17 May 2022

Zero-sum Thinking, Replacement Theory and How Progress Transformed the World of Our Founding Fathers

When this country began, land was the limit to progress and the simplest definition of our economic policy was to get more land. Land claimed or conquered and then sold (as well as tariffs collected) was how the government generated revenue to operate. The work of getting more land was the work of conquest. Early Americans practiced slavery and genocide; this was brutal but it was how one got ahead in zero-sum world. This was the world of which Jesus would say, "It's as hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." Rich meant you were somehow exploiting others.

Land is zero sum. My gain comes at your loss (sorry about taking your old hunting grounds but, you know, I had to clear the forest to carve out a farm). There is only so much acreage or gold or timber and what you get I lose. Zero sum means competition - fierce competition.
Fortunately, something almost magical happened shortly after the US was founded. With the industrial revolution, for the first time since the ancient Greeks, we began to experience gains in per capita GDP. This meant that it was possible for your life to get better without mine getting worse. Simplest illustration of this? Rather than need two slaves to weave the fibers for my new clothes (a task that would make their life worse and mine better), I could use machines. And so could those former slaves.

Lincoln and the Republicans were acutely aware of this and it was one reason why they fought so against slavery. It wasn't just evil. With capital, slavery was unnecessary.

Still, there are a lot of people who still imagine they live in a zero-sum economy. (We don't. In truth, we live in a time of such abundance that we artificially create zero-sum conditions with sports, having strict rules about how only one of thirty NBA teams can be this year's champ no matter how much better most teams are. That ancient impulse for competition has to be sated somehow. Sports does it.)

The folks who believe this is a zero-sum world are the people who still think that immigrants are coming to steal their job.

When the US gained its independence, we had only 3.9 million people. Today we have nearly 100X more people. Or course its nonsense to think that the 330 million newborns and new immigrants since the time of the founding families had to steal jobs from the original Americans. More people mean more economic opportunities, not less. And not only do we now create 3.9 million new jobs EACH MONTH, but the pay for those jobs is multiples of what early Americans would have ever imagined.

In general, conservatives are people who have this curious notion that the past was better. Or, perhaps more accurately, they seem to think that the truths of the past still hold today. Conservatives susceptible to replacement theory still think they're living in a zero-sum economy, one where every gain you make comes at my expense. This - like the anti-vaxx movement - is evidence of a mind still shaped by pre-Enlightenment thinking. (Vaccinations were, like this great country, an invention of Enlightenment thinkers).

You don't live in a zero-sum economy. Value doesn't come at the expense of someone else. It is something we have to create. Maybe we'd have more luck with that if we looked at others as collaborators rather than competitors.

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