The Zero-Sum Worldview

President Trump has just announced the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accords against the advice of the entire global scientific community, much of the American business community, and even many of his own advisors. There has been no shortage of ink spilled analyzing why 63M Americans – mostly white, less educated, and non-urban – voted for Trump, and the (somewhat patronizing) consensus of the left is some combination of outright racism, fear/anger, and deception. But what about the Trump supporters and enablers who haven’t been hoodwinked, who have no reason to be blinded by rage, and who likely know firsthand much worse behavior than we have observed from the outside?

What motivates the Republican politicians that endorsed (and now shield) Trump and the large conservative donors that continue to tacitly if not explicitly condone his actions? These are largely educated, wealthy, urban elites – exactly the same type of people they have mobilized millions of Americans to despise. What explains this schism among the “elites” who, unlike most of the country, share both a clear-eyed understanding of the consequences of Trump’s actions and huge financial incentives to support them? If the most fundamental human motivators are fear and greed, why do identical circumstances inspire greed in conservative elites and fear in liberal elites?

It’s not that the liberal elites have embraced and benefited from free-market capitalism any less – Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, George SorosTom Steyer, Chris Sacca, Mark Cuban, Reed Hastings, and Reid Hoffman among many many others opposing regressive conservative policies are some of the most ambitious and successful businesspeople of our time. And it’s not that the conservative elites have less to lose from potential longterm environmental and/or social catastrophe – the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer have children and grandchildren that will long outlive them, as must many of the 700 donors that contribute >$100k per year to the Koch’s conservative political organization.

I believe the answer lies in a key passage of the Trump administration’s recent WSJ editorial:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.

This is an unambiguous statement of their zero-sum worldview – in order for us to win, someone else has to lose. In the Internet age, this is widely considered to be an archaic approach to business that opens incumbents to disruption from startups seeking to “grow the pie” rather than fight a war of attrition. It is also at the heart of the divide between conservative and progressive mindsets. By definition, conservatives believe this is as good as it gets (or, worse, that our best days are behind us) and we must defend the status quo against the future (or attempt to reclaim the past). Whereas progressives inherently believe the future should be better than the past, that innovation can empower us to create a tomorrow superior to today.

So is the difference between the conservative and liberal elites that for some reason one group is driven by greed and the other is more altruistic? No, both are greedy otherwise they wouldn’t be millionaires and billionaires. But, to borrow a distinction first made by Gus Levy when he was head of Goldman Sachs (of all places), conservative elites are “short-term greedy” while liberal elites are “long-term greedy.” Those who are happy to pay more taxes than the direct government benefits they receive are rejecting the zero-sum worldview and embracing the progressive mindset that their investment in public goods* can deliver a better future for themselves than they could achieve just by hoarding their wealth.

This enlightened self-interest is fundamental to the American experiment, as observed by Alexis de Tocqueville nearly two centuries ago. And if we let our country become one governed by the zero-sum worldview, we will lose everything that has made it great.

* A common conservative objection to investment in public goods is that government is inefficient and free-market solutions are superior. This is a disingenuous argument, because the free-market will never provide for many public goods necessary to a well-functioning society (even Hayek agrees). So yes, government is inefficient and can be greatly improved but that does not obviate our need for it.

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