Posts tagged with: zero-sum game

zero-sumWhy do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the second in a series of posts that addresses that question by examining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. The first in the series can be found hereA PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.

In my first post, I covered the first four principles (#1 – Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences; #2 – Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying Biblical principles; #3 – To exploit the poor, the rich need the help of the government; #4 – We love economic growth because we love babies). In this post I want to consider points #5 (The economy is not a zero-sum game) and #6 (Poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice).

5. The economy is not a zero-sum game.

In a zero-sum game, one person’s gain (or loss) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. It’s similar to dividing a pumpkin pie between five people: someone can only get a larger slice if someone else’s portion is smaller.

Many progressives in America, including far too many (though not all) liberal evangelicals, believe economics is a zero-sum game. They believe wealth, like a pumpkin pie, is fixed and that “there must be one winner and one loser; for every gain there is a loss.” This may be true in some economic systems, but it does not apply in free markets.

Jay W. Richards explains why free enterprise does not require that there be an economic loser for every economic winner:
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Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It’s true: the middle-class is growing, globally. Here in the U.S., we keep hearing dire warnings about a shrinking middle class, but not across the globe. Alan Murray, president of The Pew Research Center, says the world is MiddleClass_10_0

witnessing its third great surge of middle-class growth. The first was brought about in the 19th century by the Industrial Revolution; the second surge came in the years following World War II. Both unfolded primarily in the United States and Europe.

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Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to SuccessWhen discussing economics, we frequently encounter the zero-sum fallacy: the notion that the economic pie is fixed, that there is always a winner and a loser, and that, for someone to grow rich, another must become poor.

Yet in a market wherein rule of law, contracts, and property rights are properly established, the pie will surely grow. We are not static balls of flesh nestled comfortably in a static universe. We are spiritual beings made in the image of a creative God, and mutual trade and exchange help accelerate our efforts to create and collaborate alongside our neighbors. As Jay Richards notes, the uniqueness of the human person feeds into how economic value is actually determined.

But although we typically discuss the errors of such thinking in matters of basic material exchange, we should note that such a fallacy can just as easily filter into our broader social and spiritual activities in the workplace. Such limited thinking can trap us in a sort of self-centered tunnel vision, whether with our clients, co-workers, or competitors, leading us to assume that success cannot come if we allow any wiggle room for generosity, whether in basic service, various collaborations, or even end-game negotiations.

In an article for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith touches on these themes by highlighting a new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, wherein organizational psychological Adam Grant seeks to challenge such zero-sum thinking, arguing that by having a fuller, more healthy perspective of mutual gain, we can move forward together toward a more productive, more fulfilling economic and social environment. (more…)

The folks over at the Comment magazine site have generously run an essay by me, “Business and the Development of Christian Social Thought.” This piece is a web-friendly version of my editorial from the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which highlights the call for papers for next spring’s issue on the theme “Integral Human Development.” If you have an interest in this theme as it appears particularly in the Roman Catholic social encyclical tradition, or analogous ideas from other religious traditions, including notably the idea of “integral mission” as appears in the evangelical ecumenical movement, be sure to check out and share the CFP.

One of the points I highlight in this essay is what biblical scholar Craig Blomberg, in his paper in the issue’s “Theology of Work and Economics” Symposium, identifies as the “theory of limited good.” He describes this perspective as that of the biblical world, when

most people were convinced that there was a finite and fairly fixed amount of wealth in the world, and a comparatively small amount of that to which they would ever have access in their part of the world so that if a member of their society became noticeably richer, they would naturally assume that it was at someone else’s expense.

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Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A recent Fox News piece on President Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren, makes for spooky reading, dramatizing where well-intended intellectuals can end up when they take a zero-sum view of our planet’s resources.

In a 1977 course book that Holdren co-authored with environmental activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the three make an extended case for aggressive global population control. As the Fox News article explains:

Holdren and the Ehrlichs offer ideas for “coercive,” “involuntary fertility control,” including “a program of sterilizing women after their second or third child,” which doctors would be expected to do right after a woman gives birth.

“Unfortunately,” they write, “such a program therefore is not practical for most less developed countries,” where doctors are not often present when a woman is in labor.

The Most Dangerous Game

The article provides a pdf of the relevant pages of the 1977 course book (go here). Reading these several pages makes it difficult to take seriously a statement by Holdren’s office that Dr. Holdren “does not now support and has never supported compulsory abortions, compulsory sterilization, or other coercive approaches to limiting population growth.” At best, a passage at the end of 788 and the beginning of 789 suggests that the three authors would happily opt for less coercive measures, provided those measures work to their satisfaction.

Holdren and the Ehrlichs are not alone. There’s a long history, dating back at least to the 1700s, of doomsters insisting that population growth coupled with a scarcity of natural resources will very soon ruin civilization.

What’s behind this pessimism, a pessimism apparently immune to contrary historical evidence? In Acton’s new Effective Stewardship DVD curriculum, soon to be released by Zondervan (go here), Acton president Rev. Robert Sirico puts the matter in philosophical and theological context. There he argues that the problem is rooted in a false anthropology, one in which the doctrine of the imago dei is eclipsed, and with it the powerful role of human creativity:

There are many people, including religious leaders, who say that the essential problem is a problem of resource, and that if it’s a problem of resource then it’s a problem of population. This is what I call humaniphobia.

The image in the humaniphobe’s mind is that the human person is one big mouth that is constantly ingesting, and then polluting.

On such a view, humans are the problem rather than the solution. The takeaway question is this: Do we really want to hand our health care over to the U.S. government when a science adviser like Holdren has the president’s ear?