The politics of zero-sum thinking

The tendency to see life as zero-sum exacerbates political conflicts. Six studies (N = 3223) examine the relationship between political ideology and zero-sum thinking: the belief that one party’s gains can only be obtained at the expense of another party’s losses. We find that both liberals and conservatives view life as zero-sum when it benefits them to do so. Whereas conservatives exhibit zero-sum thinking when the status quo is challenged, liberals do so when the status quo is being upheld. Consequently, conservatives view social inequalities—where the status quo is frequently challenged—as zero-sum, but liberals view economic inequalities—where the status quo has remained relatively unchallenged in past decades—as such. Overall, these findings suggest potentially important ideological differences in perceptions of conflict—differences that are likely to have implications for understanding political divides in the United States and the difficulty of reaching bipartisan legislation.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Shai Davidai and Martino Ongis.  Via Matt Grossmann.

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Of course, Cowen favors disruption when he does, and opposes disruption when he doesn't. You mean disruption isn't always good? My point isn't about Cowen, but human nature. This study tells us nothing we don't already know.

It all looks like an attempt to paint the right as bad and the left as good. But in fact it is the left that practices zero sum politics, i,e, Socialism.

A terrible truth afflicts us. Conservatives in a successful country like the U.S. protect not only backwards institutions, but also (ostensibly) economic liberalism, which helped make the U.S. successful to begin with. On the other hand, liberals fight for changes to not only the backwards status quo, but also, sometimes, those elements of the status quo which form the basis of a free and prosperous society.

If we wholesale reject Democrats for fear of eroding what makes America great, we will never change the things that are backwards about America (like healthcare). If we wholesale reject Republicans, or whatever other conservative party takes their place when the Boomers die out, then we might make basket-case changes reminiscent more of Argentina or Greece than the great U.S. The reason Republicans have such an emotionally potent message for their supporters is that, as a country, we have more to lose than to gain. Those in privileged positions, for good or naught, have even more to lose, and thus are overrepresented in the Republican Party.

Democrats always have a tougher job. They must convince the public that, yes, we have more to lose than gain, but trust us, we will make the changes that will bring us newfound prosperity rather than those that interfere with preexisting prosperity. That takes more nuance than drumming up fear, which is all Republicans have to do to marshal voters to the polls.

What we have, and can lose, is more tangible than what we don’t have, and can only lose in the abstract (by never attaining it).

I like this as a model, but we are much more fractured in practice.

"Communities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Birmingham, and Georgia’s DeKalb County have passed restrictions on dollar stores, prompting numerous other communities to consider similar curbs."

Not exactly Santa Monica.

https://www.city-journal.org/banning-dollar-stores

Understood. Crony capitalism, excessive military spending, and sectarian interference in the flow of people, goods, and services were on my mind when I added the “ostensibly” qualifier in my OP.

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This study seems at first pass to consist of little more than defining "conservatives" as static and "liberals" as dynamic, then assuming static people don't like change and dynamic people do.

This was also the classic misinterpretation of Haidt's "The moral roots of liberals and conservatives.

https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives?language=en

In reality, it turns out that the world is more complex and that there is a mix of views and issues on both sides - and that to some degree "conservative" and "liberal" are closer to being team names than descriptors. The left's approach to labor unions, free speech, identity politics, etc could be viewed as very conservative policies.

"Liberals" are liberal in the exact same way that the NE Patriots are patriotic.

Is one of these two quotes, provided by the author, significantly more challenging to the status quo than the other?

“I am talking about a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people against working families, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country. The billionaires of America are on the warpath.”

–Bernie Sanders

“[Mexican immigrants] are taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs […] They’re killing us.”

–Donald Trump

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I think "identity politics" as a dismissal for Democrats is ridiculous, especially given the rampant tribalism on the Republican side. Likewise, I don't understand the "free speech" criticism. No one's speech is tangibly being restricted by the Democrats. Seriously, be real on this, don't make stuff up: Democrats aren't out to police your speech. Maybe they'll have standards for how government employees should address transexuals, I don't know, but that is so incredibly peripheral to me. I blank out into the expanses of space when Republicans go into a free speech rant involving transexuals. It's just boring and false. You can heil Hitler in a KKK costume in the middle of Times Square, and the only person that would be arrested is the guy who beats you up, even if they were victims of Nazis or the KKK. You can throw lurid, racist, nasty insults at the president (any president of the U.S.), and the police won't care. These things are impossible in many other countries, and they are certainly not in danger here.

