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Zero Sum Thinking

Heather McGhee has a popular book on the problem of zero sum thinking. Her specific focus is on racism in the US. The argument is quite simple. Racism prevents policies that would benefit everyone.

Zero Sum Thinking

People often have a tendency to think of the world as having a fixed amount of a certain thing, even when there isn’t a fixed amount of it. By this, I mean things like happiness. Happiness doesn’t have a limit. When someone else is happy it doesn’t (shouldn’t at least) reduce your happiness. Justice is similar. We can typically be more (or less) just for everyone. That someone else is being treated fairly, shouldn’t make you worried about how you are being treated.

But we are all humans and aren’t perfect. Those with advantages in life, often worry that when others are given the opportunity to do well this will hurt them in some way. In the US, this can translate into white Americans worrying that greater opportunities for others, e.g., African Americans, will take away from what they have.

Zero Sum Thinking

How Zero Sum Thinking Hurts Us All

The hook in this book is frankly brilliant. McGhee uses the examples of public pools in the US. She tells us how many pools were, legally or de facto, ‘whites only’. When the Supreme Court, or other powers, insisted that public pools (paid for with public funds) be open to all, pools simply got filled in. It seemed better to spoil the enjoyment of the local white people rather than allow all to participate in the fun.

..the Fairground Park pool in St Louis, Missouri, was the largest in the country… When a new city administration changed the parks policy in 1949 to allow black swimmers, [there was a riot], the city returned to a segregation policy using public safety as a justification but a successful NAACP lawsuit reopened the pool to all St. Louisians the following summer…[but bathers were scared off]. The city closed the pool for good six years later.

McGhee, 2021, page 40

The courts said taking public services away from all was okay. The thinking was that as long as the removal of key public services hurt everyone equally this wasn’t discriminatory. All lost out.

McGhee has other examples. She talks of how lax environmental laws can seem to matter less because they predominately impact “others”. Yet, they eventually end up hurting everyone. Pollution in the air moves. (I believe addressing this problem was a key element of Herschel Walker’s doomed bid for senate).

American Exceptionalism

One thing I found strange was McGhee’s apparent belief that US people are the only zero sum thinkers in the world. I often hear Americans who think the US is the only free country in the world. That is very silly. The idea that the US is the only country that makes bad choices that hurt everyone out of zero sum thinking is a bit odd too. (Did McGhee miss that Brexit happened?) While the US clearly has had its fair share of racism etc… the US is far from unique in those issues. I’m a big believer in learning lessons from others. This involves not thinking your country is truly so exceptional as to be incomparable, even in a bad way.

A Political Book

This is a political book, although much better researched than most political tomes. Non-Democrats might not find the argument as appealing as Democrats. Plus if you don’t like Democrats there are a few places where you might have that feeling reinforced. The big reveal at the end, which I won’t spoil, is not great if you are hoping to shed the idea that Democrats are academic elitists. Still, overall I would urge everyone to read McGhee’s book. She has some great points to think about.

A final complaint. As someone who teaches in a marketing research program, I was a little offended by who McGhee chose to partner with on her public opinion research.

Before I left, I had Demos partner with a critical race scholar and a linguist to develop our public opinion research on race, class, and government.

McGhee, 2021, page 12

I’m not getting involved in the US’ weird obsession with critical race scholarship. (From the media you’d think that there are more critical race scholars than business professors, or indeed all other professors combined. There really aren’t). I’m also sure the linguist was great and everything but, I’m just saying, how about hiring a market researcher if you want to do market research?

For more on zero sum thinking see here, game theory see here, and socially destructive thinking see here and here.

Read: Heather McGhee (2021) The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, One World

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