On Zero Sum
By S M Chen, posted by Debbonnaire Kovacs, Jan 27, 2016
Much of life seems subject to the concept of zero sum, from game theory, which posits that for every winner, there is a loser; for every gain, a loss. If one summates winners and losers, gains and losses, the result is zero.
A classic example is chess, a game of pure skill, in which the majority of time there is a clear winner and a loser (barring stalemate outcome, the frequency of which seems to be inversely related to the skill of the players).
In most sports, wherein there is usually only one ultimate winner in a given competition, there are actually, by necessity, more losers than winners. This applies equally to individual sports, such as tennis, golf, swimming and gymnastics, and to team sports, such as baseball, basketball, football, and volleyball.
The notion of few winners applies elsewhere, as in business and entertainment. There are many laborers/workers, but few CEOs; many actors, but few are nominated for Oscars, and even fewer win the coveted symbol of achievement. And so it goes for most other awards and prizes, including Emmy, Tony, Obie, Pulitzer, Man Booker and Nobel.
An extreme situation is a lottery, in which there are few winners of often large sums, whereas the vast majority of participants win nothing or very little.
In the animal kingdom, in situations of harems (or equivalent), the alpha male of the wolf pack, the lion pride, or elk herd, exercises what might be perceived as unfair advantage. Whereas, after surviving various challenges, which can result in injury or even death, they get to mate with numerous females, beta (or lower) males go mateless, and retreat to lick their wounds alone and await another day which may never come. Alpha males reside at the apex of the pyramid, but their time in the sun is fleeting, and, sooner or later, they will be supplanted by superior (younger, stronger, faster) members of their species.
Among humans, fairly average males seem to be able to find at least average mates, so the playing field is more level. However (a nod to atavism?), females with the most pulchritude often end up with either alpha males or the rich and/or famous, independent of age.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a pyramid is a loose solid geometric representation of the bell curve, which depicts the majority of a subset with a given trait (e.g. intelligence, income) residing under the largest area of the curve. I admit to a certain fascination with pyramids, the best example, on a large scale, being the tombs of the pharaohs, who proved you can’t take it with you.
But what if there were a place where zero sum thinking did not apply? Where winning did not require simultaneous loss? Where conditions are not pyramidal?
Societies have wrestled with this, and come up with Communism, which largely failed because those in power took advantage of the powerless.
Socialism is also imperfect. Some members of countries with socialistic governments opt to reside elsewhere in order to escape what they deem to be onerously high taxation. But it is high only by comparison. Were taxes similar in all countries, they would doubtless be less vexing.
Capitalism invites plutocracy, and the above example of many workers and few CEOs applies to that economic model.
There is no utopia on Earth. As writer George Orwell observed in Animal Farm, all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others. Many humans are like-minded to the pigs of Orwell’s cautionary tale.
The closest approximation to earthly utopia? Apostolic times, when people were of one accord. Those with more cheerfully shared with those with less.
In graduate school I first encountered a folk song that contained these words: ‘If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.’
Fortunately, it is not.
For the gift of salvation is independent of wealth, intelligence, comeliness, and other qualities considered desirable by man, whose gaze stops at the surface.
In fact, some of those qualities (at least affluence; perhaps others; egocentricity, not devalued in our society, impedes enlightenment) may hinder one’s journey to the Kingdom, which will, I suspect, be largely populated by those lacking such qualities. Losers (in the eyes of man) will likely outnumber winners.
Even though Holy Writ cautions those who think they have everything in this life, their mentality is often self-fulfilling, with a twist: all they have in this life is all they will ever have. Heaven on earth does not entitle heaven elsewhere. Small indeed is the eye of the needle.
Everyone is invited and there is room for all. Paradise has no limits. The silver dining table described by a church founder in a vision of heaven stretched for miles. And it was but one of many wonders that exceed our ability to imagine.
All can be winners, if they so choose. This will be the ultimate egalitarian society.
It is a place where, finally, the first shall be last, and the last first.
And all, including zero-summers, are welcome.
Editor’s note: This essay made me think of a song I love. I’ve linked to it in our Music department.
S M Chen