The losers are the winners

I saw a book tonight.  The title was something darn close to “Live Green and be a millionaire”

The subtitle indicated that really, doing the right thing is a win-win proposition.  Apparently, Somehow, being environmentally conscious actually creates wealth.  Who knew?

My sarcastic asides not withstanding, something clicked as I stood there, judging that particular book by its cover.  The thing that occured to me is this:

We love win-wins.  We love it when things work out in such a way that it’s best for everybody.  How many times have we heard variations on the following themes: What’s good for America is good for the world… What’s good for business is good for the environment… Everyone benefits from this arrangement.


The people who oppose these plans that benefits everybody: are they stupid or massochistic?  Clearly they must be one or the other, to oppose their own best interests. 

I don’t want to overstate my case.  Sometimes their are win-wins.  Sometimes there are options which really are the best for everybody.

But the vast majority of situations are win-lose propositions.  There will be people that benefit and people that are hurt by most decisions.  We try to deny this.  It’s hard to choose between being a millionaire OR being enviromentally conscious.  It’s hard choosing between the good for America and the good for the world.  It’s hard choosing between the best interests of the environment or big business. 

Whenever a decision is made, there’s probably some sort of consolation prize for the loser.  There is a silver lining to the cloud.  I don’t have a problem with people expressing that.  I do have a problem with people misrepresenting it, though, and claiming that the home version of the game is just as good as the million dollar jackpot.  In addition to the blatant dishonesty inherent in turning everything into a win-win, this system turns us into spoiled brats.  We live in a world that feeds us the delusion that we can have our cake and eat it, too. 

 There is no way around a simple reality: If we eat our cake, then there are only a few options open to us.  A) Eat somebody else’s cake.  B) Pretend we’re still eating a cake.  C) Actually be mature enough to realize that we don’t have any more cake.

In different times and places, those who have the power looked the weak in the eye and called it like they saw it.  They said “I win, you lose.  I will take what I want because I have the power.”

Sometimes, the power shifted.  Sometimes, the disenfranchised became the franchise.  They put on little red berets and took power… and then, they said that same thing they’d heard so often “I win, you lose.  I will take what I want because now I have the power.”

There are some things which have not changed.  There are still people with power who are taking what they want.  But there are some things that have changed.  These people have PR firms working for them now.  They look us in the eye and they say “I win, you win.  We can both have what we want.”  The idea is not to give the other group a share.  It’s simply to make them think they have a share.

This is why Jeus is such a radical counter-cultural force.  This is why people think they need to repackage him.  He did more than speak the truth.  He was the truth.  He did more than say that there are winners and losers in the game of life.  He identified with the “losers”.

  He said that we should step out of the whole power play.  He did not just take the next step in this never ending dance.  He changed the whole song.   He challenged us to do more than grab after power or accept being dominated.  He challenged us to a third way, a bigger way by being smaller, a way into life by going through death.  It’s not always clear and easy, just how to do this.  It is a narrow door, a hard way, but ultimately the only journey worth the effort.




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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

7 thoughts on “The losers are the winners”

  1. Hey Jeff,

    i really like this post!
    (Not that i dislike all the other ones)
    It’s weird; in a way it’s pessimistically possitive. Mmmmm… which option sucks less?
    As i was reading i thought of three things:

    Value: what we truly treasure influences every decision we make. Sometimes what we treasure in the moment, on a whim, in a time of extreme need causes us to decide. Tossed about by the waves, as it were.

    Effect: everything we do has concequences. No big revelation there. i was reflecting on how in our desire to have what we want – to assuage our fleeting guilt or to ensure we look and feel good in the “cake” scenario – we try to engineer the effects of our actions. (funny and sickening human behavior)

    End game: what do you take to the grave? What the point? Lots of books have been written about that question; the Bible being one notable. The quest for power, riches and fame become a meaning for the short life on the prowl for immortality. As you point out, it’s a trap.

    Jesus sets you free!


  2. Ah, Jeff, what a pity. You’re still stuck thinking the world is a zero-sum game, where for every winner there must be a loser. Indeed, you believe this is the “vast majority of situations.” But it’s not and it’s quite clearly not. Four thousand years ago, humans as a species had virtually no wealth. If we took all the wealth in the world at that time and split it up amongst the 6 billion people on the planet today, we’d all be dead within a day. But now we have enough wealth to support 6 billion people (evidenced by the fact that the population is still growing), some of them very comfortably and some of them not so much. Where did all this wealth come from if we’re all stuck playing zero-sum games where I can’t have more unless you have less?

    The people who oppose these plans that benefits everybody: are they stupid or massochistic? Clearly they must be one or the other, to oppose their own best interests.

