Nov 16, 2010

The zero-sum game is bunk

If you aren't a reader of or subscriber to Alex Eames' tranfree newsletter, I encourage you to read his latest (issue 75), which contains an interesting and thoughtful discussion of customer loyalty. He also has a great offer for previous customers interested in purchasing his new e-book, Business Success for Freelance Translators, which I had the privilege to review in an early draft. I have always enjoyed and benefited from what Alex has to share on the subject of translation business. His original e-book with the original controversial (but actually understated) title was the first business reference I acquired for my translation business, and in many respects it is still the best. The new edition is better. One of the things I appreciate most about Alex's writing is his ability to mix humor in with the message to make it sink in better. I recommend him to any freelancer looking for the right road to get started on and keep traveling on to success and sanity.

I do take issue with one little point he made in his latest newsletter, however:
Economics is a “zero-sum game”. There’s only a finite amount of tangible resources available in the world to go around. So if you are going to be rich, someone else is going to be poor. (Probably more than one “someone else” – that’s the way it is.)
Nonsense. Complete nonsense. Granted, there are players in our game who feel that the way to get ahead is by squeezing others, but there are enough examples in our profession and in the long history of human enterprise which prove beyond all doubt that cooperation is a value multiplier which often produces a result far greater than what the individual actors in sum could accomplish alone. Nor is it necessary to impoverish anyone in such an enterprise.

Even when we speak of scarce resources, if one considers the enormous waste of these resources as they are used to day, cooperation to find better solutions for consuming them "creates" wealth through savings which can be shared without anyone being the loser.

That human reality is often dominated by loss and suffering due to greed and ignorance is another matter altogether and should not be taken as a validation of the "zero sum" philosophy. "Cast your bread on the waters, for you shall find it after many days." Sound familiar? I have experienced the truth of this too often to allow myself to be confused by the cases where I do not get what I want or expect. I believe - I know - that we are richer through wise sharing of resources, tangible and otherwise, than we can ever be through zero-sum throat-cutting. I am not in a zero-sum game with my customers. They do not have less when they give me more, nor do I always have less when I take less. We buy our nourishment with many currencies, and I've never found it difficult to do that with cash if called for, though what I want may not be available for that medium.

Nor are we in a zero-sum game with our professional peers. I know there are many who will disagree strongly with me on this point, and they have lurid tales of hatchet jobs by reviewers, backstabbers and others to back up their beliefs. This is not unfamiliar territory to me, but though I know it is on the map, I choose to travel elsewhere, and for the most part I find welcoming partners in that other place. As does Alex. As do many of us.

How wise are we, really, when it comes to accurately determining the value of our resources and actions? Probably fairly accurate in the very short term if we have half a head for business. But the complexity with which our actions propagate over time, like the wind of the butterfly's wings, makes sure knowledge at a greater remove impossible: will it come to nothing or become the seed event of a great storm? I won't break my head with such speculations. I try to let go the worry and simply live and act as I feel is right. There is no zero-sum game for me, but instead many and varied rewards to be discovered in places often unsuspected.


  1. LOL I'd rather people argue with me than ignore me. :)

    I knew someone would take issue with me on this point, having researched it a little on the web. Economists can't even agree with themselves about it (or anything else for that matter). :)

    I wasn't referring to the microcosm of translation though, but the sharing out of the whole of the earth's resources.

    I take your point about the efficiency of the sharing mechanism though. That truly is something I hadn't considered.

  2. Well, Alex, I'm pleased to have found something in what you say that I can disagree with, because you are, as I said, one of my preferred sources of information and career advice for this profession.

    I wasn't referring to the microcosm of translation either, but to the sharing of the Earth's resources as well if you want to look at it that way. Take energy use, for example. Even with the non-renewable sources, improved insulation and other efficiencies would create "reserves" greater than the biggest oil fields we know of. And these greater efficiencies by themselves would bring us closer to affordable, viable use of renewable energy sources. There is, as you know, enough food produced in the world to feed everyone, and local improvements in many parts of the world could further improve the situation in ways that would not exacerbate dependencies or trade imbalances. What stands in the way are factors such as political instability and avarice. The "zero sum" is the result of human weakness, choice and limited understanding, not a true reflection of the state of the world and its resources but rather how we choose to use and distribute these resources.

    Civilization as we know it exists because it offers greater wealth, greater security, to the greater number of people. It is not built by kings, but by the shared efforts of people at every level. The problems we face with resources, etc. are not trivial, but they only fit a zero-sum equation if we choose to smother creative thought and alternatives and fail to share solutions and possibilities with one another.

