Positive-Sum Within, Zero-Sum Without

I was pretty impressed with Barack Obama's speech. It struck me as unusually direct, realistic, intellectual, and mature. I'm not sure that will keep Fox News from showing Jeremiah Wright 24/7, as Obama himself more or less worried aloud, or that this won't kill him in the general. (I'm inclined to think McCain would beat him in any case.) But it does make me think a bit more highly of him. I am extremely cynical about politics, but I do think rare, exemplary leadership can matter a great deal culturally. So, despite my cynicism, I think Obama did do something today to make the American discussion of race more frank and intelligent, which is pretty important, whether or not he goes on to the White House.
I was especially struck by Obama's explicit use of the the idea of zero-sum games, and the way themes of positive- and zero-sumness were woven throughout the speech, always serving Obama's rhetorical aim, but often undercutting his underlying moral message.

… in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

This could have come straight out of Benjamin Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. And Obama's right. The key to social amity is the sense that neither individuals nor groups succeed at the expense of others. What I have always liked about Obama (and what Paul Krugman appears to hate) is that he sees the America not as a system of antagonisms defined along race or class lines, but as a fundamentally cooperative venture for mutual advantage. What I have never liked about Obama is his apparent failure to grasp how certain kinds of market institutions promote precisely the kind of positive-sumness he is rightly looking for — a point I articulated here nearly three years ago. And I have always been struck by his rhetorically resourceful but intellectually bankrupt failure to apply the same logic of mutuality beyond our borders. So it is that he ends up saying, after denouncing the politics of superficial divisiveness (i.e., playing clips of a ranting Jeremiah Wright on TV):

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.

This is a tactic as old as time. Unify factions against a common threat. But it stinks.
Obama says the real problem is not that an American of a different ethnic background might take your job (that was the context), but that a non-American might. But let's not dwell on that Mexican, Canadian, or Chinese guy who gets that job. Who cares about them? Well, if you think it for a second, you might care. So let's try to remove from our thoughts the very real, yet non-American people who often gain immensely from outsourcing and pin it on all corporations. Well, Obama can't have it both ways. It matters not to the individual American whether she has lost her job to someone in South Dakota, where it is cheaper to do business, or to someone in a whole different country. It matters not to the individual American whether he has lost his job to father of four in India or a new robot arm in North Carolina. In attacking offshore outsourcing Obama encourages in one breathe the zero-sum mentality he condemns in another. It may be possible to induce a spell of internal cooperation by framing it as part an external conflict, but it can't last. By threatening growth, protectionism encourages internal conflict over the division of a smaller pie. As Obama evidently knows, that's when racial lines are the most salient, when divisive zero-sum thinking prevails.
I'm convinced that Obama holds himself to a higher moral standard than the typical politician, and think that this speech was proof of that. But he guts his own aspirations when he stops short and preaches conflict at the point where preaching unity is no longer expedient.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center