Saturday, March 05, 2005

Summing up wins

A friend of mine is trying to shift the perspective of someone who sees the world as a zero sum game. My friend is arguing for a new business model; his antagonist thinks of winners and losers.

The Economist's Lexington column in the February 26th, 2005 issue ruminates on America's love affair with success and failure. It makes an observation that speaks to the antagonist's motivation:
[You] can't have winners without losers (or how would you know how well you are doing?).
One can counter, as my friend does, that economic growth has two steps: creating value and dividing value. First you make a bigger cake, which is a cooperative enterprise, and then you divide it up, which is competitive. (This begins to explain, by the way, why evolution hasn't only selected for competitive people. We aren't all hyper-competitive; many people prefer to play rather than win. A successful species (and business) needs both kinds.)

However, even dividing the cake up is only a zero-sum game for "rivalrous goods", that is, goods that can be "used up". A good is rivalrous if my use of it competes with yours. On the other hand, a non-rivalrous good does not cost more to give to additional people, and the use of it by additional people does not diminish the use of it by others. Rivalrous goods include tax money and the water supply. Knowledge -- knowing stories, for example -- is non-rivalrous, as are digital media.

An NPR story on fishermen poets this morning concludes with a poet who says that he'd rather have stories to tell than a bank account. "When you die, I think the winner's the guy that has the most stories".

No comments: