Trump’s Theory of a Zero-Sum World

Two very, very good posts from one of my favorite political analysts, Josh Marshall. For some background, first read this much older post. Now to the excerpts – and as always, if I’m excerpting it, then you really should read the entire post. Then again, it’s Josh Marshall, so you really should read everything he writes, particularly since he doesn’t write longer pieces all that often:

First, Josh’s take on how Trump views international relations:

It’s the geopolitical analog to the classic scene in Godfather II where Michael tells Sen. Geary that not only will he not pay the bribe he demands for the Nevada gaming license but that he expects Geary to pay for the Corleone family’s license out of his own pocket. “Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My final offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally.”

And here’s Josh’s take on how Trump view trade deals:

Trump’s view of ‘deals’ comes from the often predatory world of the Manhattan real estate market, where the sharks often do ‘win’ in absolute terms, sticking other parties with ‘deals’ where they win and the other guy loses. This has all come into sharper relief as Trump has started talking about a withdrawal from various US foreign alliances in Europe and Asia. If you look closely, he’s not really talking about pulling out, he’s talking about demanding what amounts to protection money payments from these countries for US security security protections, payments he seems to think end up helping pay off the national debt.

A couple of things I’d really like to say here, but since I’m trying to avoid the daily grind of blogging by sticking to the bigger pictures, I’m going to focus on just one: 

I fully understand why so many people seem to think that we live in a zero-sum world – there have been times in my life when I was convinced of that fact too. But it simply isn’t true. Even in a world filled with self-interested creatures, cooperation not only can but often does naturally emerge. More importantly, it turns out that a world of naturally emergent cooperation truly does leave everyone better off if we all follow what is essentially a “trust but verify” strategy of interaction. It’s something that ‘s actually hard-coded into the mathematics of nature. Which, yes, I realize sounds like an insanely bold claim, but there is demonstrably true.

Of all the books I’ve read – and good God you have to read a lot of books in a decade’s worth of grad school – there are very few that have changed my life, and even fewer that I’ve realized were changing my life while I was reading them. But Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation is one of those books. It’s a book with crazy range – nuclear deterrence, trench warfare, anti-trust regulation, genetics, robotics – but it really does prove that the world is not zero-sum, and that when we operate as it is, we leave ourselves and those around us much, much worse off. And yes, prove.

So not only is Trump uniformed about much of the details of the world, he’s also dangerously wrong about the best way advance our collective interests. A world led by someone pursuing zero-suit policies will leave all of us – even the richest among us – worse off than we could have otherwise been. Appealing to our better angles isn’t just the moral thing to do, it’s the smart and self-interested thing too, and yes, this book really does prove it. I’ll be talking about this book much, much more over the coming months, and I might even write a full review of it at some point too. But for now please know that the findings of this book are embedded deeply in everything I write and everything I do, and if you’ve got the time, do yourself a favor and check out the book. Believe me, you will not regret it.