No Winners: Zero Sum Thinking


The other day I was listening to an interview with Richard Reeves, of the Brookings Institution, and the author of the newish book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters and What To Do About It?

Reeves had gotten some push-back on his book. “By drawing attention to boys and men, you’re drawing attention away from the situation and progress of girls and women, when so much is still to be done.”

I think that’s what you call zero-sum thinking (ZST). More for them means less for us. A win for me requires a loss for you. It struck me, as I listened to Reeves, that I was guilty of zero-sum thinking, only going in the other direction. Concerned about boys, as is Reeves, the father of three boys, I have at least at times been guilty of thinking that encouraging, empowering, and opening the way for girls has come, or must come, at the expense of boys. Maybe that has happened, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Can we encourage and empower both, girls and for boys? Why does it have to be one or the other?

Sometimes when I bring up the tsunami of information indicating that boys/men are in trouble today, someone says, “Quit whining, you had it your way for a couple thousand years.” But that’s still ZST. “You had your turn, now it’s ours. Suck it up.”

Zero-sum thinking has just enough basis to justify us in thinking along those lines. There is, you might point out, only so much time and attention that an individual teacher has to lavish on students. If he lavishes it all on girls, there is less left for boys. Or a particular charity has only so much money for scholarships. If all the scholarships target boys, what’s left for girls, or vice-versa? In the face of limited resources, efforts to be fair and even seem important. But maybe that’s still zero-sum thinking. Overcoming that requires, I’m guessing, a spiritual re-birth.

It’s also easy to bring the constraint of ZST into our intimate and family relationships, as any four-old-year will point out when their six-year-old sibling gets to do something they don’t. “It’s not fair,” she wails. But that’s not just kid stuff, is it? We adults think this way too, though we are a little less obvious and obnoxious than a pouty four-year-old. Does more love for him or her, mean less for me? It may feel that way, but that may say more about us than about the supply of love in the world.

And your point?

Well, number one, I was hit (listening to Reeves) with my own pathetic tendency for zero-sum thinking, of which I repent. Number two, this particular form of “stinkin’ thinkin’ ” (to borrow a phrase from AA) has really got a stranglehold on us in America today. It’s so weird, we’re the richest society on earth, the richest nation in the history of humankind, and yet we’re all the time talking about tight budgets, scarce resources and if this happens for those folks, it must mean you’re taking it from me and my people. Yes, even rich nations have to manage well, etc. But this isn’t that. This is people turning God-given and people-created abundance into scarcity and miserliness at every turn. It’s a spiritual sickness.

As the old song “Magic Penny” put it, “love is something that if you give it away . . . you’ll end up having more.” I’m not sure we believe that. But I am sure it is true. And I am sure I would like to more nearly live as if it’s true, and to trust that even if its not true in every short-term or specific instance, in the long-term, big-picture, it is the truth, the truth that will set us free.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


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