Zero-Sum Nature of Things

A few students came to me the other day to discuss a few ideas. They had to choose a software development project for their group. So that is what their ideas were all about. They had four ideas in all. I found two of them mundane, one of them somewhat interesting and the last one quite interesting. Their last idea was to develop an online portal where people could barter trade their skills. This idea caught my attention all of a sudden for various reasons. Due to the recent economic upheaval all over the world many people have lost their jobs. Due to this many have sought to find alternative sources of earning. Freelancing has become very common. I also read somewhere that people elsewhere in the West are brainstorming ideas to generate enough resources so that people may not have to work any more at all. Moreover, they would have access to basic amenities of life for free. This is an interesting idea. Given the current level of progress the world has made in many feats, this sounds an accomplish-able goal too. Although we may face practical difficulties in providing basic necessities of life to each and every individual on our planet, doing this can help us create a Utopian human society globally. What does a human need? A house to live in, things to eat and clothes to wear. If becoming content in life was to be an objective worth pursuing, contentment could follow by fulfilling basic necessities of life and working for others to achieve the same. This has been the theme of many spiritual, philosophical and religious teachings of various cultures all over the world.

Another reason this idea drew my attention was that there are so many skilled people all over the world. And it is quite true that despite the rise in number educated people, unemployment is also rising. Pakistan is especially a victim of unemployment. People spend considerable periods of their lives contemplating on what they ought to do in life. So of there could be a portal where people could trade their skills and services and products they could produce with those skills with each other, it would help to ameliorate a lot of personal problems of people.

One more reason due to which I liked the idea was the barter nature of exchange of skills and services. You provide someone a service and in turn another person would provide you another service you need. For instance, you could knit a sweater for someone living in Alaska who in turn could compile music for you. There are numerous portals online that help people sell their skills. Freelancing websites help people in getting recruited for short term projects and they get paid in return. But the barter nature of the project excited me all of a sudden.

Another reason why liked this idea so impulsively was that it hit a chord in my subconscious mind about an article that reflected similar ideas and their significance in our times. The article I am talking about is titled Moving Toward a Geopolitical Marketplace. Author of the article is Jay Ogilvy. Jay has recently joined Stratfor and has an impressive academic portfolio.

In this article, jay argues about zero-sum nature of land masses. In a somewhat artistic and a philosophical way he argues that even if a country invades another and occupies it and eventually gains the latter’s land mass, in a conservative system that our planet is, the net gain by all parties (countries in this case) is going to be zero. He similarly argues about the zero-sum nature of barter trade. A person prepares meat and exchanges that with another for the latter’s bread. Both persons gain something that they need, at the cost of something they originally had. However, all in all, the net gain of that trade is zero. He then explains how money came in to rescue the stalemate caused by zero-sums.

By introducing money in a trading system everyone exchanges goods for money. Add to it the profit margins, everyone becomes a little richer than before as a result of each transaction. Jay explains this with the help of simple examples. His examples are similar to a butcher preparing meat and selling it to a person who needs it in exchange for money. The butcher keeps the profit and uses the price of the meat to buy more cattle possibly. The butcher can use the profit earned by the exchange to buy bread from himself. The person who spent the money in buying the meat can earn some money by selling something he has. It could be a service such as fixing a plumbing issue, or a product made by a service such as making a chair if he knows some carpentry.

The examples of Jay are simple but they have profound consequences. By introducing money in a trading system, everyone can become richer and as a result everyone can buy things that they need. With barter trade this is simply not possible. As a matter of fact, with barter trade people can end up having undesirable things no matter how invaluable they are. And even though invaluable goods can be traded in turn for desirable things, the trading system is sluggish, tedious and not spontaneous at all. Bringing money in a trading system has some obvious benefits. We are privy of some of the benefits.

Jay’s article was not just about highlighting the zero-sum nature of landmasses or barter trade. Jay has recently joined Stratfor which is one of the leading geopolitical think tanks. In our times such think tanks play a vital role in projecting gestures of what I would like to call soft power. Jay finishes his article by suggesting that in our times every single country is dependent on every other single country on our planet in one way or the other. He argues that if a country acquires a landmass of another country, the overall global system would not gain anything. As the impact of conquests is zero-sum globally. Jay suggests that why shouldn’t every country try to provide other countries with what the latter do not have and what the erstwhile have. This is a very nice and indeed a humane suggestion. I was really touched by Jay’s advice. I really appreciate that someone out there in a remote part of the world cares about the peace and prosperity of our planet. Jay is also very artistic in suggesting ideas.

As the students talked to me about their idea concerning developing an online portal that could be used by people to barter trade their skills, Jay’s article instantaneously came to mind. As they finished speaking, I told them about how I felt about their idea. I immediately began reflecting what I had read in Jay’s article. The students also lent keen ears to what I said about that. We had to agree that although barter trade was not a very efficient way of trading, something should have been done for ordinary folks to be able to sell their skills online.

Jay’s notions about zero-sums keep on resonating in my mind nonetheless. I wonder what things have zero-sum natures. I was having a long conversation with someone during which I had to listen for the most part. I wondered that even if conversations are very interesting and even if everyone gets a free chance to speak, the nature of all conversations is zero-sum. This is true about mundane chit chat. Although it may not be true about bureaucratic conversations which can possibly result in allocating some developmental budgets.

What could be other things that have a zero-sum nature? Recently I have been thinking that education has a zero-sum nature. We can read a lot of things. And by the passage of time their memory fades away from our minds. A philosopher could reduce anything to having a zero-sum nature. This would include our universe and our very existence. But to get around in life, we have to decide that what things do really have some meaning about their existence and what things affect them.

Photo by David~O

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