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Zero-Sum is Bad Math in the Land of E Pluribus Unum

Emblazoned on the Great Seal of the United States: E pluribus unum—out of many, one.

This concept has been the ‘mythical’ driving force behind our patriotic and social fabric in America, or at least that is what we tell ourselves when we bang the drum of our nation as a beacon of hope for everyone. In the sense of how it is intended, it means that our country is not an all or nothing experiment in democracy, but rather is the result of complex social mathematics that adds people of different races, religions, languages, ethnicities, and ideologies, and when the computations are done we arrive at a ‘solution’ that is a single people and nation—all parts equaling a whole.

However, recently it seems that the math has gotten screwed up. Instead of striving for a system that is driven by a unifying doctrine whereby the whole is greater than the parts, we have devolved into a muddled arithmetic that works to divide our society to arrive at a solution that negates—eventually arriving at a zero-sum.

While a mathematical theory—as it is increasingly applied to American society—‘zero-sum’ is a process that seeks to measure gain against loss so that total gains are added up against the total losses, arriving at a sum of zero.

There seems to be no end to the zero-sum calculations in our society as of late. You see it in economics, whereby any push for income equality is forcefully opposed, because a gain for the poor would necessitate a loss for the wealthy. In politics we witness endless gridlock, in that any proposal presented by the President must be instantly blocked by Congress no matter what the benefits might be for society, because acceptance of such a proposal would be gain for the Democrats and a loss for the GOP. Currently, we see this zero-sum game being played out in the bald-faced kicking and screaming over the possibility that Obama will exercise his Constitutional duty to nominate a replacement for recently deceased Justice Scalia. We even see this game play out in race relations in America. Gains by minorities are viewed as a loss to white Americans, such as the recent focus on unfair policing and violence against black citizens and the objection to this unfortunate truth (expressed as black lives matter) being met with an equal and opposing proposal that seeks negates it (all lives matter!).

The truth of the matter is that if we ever hope to live up to our motto of E pluribus unum, we must collectively overcome our obsession with zero-sum politics. We cannot do the hard work of advancing our nation if we block every step forward with a step back. We cannot hope for our economic system to improve if every proposal to help struggling families is countered with tax breaks for the 1-percent. We will never overcome racism, bigotry, and gender inequalities if we each demand for justice and equality is viewed as a threat to white Americans. Such thinking tests the limits of our own empathy and the structures of our institutions. Society will certainly break if we continue to buy into the illogic of the zero-sum game.