You mentioned trade unions as an example of Democratic conservatism. I think it's more useful to frame unions as changing the otherwise dominant relationship between employer and employee in otherwise exploitative sectors. The same goes for the shrinking middle class: the shrinking is inevitable if the government doesn't step in and prevent that from happening. Our historically strong middle class wouldn't be so if it weren't for our public education system, public infrastructure, other public goods, and generous bankruptcy laws.

"Democrats aren't out to police your speech."

Spoken like a true...Democrat. That you put "identity politics" in sneer quotes in your first sentence shows how bereft of perspective you are.

Yes, a quarter century or so ago it was the christian right trying to shut down cultural elements they deemed unworthy or impermissible. Today it is the virtue signalling hubris of the elite unleashing actual violence on the unenlightened, un-woke masses attempting to beat them into submission.

The christian coalition never had antifa.

"a quarter century or so ago it was the christian right trying to shut down cultural elements they deemed unworthy or impermissible. "

True to today.

"The christian coalition never had antifa."

They have the government which is arguably even worse.

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For sometime I've been making this observation that both social justice activists and Trump/Brexit protectionists hold equally zero-sum views. My question is why neoliberals like Robert Wright (the author of Nonzero) and the State Capacity Libertarians in the GMUEconosphere are not united against the zero-summers.

Trade protection is in fact negative sum domestically. Trump threatened protection may be a tool to pry open foreign markets, in which case it would be positive sum domestically.

Brexit is not protectionism; it is anti-protectionism, hence potentially positive sum.

Social Justice Activism --- specifically, imposing equality of a measured outcome, cash income before transfers --- is negative sum, not zero sum. Think war: That's not zero sum, that's negative sum.

"Trade protection is in fact negative sum domestically."

No, it is not.

Free trade has the winners win more than the losers lose. Protection runs this in reverse, the winners win less than the losers lose.

It is precisely because the losers also vote that Mr. Trump was elected president. The other party had no clue how to redistribute the gains.

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The *point* of protectionism is to protect a politically powerful minority from competition from outside the national borders by forcing, under threat of violence, other people to either trade with them or pay extra for trading with those they prefer.

And no pro-protectionist has ever been able to explain why the line should be drawn at the national border. Why would trading only inside that line enrich us? Why would only trading inside your state not enrich you further then? Why would only trading inside your municipality not enrich you even further? Why would having your household be a self-contained economic unit where everything you ever consume is produced on in your home not be the pinnacle of economic success?

An example of zero sum thinking. If you have free trade and your trading partners don't, how does that work out?

You cannot have a thriving economy unless there is social harmony. The zero sum here is at one point the ones who benefit from trade at the expense of others get hung on a lamp post. Democracy prevents that from happening, as those who don't benefit still have the vote.

Extremes either way are not good. There are examples of both extremes that show benefit and harm.

Try not to straw man the argument, you end up sounding foolish.

If you have free trade and your trading partners don't, how does that work out?

Just fine.

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This is a good way of understanding arguments like “gay marriage undermines the sanctity of straight marriage.” I’d add that the social/economic distinction doesn’t hold up completely; many conservatives seem to regard economic issues as zero sum when they involve outgroups such as immigrants and developing countries, and these outgroups make up most humans so this isn’t some small exception.

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This understates the problem. Because of loss aversion, and the fact statistically you will get your way only about half the time for any mainstream person, I suspect most people perceive politics as a *negative* sum game, hence the general malaise now that mean reversion of growth rates in the West does not allow growth to mask this by raising all boats.

Yes, the two re plying a negative sum game, and know it. They both want their programs installed, maybe not funded. They are preparing o negotiate the defaults and want as much crapolla stuffed in the chute before the negotiations begin.

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Sure, in politics it will always appear as zero sum when there are effectively only two parties. The idea that everything should be looked at in a binary fashion with only two perspectives on any issue is absurd. It's a result of the US faux democracy in which the two parties share the electoral spoils. A third party would be too much of a dilution of power even if it represented the views of an ignored but significant constituency. As is usually the case in parliamentary governments, there would be a difficulty assembling a majority on important questions or the election of officials. The usual complaints from the presidential contest losers always include a denunciation of the electoral college, expressly designed to weed out third party candidates and their opinions, among other things.

+1

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Can status from the perspective of reproductive opportunity be anything other than zero-sum? Perhaps in theory, a rise in status of all malehood causes a shift in the desire of women to have children (i.e., the birth rate goes up). But practically, in a world of flat or declining birth rates, the number of wombs out there is fixed quantity, and it seems unlikely that sexual status (at least among men) can be anything other than zero sum. If the coastal elite men win, then the heartland males lose, and vice versa. No?

