The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
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    Zero-Sum Trump and the Chumps

    I used to be close to a pair of senior citizens who'd retired from long, prosperous careers as bookies. And after a while I began to realize that, although they were both still extremely sharp, they were not especially good with money. They weren't catastrophes. They didn't go broke with bad investments. They just never did as well as they should have, almost never got the full value from a deal. They had both done very well in an illegal business, but they seemed weirdly unable to make an honest buck.

    My friends saw business as a strictly zero-sum game, where they could only gain if someone else lost. The way they saw it, there was a fixed amount of money floating around the world, and you had to grab as much of other people's as you could. This is a perfectly accurate approach to betting on the third race. Gambling is a zero-sum proposition. One party loses, the other wins, and absolutely nothing of value is created. A fixed amount of money just gets redistributed. There is no such thing as a deal where everyone comes out ahead. You get ahead because someone else screws up. Every transaction is ultimately somebody's mistake.

    What my older friends could not get their heads around, or on some level couldn't believe, is that there are deals that can make everyone involved richer, bargains that are wins for both sides because they create value. Plenty of perfectly honest people have trouble with this idea, too, and subscribe to the fixed-amount-of-dollars-in-the-universe idea. You can run a decent small business from basically that perspective. But our entire economy is based on the fact that new wealth continues to be created. The country as a whole gets richer. There is more money than there used to be, because there are more things for money to buy. (What people who get freaked out by the fact that money changes value don't understand is that it's about the relationship between the amount of money and the amount of things available to purchase with your money.)

    Most business people who succeed on a large scale do so by looking for deals where everyone can profit, not because they're altruists but because those are deals that other people want to make. You can make money off deals where the other side also makes money, and everybody's happy, and then maybe you can use some of the profits to make more mutually-profitable bargains! Success! Capitalism! Whoo hoo! My friends had trouble seeing those deals, because, I think, they kept asking themselves which party was the sucker here, and assuming that it might be them.

    The current President of the United States also subscribes to the zero-sum, fixed-amount-of-money view of business. This is really strange considering he put his name on a book called The Art of the Deal, but it's clearly true. Trump does not believe in win/win propositions. He sees the world as win/lose. It explains a lot of his business behavior, and a lot of his business setbacks. It explains, most of all, why most large New York banks will no longer lend him money. Donald Trump does not actually think about business like a businessman. He thinks about business like a con man.

    His obsession with trade deficits is pure zero-sum. If you think of there being a fixed amount of trade in the world, a fixed amount of value to pass back and forth, then deficits and surpluses are all that matter. More money is going out than is coming in! Disaster! But if you think of trade as a pie that continues to grow, letting America keep taking more slices even if it runs a deficit with this country or that, then trade deficits aren't the whole story. You want there to be more international trade, not less, because you want that pie to keep growing. Trump imagines a pie whose size is fixed by immutable law, which can never get larger (wrong) or smaller (dangerously wrong), and he's fixated on trying to get a bigger slice than the next guy. And the next guy turns out to be Canada.

    (Now, free trade has its problems, because it isn't just about both countries doing well. You need to take care of displaced workers inside your own country, and we haven't. But Trump is never going to fix that, because his zero-sum attitude applies to the working class, too. For the poor to do better, Trump assumes, the rich would have to do worse, in exactly the same amount, and he has no interest in that at all.)

    So, Trump is going to the G-7 summit with our six most important economic allies (and not just economic allies) enraged with him. This, to a reasonable businessman, would seem bad for business. To Trump, it's good. Because in Trump's zero-sum, you-can-only-win-what-others lose world view, there are no actual allies. How could there be? If everything you gain comes out of their pocket, and everything they gain comes out of your pocket, no one can actually ever be your friend. This is stupid and short-sighted, but well. There we are.

    Trump is incapable of understanding that our trade relationship with, say, France, could ever be good for both the US and France. That our trade relationship with France actually has been good for both the US and France, for more than seventy years, does not matter in this calculation. It doesn't matter to Trump that something is obviously true, because he doesn't see how it could be true, so it must not be. Are you trying to play him for a sucker?