    You are in a better position to answer this than I am, since you are much more sympathetic to this viewpoint (as expressed in this post). I suspect they are neither stupid nor masochistic. They oppose their own best interests out of ignorance and a reflexive acceptance of the whole zero-sum game framework that you’re talking about in this post. Moreover, they would be better off (in the short term) if they could change it into a zero-sum game. If they are below the mean in possessions, it would be to their short term advantage to seize the wealth of those with more. It’s only in their long term disadvantage to do this as all the people with the red berets eventually figured out to their sorrow and the eventual loss of their power (and sometimes their lives) as the countries that did this got poorer and poorer and the countries that didn’t got richer and richer.


  3. I don’t want to overstate my case. Sometimes their are win-wins. Sometimes there are options which really are the best for everybody.

    But the vast majority of situations are win-lose propositions.

    I don’t want to overstate my case. Sometimes there are win-loses where we have to make tradeoffs (perhaps wealth and the environment is one of them), but these are a small minority of cases. Most of the time, if you live your life ethically and productively, you can make a very good life for yourself and all the people around you, while doing minimal harm to everybody else.


  4. Andrew:
    I expect that this is such an incredibly broad generality that I’m painting in, that both of us could throw example and counter example to doomsday. I suppose the stupid/massochist dichotomoy was probably over the top… but I stand by the point that I was trying to make. Put more modestly, that point is this:
    Most often when we try to persuade others we try to paint a picture where in it looks like everybody benefits.
    My boss, the principal, and I were having a post observation meeting. The class I teach in is a new aspect of the school. He said, “You’ll be excited to know that several aspects of next years School Improvement Plan are related to your program.” He said it sincerely. I caught his enthusiasm. Only much later did I think “What? I’m not excited at all by that. I wish everybody would just leave me alone and let me teach.”
    I think that Mr’s. Mcain and Obama are slight exceptions to the rule, but most politicians try to make it sound like everybody benefits by every plan they have. The reality is that many political things are a zero sum game. There is a finite ammount of available money. If program X gets it then budget item Y does not.
    I’m curious about why we’d be dead if we split all the wealth among the 6 billion people… Can you spell this out for me?


  5. What I said was that if we split the wealth from 4000 years ago among everybody living today, we’d all be dead. We wouldn’t have nearly enough food to feed anybody. I.e. we have vastly, vastly more wealth planet-wide now than we did 4000 years ago. In fact, it’s not even close. I’d guess that the Earth has about a billion times as much wealth as it did 4000 years ago. So life is clearly not a zero-sum game. Wealth can obviously be created, since we have created incredibly vast amounts of it in the last 4000 years. Q.E.D.

    If we split all of today’s wealth equally amongst everybody currently living, total wealth would not change in the short term except that some people would be winners (the ones who started poorer) and others would be losers (the richer, including virtually every single person in the U.S.). The amount of wealth, instantaneously, obviously wouldn’t change. In the long term, it would cause the amount of wealth creation going on to fall significantly as it did in every Communist country, eventually making the poor considerably worse off than they started out. It behooves us to allow Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to create wealth which we can all enjoy the surplus of even if they keep 90% of it for themselves (and they don’t keep anything like 90% of it).

    I think the error people make is that there is an assumption that wealth that people create would have been created somehow by somebody, regardless of what we do. This is plainly not true, but people do seem to believe it. The reason people believe this is lack of education about economics. People have many intuitive beliefs like this which just aren’t true (like beliefs about zero-sum games, that the amount of wealth in the world is fixed, which it isn’t, even though it is finite).

    You are right that many political actions are zero-sum, but many political actions aren’t. Some are negative-sum, i.e. they actually reduce wealth if they’re enacted. (Repealing these would obviously be a positive-sum political action, so obviously positive-sum political actions are also possible.) Transfer payments (taxing the rich and giving to the poor) are zero-sum; that’s one of the problems with them, that they create no wealth. They may, in fact, be negative-sum since they discourage people from creating more wealth. As an extreme example, if we assume that we’re going to tax people at 100% for every dollar they make over $40,000 a year, all of us would make our $40,000 and then stop working for the rest of the year. This would vastly reduce our wealth as we would lose tons of productive labor which spent all of its time goofing off instead, and not creating a dime of wealth. That’s an extreme example to make the theoretical point. Nobody, except the defunct Communists, actually argue for a 100% marginal tax rate. (Though once upon a time we had a 90% rate in this country, though it only applied to the super-rich. This was reduced by John F. Kennedy to 70% and then knocked down to approximately the modern rates by Ronald Reagan. Since then, the two parties have been vociferously arguing over comparatively tiny differences.)