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As with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, I reluctantly supported Brexit because I believed the EU had made a pig's breakfast of the crisis by not biting the bullet and dealing with the debt issue by guaranteeing the debt for all members. I argued that it would have been cheaper to immediately confront the issue. I think that view has been vindicated. In any case, Brexit isn't totally an ideological issue. And here's Burke...

"Never wholly separate in your Mind the merits of any Political Question from the Men who are concerned in it."

"The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes: and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in government are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations."

"All government — indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act — is founded on compromise and barter."

I would argue that ideology is inimical to decent and effective government.

+1.

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+5 internet points

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People who say entitlements cannot be paid are playing the Zero Sum game. Actually, usually an economy expands if demand is present. Sure, there are times when an economy reaches maximum output and you might get demand-pull inflation. However, globally today, every industry suffers from overcapacity. The one place you might want to free up supply is in West Coast housing, and you can do that by eliminating property zoning.

But the free-market libertarian tight-money types never seem to want to talk about the abolition of property zoning. Why is that?

"But the free-market libertarian tight-money types never seem to want to talk about the abolition of property zoning. Why is that?"

That's kind of a weird statement to make on this blog where both Alex and Tyler regularly talk about the issue.

Perhaps I overstated the case, but then on the other hand I get the feeling that when it comes to property zoning, the solution is undefined reforms at an undefined future date.

Why not a simple statement calling for the immediate abolition of property zoning? The nation actually needs an emergency measure of this type..

The immediate abolition of all property zoning is idiotic.

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1. Politics isn’t about policy; it’s about which groups we want to raise or lower in status.

2. In any domain, status is zero-sum. We don’t feel like we’re winning if they don’t feel like they’re losing.

Especially #2

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an interesting question then is surely the view on the globalism of the last 2 decades.
it could be argued that both liberal and conservative would have had self-conflicting views:
the cognitive dissonance should be clear.
from the conservative point of view, trickle down should have worked, even though it is a change to the current 'order'.
from the liberal one, this change to the current 'order' is good, because it should allow better ecconomic outcomes for all.
the point being, presumably, that inviting more people to participate/compete is offset not by trickle-down but by the
market absorbing the change: other jobs will always be created?
the problem with NOT considering losses (which do occur as discrete events: I lost my job today) with the right level of granularity
is that people then do not have continuity. it is hard to make time to adjust and create new economic opportunities
as a result of either trickle-down OR understanding market changes if you have to spend the time you now have desparately trying to just 'do life'.
clearly neither has worked in the way it has supposed to: the jobs are lower quality not better and moving is not an option if you cant afford it.
so, in a nutshell, there is a scale problem between theory and reality.
entrenchment further into any position won't help. it is simply too late.

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Well, sure.

We are living through a demonstration that criticisms which "sound partisan" may not be. And so even examining them in a "partisan framework" may be misleading.

We may even close our ears to real threats to America's safety, and position in the world, for that reason.

Because it sounded partisan.

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Relative social standing IS a zero sum game but how large the perceived "payoff" is arbitrary. The same is true of relative income distribution, but the payoff depend on the variance.

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"Overall, these findings suggest potentially important ideological differences in perceptions of conflict—differences that are likely to have implications for understanding political divides in the United States and the difficulty of reaching bipartisan legislation."

It seems to me that the majority of Americans are not overly ideological, they understand that change is, that it means opportunity and also danger of losing worthwhile things, and they would like our elected representatives to hash things out.

This has been the case since the 1968 election. Prior to then, we had elected 90 Congresses, and in 61 one of them (68%), a single party enjoyed unified control of House, Senate and Presidency.

In the 26 Congresses since then, only 8 have been of the "unified government" variety (31%). (Carter's four years, Clinton's first two years, GWB's first SIX years, Obama's first two years, and Trump's first two years).

All of Reagan and GHWB's presidency, along with 6 of 8 years under Clinton and Obama, were based on divided government.

Brief inspection of governance leads to the clear conclusion that divided government works better. The reign of GWB was probably the worst government we've seen in my lifetime.

Yes, there are ideologues on both sides that only root for their team. And it is convenient for politicians to encourage this "us vs. them" game, because it absolves them of the hard work of hashing things out with the other side.

But the American people largely get it by now, and they will continue producing divided governments and sending the message: "DO YOUR JOB."

They haven't yet.

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I don't think anyone is claiming anything is zero-sum, just that it isn't necessarily win-win. It's not reasonable to expect people to support policies which benefit others at the expense of themselves whether the net benefit is positive negative, or zero. But there are a lot of ideas out there that aren't zero-sum, they're negative sum.

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