  3. I think that wealth and economics is not zero sum, but power is. For instance, China and the USA compete for power in the world, which truly is zero-sum (China can only get power by "taking" it from America), but in real economic terms, wealth is not zero-sum, it is positive sum: when China gets rich, we all do.

  4. @John: I'm not sure I buy the power hypothesis here. Certainly it applies in some situations: in a boardroom struggle, there will be winners and losers if the participants are determined to play it that way. Geopolitically, the choice to gain power at the expense of others (zero sum) has a very long tradition. I used to translate Sumerian inscriptions from a fellow from Lagash who bragged about the piles of bodies he left in the cities he conquered: can't get much more zero sum than that. But consider what happened when France and Germany decided to play with each other by different rules around 60 years ago. The political power game need not be zero sum, and when we choose another model for the game, there are the benefits that many of us take for granted today. Cooperation - or the lack of it - is always a choice.

  5. Dear Kevin and dear Alex,

    I appreciate your writings very much. They help me understand our business and our world better. In fact, when you publish your writings, you are sharing generously with others. Your thoughts belong to the common wealth.

    Alex, I started to translate your tranfree 74 into Chinese early last month as usual, but I couldn't finish it because several projects were running. I wanted to resume the translation when I finished all jobs, but I find it unnecessary now. Our Chinese colleagues read English as well and it is better that they read your originals. So, I stop translating your newsletters from now on.

    Kevin, as you write, "I believe - I know - that we are richer through wise sharing of resources, tangible and otherwise, than we can ever be through zero-sum throat-cutting. I am not in a zero-sum game with my customers. They do not have less when they give me more, nor do I always have less when I take less. We buy our nourishment with many currencies, and I've never found it difficult to do that with cash if called for, though what I want may not be available for that medium," this is exactly what I have experienced in our walk of living and how I feel about the relations between clients and translators. Some people believe that they win when they kick out some others, even when they resort to dirty tricks. However, I know, people start to "live and let die" only when they are afraid of their own survival, so that they feel the urge of exercising their "power."

    As to the competition between China and the States for power, Joseph Nye has a wise view of the matter at where he explains the game of "power" very well. It isn't necessarily a zero-sum. While power shifts from West to East, it diffuses also on the same way in the same direction, so that the system in China will change sooner or later, a substantial structural change, I'd say.


  6. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.

  7. I guess one might use the example of the EU to show that power can also be positive sum, and not zero sum. As the EU gets bigger and more powerful, all the member states in it also gain power.

  8. My reaction was identical. I did wonder whether perhaps, in an attempt to be pithy or grab our attention with a neat soundbite, Mr. Eames had failed to see the logical consequences of that statement.

    Surely, if economics were zero-sum, then all economic transactions combined would ultimately counterbalance, which would therefore imply that the total economic value before and after any economic activity remains unchanged. If that were the case, then the total economic value of the entire planet would be unchanged since the dawn of time (in the same way that energy is never created or destroyed, only transformed). I don't think that is the case. But I'm happy to listen to a counter-argument.

  9. Well, Charlie, soundbite or not, what's really important to me is that the people I respect, some of them extremely successful, never treat economics or life as a zero-sum game. I've never seen any public evidence that Alex does; I doubt he feels diminished by any value he shares freely with others. Despite the fact that the value created by the information he has shared over the years surely exceeds his cash receipts. The same is true of a number of others we could name.

    Since the political tragedy that brought Ronnie Raygun into the office of the US presidency, I have watched with great sadness the growing tendency to view life in stark win/lose economic terms. Those who wall themselves off with such perspectives often seem to me like prisoners breathing rather stale air.

    My family does not think and act this way. Nor do my friends. Nor do most of my clients. Nor do others I hold in the highest regard. And the long stretch of human history validates their sharing of loaves and fishes along with fishing poles and sets of instructions.

  10. Oh poo. Maybe I'm guilty of soundbiting the hand that feeds. ;)

    All I really wanted to do was challenge us to become the ones who float to the top, so we can be secure. But when we get there, to think a bit about those who.

    Put in your terms, that's very not zero-sum isn't it?

    Maybe it's the entertainer in me slightly running away with it and not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

  11. You probably know this one, Alex: "se non e vero, e ben trovato". Overfastidious with details and definitions can get in the way of a good lesson, and in our profession, you've been a good teacher :-) And rather distant from zero-sum in action.

    The actual purpose of this post was to encourage people to have a look at the good information you share in your newsletter. That and the one Jost puts out are among my favorite sources of information.

  12. Looks like I missed out a word or deleted it by mistake. Third sentence in my previous comment should end "those who aren't."


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