Zero-Sum Foolery 1 of 4: Game Theory Gamesmanship
It has become fashionable recently, in denunciations of the lump-of-labor fallacy, to appeal to the notion of a “zero-sum game” in addition to the customary allegation of a “fixed amount of work to be done.” In this manner, pseudo-intellectual poseurs can evoke the urgency and panache of mathematical game theory without knowing the first thing about it.
Here are a few examples:
The main reason the lump of labor theory is wrong is that it is based on the assumption that everything that is going to be invented has been invented, and that therefore economic competition is a zero-sum game, a fight over a fixed lump. – Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat.
The idea that increased participation of older workers will negatively affect employment for younger people is known as the lump of labor fallacy. This fear of displacement is grounded in the assumption of a zero-sum labor market in which every job occupied by an older worker is one less potential job for a younger person. – World Bank, Live Long and Prosper: Aging in East Asia and Pacific (with credit to Munnell and Wu, and Zhang and Zhao).
The argument that jobs taken by low-skilled immigrants are jobs forgone to native-born Americans rests on the erroneous assumptions that immigrant labor can easily substitute for native labor and that employment is a zero-sum game. The fallacy, known as the lump of labor.” was popularized in 1891 by the economist David Schloss, who described it as the erroneous belief that the amount of work was fixed and could be parceled out in various ways. – Susan K. Brown and Frank D. Bean, “Population Growth” in Debates on U. S. Immigration, edited by Judith Gans et al.
One misunderstanding we ought to dispel immediately is the so-called lump of labor hypothesis. This philosophy maintains that there is a fixed amount of work to be done—a lump of labor—so if the elderly can be encouraged to leave the workforce, there will be more jobs for the young. This zero-sum thinking is simply wrong. Economists treat labor as one of the primary inputs into economic output, and the more input, the more output. – George P. Shultz and John B. Shoven, Putting Our House in Order: A Guide to Social Security and Health Care Reform.
As far as I can determine, Paul Samuelson was the first to use this analogy in a 1978Newsweek column on the “Economics of Discrimination”:
Upon thoughtful analysis of the nature of the economic system, economists find that it is essentially not a zero-sum game. Economists call it “the lump-of-labor fallacy” to believe that in any period – 1933 or 1978 – there are only so many jobs: it is false philosophy of despair, economists point out, to insist on cutting down on each worker’s weekly hours in order to spread out an allegedly limited total of work and of income among as many people as possible.
Sandwichman has previously noted in passing the zero-sum allusions but hasn’t paid much attention to them. That is about to change.
Arguably, the most likely assumption of the unidentified non-economists (those nobodies presumed to commit the alleged fallacy) is not a “zero-sum game” but a repeatedprisoner’s dilemma. It is Samuelson, Shultz, Munnell, Friedman and their ilk who plunge zealously into what Anatol Rapoport described as a zero-sum TRAP – which is to say, the conceptual reduction of non-zero-sum games to zero-sum games in order to render them “solvable” as a predetermined type of “problem.” Attributing a zero-sum view to their opponents enables the propagandists to insinuate that their alternative is a bowl of cherries. If zero-sum is win/lose, then non-zero sum must be win/win, right?
The arguments supporting my critique of Samuelson et al.’s fraudulent game-theory gamesmanship are rather involved. So why would anyone want to spend time reading about the refutation of yet another bucket of boilerplate propaganda? Because this one bears not only on crap economic policy but also on crap arms race strategy and crap climate change policy, which I will get to in the second post in this series.
In his preface to Strategy and Conscience, Rapoport recounted an exchange he had with a strategist who had come to his university to talk about “Defense and Strategy in the Nuclear Age.” Overcome with revulsion at the speaker’s clinical detachment in addressing mass extermination, Rapoport asked the speaker, “how would he defend himself if at some future time he were a co-defendant in a genocide trial.” The speaker respectfully replied that “he would plead ‘partially guilty.'” But it was the response of many of his colleagues to his question that rattled Rapoport. They thought the very question was inappropriate and violated the standards of academic discourse. Somehow, even in discussing “the unthinkable,” some thoughts must remain taboo.
Unlike Rapoport’s strategist, the propagandists who recite the lump-of-labor, zero-sum fallacy catechism are unlikely to acknowledge even partial responsibility for promoting economic inequality and social injustice. After all, why should they? They were only repeating what they have heard and have been told to say. They didn’t know what they were talking about.
cross posted with Econospeak