. 

Please read that sentence again!

If we could agree on that, each side then listed their objectives for the deal. Next, rather than battling each other, we worked together to find a solution to the combined objectives of both sides. If none could be found, each party agreed to re-visit their priorities. In the end, it was amazing how many creative solutions were found to what appeared to be intractable issues.

To work, this approach requires opposing sides to agree to pursue a win-win solution. 

Until we do that as a country, I believe we’re in for more of the same, or worse!


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2 Replies to “Zero-Sum Games”

  1. Hi Tim. Interesting thoughts. My two cents are that we have very complex underlying issues – systemic racism (which has come more to the forefront when Trump let the genie out of the bottle), a widening wealth gap, a political system that allows whoever spends the most money to “win” (and again, that is viewed as a zero sum game) rather than who actually cares to serve the public, a silent majority (left or right of center) that is disengaged so that politicians increasingly cater to the fringes for the incremental votes, changing demographics, to name a few. I am sure there are a host of others. Any one of these would be polarizing by themselves, but combined, I fear we have an unmanageable system. So I too believe we’re in for more of the same or worse.
    – Al


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