    Win-win solutions are common and happen all the time. Almost everything you do in life is win-win. Every time you go to a store and buy something, you are making a win-win transaction. The bread you buy is worth more than the money you pay for it (obviously, or else you wouldn’t pay that much money for it) and the money is worth more to the store than the bread is (again, obviously, or else they wouldn’t sell it at that price). Win-win. All voluntary transactions are win-win like this, except when one side is mistaken or deceived about the value they’ll get from the transaction. This is why people get mad when they buy a “lemon.” Because they thought it was worth $6000 to them, paid $5000 for it, and it was actually worth $2000 to them. (Numbers are made up, of course.) This is also why it’s so vital to police businesses from committing fraud. Fraud turns a transaction from win-win to win-lose. Wealth is no longer being created in that transaction. (In fact, if it’s a “healing crystal” or similar fraud, wealth is actually being lost since labor which could have been used productively is being used simply to take money from somebody else and put it in their own pocket.)


  6. I spent a few days considering this reply, Andrew.
    First off, I guess I’d have to say that if I was forced to choose among the options available in this world, I’d have to get behind a capitalist system.
    However, I feel called to an economy which is beyond our current imagining. You don’t feel called toward this, which is fine.

    I understand your point about the wealth of 4000 thousand years ago, thanks for the clarification. I agree in a limited way with your point, but I also think there might be a bit of a shell game happening here: science, communication, distrubution of labor, and egineering have all lead to our creating wealth where previously there was none, in that sense the competetion for resources is not a zero sum game.
    However, technological (and science, and engineering, and distrubution of labor) advancements put an upper limit on the ammount of potential resources at any given time.
    More concretely: given our current levels of understanding, there is a certain ammount of apples that can be grown from a certain ammount of acreage, water, man hours, seed, etc. If I have an apple you don’t get it. At some point, we might improve the number of apples that can be grown from these limits. But until then, the competetion is a zero-sum game.

    More disturbingly, a major issue is the fact that maximal production isn’t always in an entities best interests. The logical ammount of production for any item is the product of the profit per item and the number of items.
    If each apple costs .50 for me to grow, and if harvesting 100 apples creates a demand on apples that leads to them costing $1.50, I’d make a profit of .50 X 100 or $50.
    On the other hand, if harvesting 200 apples leads to a decreased price via the increased supply, the apples in this scenario might cost .65. A profit of .15 per apple X 200 = $30.
    All this is fine and dandy in a world where there are enough other affordable options for people to eat.
    My point, in sum, is that there is a tension between a producer behaving rationally and enough goods being produced to meet the needs of consumers.

    I’d also like to quibble about your position on economic transitions being inherently win-win. In some limited sense my agreement to purchase something implies my agreement to it.
    However, I don’t feel that filling up my cars gas tank today was particularly a win-win.
    The gas companies aren’t really competing with each other. Even if there’s no actual meetings where in they all agree to not lower prices this is only because they don’t need them.
    They have been one of a large number of players that had a vested interest in not exploring other fuel sources or promoting public transportation.
    Like most people, I don’t have much in the way of live alternatives to forking over absurd ammounts of money at the pump.

    Even if I was wrong on all this, my most important realization is simply this:
    creating “fake win-wins” is a powerful and dangerous rhetoric device.


  7. Well, we’ll call a truce then since I don’t seem to be arguing about your main point. (I actually think there are many fewer “fake win-wins” than you think.)

    The oil companies do compete very fiercely. In fact, there is perfect evidence of this because, when the price went up, their profits went up. This is absolutely clinching evidence that gasoline is not being sold by a monopoly. (Because they would have extracted the greater profits all the time by setting the current high price earlier. They couldn’t do this because of fierce competition. Most commodities are near textbook perfect competition. Oil is not much of an exception, though there is very significant government intervention which causes some problems.)

    Your point about optimal production is mostly correct. It is true that in a monopoly or in monopolistic competition, somewhat less than the optimal amount is produced. (In a perfectly competitive market, which apples, by the way, more or less is, the optimal amount is virtually always produced.) This is indeed one of the minor flaws of some markets in capitalism and is well known in economic circles. In the real world, it is rarely a serious problem and antitrust laws almost always do more harm than good.

    I do agree that, at any given point in time, there is a fixed and finite amount of goods and services in a given economy. But this is only rarely fixed for any significant length of time. If people wanted more apples, there is plenty of space to plant more apple trees. If Congress would agree, we know we have oil in various places in this country and could expand production.

    Don’t get me wrong. We live in a finitely large world. Eventually the “we don’t have enough resources” people will be right. The people who are saying we only have thirty years of oil left were saying the same thing thirty years ago, but eventually they’re bound to be right. (Whether we still need oil by then or whether we’ll have been able to harness other energy sources is an open question.) There is also a fixed amount of arable land on the planet so eventually we might have a population so large we can’t feed it. We’re not close to that point yet, but perhaps we will be eventually. (China with American agricultural techniques and the same amount of labor devoted to agriculture as they currently have could probably come close to feeding the entire world by itself.) Or we might never reach that point. World fertility peaked some time ago and current projections show that we’re going to peak out at something like 9 billion people and then the population will decline (leading to its own problems). Indeed, underpopulation in Europe is a much more serious problem than world overpopulation.


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