    Multiply this mistake by six, then by a hundred. Trump misunderstands every single one of our trade alliances. All of them. He sees all of our long, mutually-profitable relationships as just so many people with their hands in our pockets, which is why he hates our allies and lavishes praise on our enemies. We don't have trade deal with our enemies, so they're not taking advantage of us like, say, Canada. Trump is on the road to a pointless destructive trade war because he doesn't actually believe in capitalism. He doesn't believe in economic growth. He thinks all of that is a cover story, a scam. He does not view the world in capitalist terms. He views the world like one of the small-time mill-town bookies of my youth.

    Sad to say, my retired bookie friends, much as I loved them, would probably have screwed up the G-7, too. They just could not think big enough. But to give them their due, they would never have lost money running a casino.
     

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    What's worse, really worse?

    Not the Russian connections, the Russian mob/oligarch money, the grifting, the constant lies.

    He has a personality disorder which makes his "national security" zero sum crusade far more dangerous.

    Narcissists love to talk about themselves, they always interrupt and switch the focus back to themselves.

    Narcissists enjoy getting away with violating rules and norms.

    Narcissists violate boundaries, they show wanton disregard for other people’s thoughts, feelings, possessions, and physical space.

    Narcissists often expect preferential treatment, in their mindset, the world revolves around them.

    Narcissists have an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

    Narcissists are quick to judge, criticize, ridicule, and blame others.

    Narcissists manipulate is through guilt, claiming they are innocent victims being treated unfairly.


    I agree, NCD. But you can't cover all of Trump's failings in one post.


    Agree with everything you've said.  Would add that Trump is also working a con here because, as you point out, trade might be mutually beneficial to countries as a whole, but every country has winners and losers within.  Trump is not going to ever do anything of substance for the poor, of course. He doesn't care, for one thing and even if he did, his best solution is that these people wind up with some jobs that make them just barely not poor anymore.

    But what he is going to do is he's going to speak to the free trade victims and he's going to tell them that Canada and Mexico and Europe and China stole their money. That story feeds right into the zero sum mentality but it might be effective politics, at least with the electoral college in place.


    Sure. And I don't think his voters are motivated by economic reality. It's the triumph of media over the real world.

    But, for what it's worth, Trump is likely to undo the few silver linings that globalization has brought blue-collar America. The trade-off, for the working classes, has been fewer jobs and lower wages in exchange for lots of cheap foreign goods. You don't have any money, but Walmart is cheap.

    Trump can (and may be on the fast track) to NOT bringing back jobs BUT making prices higher. So now you won't even be able to shop at Wal-Mart.

    Look at the price of gas. If Trump voters are blue-collar types (and that has been exaggerated) they are the ones who are getting hurt.


    Look at the price of gas.

    Excellent point! And a here and now thing, won't take any time to sink in. As they say in Maine: summa's heeyah, and we're back to the traditional major price hikes just as Joe Lunchpail loads up the kids in the gas guzzling SUV. If Trump's such a maestro of cutting through the corporate b.s. for Joe, that shouldn't be happening. This one strikes me as a basic of a MAGA program! (For a president, it's like getting the blizzard cleaned up fast if you are a big city mayor, if you can't fix that, you're useless.)


    I think you are onto something good here describing the new MAGA isolationism.

    They idolize a faux image of the post WWII U.S. where they see the military might as responsible for our leap to great global power when it was in fact capitalist internationalist things like the Marshall Plan that done it.

    I wouldn't be surprised if Reaganomics synchs here somehow because Reagan's foreign policy ideological mumbo jumbo certainly fits and Bannon is clearly a fan.

    Haven't thought on it enough, but certainly find your essay intriguing.

    Edit to add: No argument at all about your pegging of Trump's way of looking at business, that should be clear to most by now! You just do it well. But I am thinking broader, on: why does it sell to so many now? Including someone like Bannon.


    just some grist for your mill I ran across:

     


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