Trump’s Zero Sum Delusion

Ttophis week we examine cooperation and conflict again, revisiting a topic from an earlier Occupy Math entitled “It’s not them or us“. President Donald Trump has recently floated the idea of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This was a free trade treaty that the President destroyed — after years of negotiations — just after he took office. The pact was enormously advantageous for the United States: it opened agricultural markets in Japan to US products, for example. Europe stepped up and inked a deal with Japan to supply those food-stuffs, costing American farmers billions. These are, of course, people that voted for the President disproportionately. Largely due to Japan working on it overtime, the remaining countries in the proposed partnership negotiated a version of the agreement (without the US) which was recently signed.

Trump Thinks a Win is When Someone Else Loses.

You can break the kind of games that are used to mathematically model deals into three types. There are ones where, if you play, everyone must come out behind. No-one cares about those and we deal with them by avoiding them. The very unpopular game “everyone throw your money out the window” is an example of this kind of game. In the next kind of game, you are dividing up a fixed resource so that gains by one player must be losses for another. Poker is like this, the money in the pot is re-divided among the players but neither grows nor shrinks. Finally, there are games where some of the outcomes result in positive payoffs for all participants — playing the game well creates wealth that would not otherwise exist. The gigantic trade network spanning the planet is, on average, this last sort of game. That’s why it exists at all.

The three kinds of games are named after the three types of numbers: negative sum, zero sum, and positive sum games. Trade is a (potentially) massively positive sum game. Here is where the President’s lack of connection with reality becomes a big problem: he clearly believes that all games are negative or zero sum. He hasn’t specifically said this, but it’s clearly what he believes because of the way he acts. Trump says he wants to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership “if he can get a much better deal”. This is after his initial move in which he played a positive sum game as if it were a zero sum game to achieve a negative result for his side.

If Donald Trump does not see on Fox News that he has dealt the other side a stinging blow, he thinks he’s getting taken advantage of, somehow. Cooperation, Trump appears to believe, is a type of capitulation. Given that cooperation is the essence of positive sum deals like trade partnerships, this puts him in a terrible position to negotiate trade deals.

Trump Cannot Do The Math

Given that it is pretty easy to show that the worst outcome from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement (which Trump was actively sabotaging at first — he was demanding all the marbles), and other similar agreements is a huge profit for America, it’s clear that Trump is not doing the math. Some of Occupy Math’s readers are probably thinking this is not a huge insight — but this failure to do the math has aspects beyond the obvious bad decisions resulting from it.

The President of the United States is supposed to be brilliant at everything — but not in his own person. Trump’s statements that he knows more about war than his generals, that he is a stable genius, that he is the best deal maker ever, arise from being the absolute tyrant, for decades, of a company with very few employees. If you do not acknowledge that Trump is the best, you’re gone, which means anyone who stays has to feed Trump’s delusion of competence.

How does this impact Trump’s inability to judge a trade deal, or anything, on its merits? A functional president has a huge staff of advisers chosen for their competence and experience in the domain on which they advise the president. This president has carefully picked opportunistic incompetents on the basis of his perception of their personal loyalty and connection to him. After firing the head of the second largest organization within the federal government, the Veterans’ Administration, Trump nominated his personal physician to be the new head. A medical doctor does not even administer their own practice: an office manager does that.

Another Trump Zero Sum Thingy

A point that is sometimes very hard to make to young children is that, if they have done something wrong, it does not help to point out that someone else has also done something wrong. A good or bad deed is assessed on its own merits, not based on who else dropped a carton of eggs yesterday. This leads to Trump’s next zero sum delusion that manifests itself in whataboutism, a rhetorical device associated with Russian propaganda that exploits the tu quoque logical fallacy.

This fallacy makes an invalid claim of hypocrisy by pointing to an unrelated situation. A reporter asks about the FBI kicking down the door of Trump’s personal lawyer and he screams that the FBI should investigate Hillary. This ignores the obvious fact that the FBI can do both these things if there is any need to. This logical fallacy is the same one made by small children blaming a sibling for an unrelated crime in the belief that the total amount of punishment available is conserved: zero sum punishment.

Decisions Should Be Made By People Who Do The Math!

Even if the decision-maker cannot do the math for himself, he should have people that not only can do the math, but explain it so that the decision made is an informed one. This whole situation is exacerbated by Donald Trump’s scoring system: gains are measured by the degree of media chaos, not by the benefits to, well, anyone.

Game theory is a useful oversimplification of reality for highlighting what the President is doing wrong. His inability to believe that both sides can win, in some situations, ensures that America will keep losing, except when the President is restrained or distracted. The need for distraction created a situation in which the President’s staff inadvertently replaced every advisory body that helps the President make decisions with Fox News. This is not a recipe for disaster, it is a fully-baked disaster in progress.

Occupy Math usually tries to offer some hope at this point. Sitting in Oakland California as this post is composed, I reflect on the dozens of homeless beggars I’ve met this week — many of them homeless because the society that should help them despises and ignores them. In the rhetoric about the homeless there is clearly a belief that helping the homeless is a negative sum game, that handouts will make them into helpless parasites. I meet occasional homeless person in Toronto and Guelph (Occupy Math’s home town), but Oakland has a torrent of people, discarded by their society because of the false belief that helping others is expensive. In fact migrating as many of the homeless into homes and jobs as you can would be a net gain.

Every city in the Bay Area (there are many) seems to have a campaign to encourage people to buy locally. This is another manifestation of the zero sum delusion and it is largely ignored by the people living here. The importance of these campaigns is that they shows how bad things are. People are being urged to shop in Oakland, not Berkeley (and vice versa). These are two cities that are adjacent with dozens of streets that don’t even change their name as they cross the boundary.

The progress of time is inevitable and it looks like the 2018 midterm election is going to be a humdinger. Occupy Math hopes that people who have abandoned doing the math, logic, and reason — as well as empathy and decency — will fare badly with the voters. Do you have a false zero sum belief that would be fun to write up and educational to hear about? Do not be shy, comment or tweet!

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics

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