Tom MacWright


I’ve been thinking about ‘zero-sum’, the idea that utility is strictly finite and simply divided between people. The opposite idea, non-zero-sum, is roughly paraphrased as ‘growing the pie’ in the business world, or related to ‘win-win’ dynamics. It keeps coming up in different contexts.

The first that I remember recently is Winners Take All, the hot new book about charity and inequality. Giridharadas repeats over and over that what are sold as win-win ideas inevitably turn out to be win-lose. I bristled a bit at that book’s approach: it was heavy on anecdotes, light on analysis, and troublingly simplistic in its theory of governance. But it make that point strongly: that it isn’t always possible to help people and make money. Creating change is often simply a sacrifice, as so many civil servants can tell you.


Driving Detroit drills into the opposite problem: a deadlock between Black residents of Detroit proper and white residents of exurbs that is rooted in their skepticism of anything that could be mutually beneficial. They come by it honestly via decades of broken promises and corruption, but the end result is something that no-one desires: a city getting left behind as others accelerate.


I see it in Streetmix too. It’s a tool started by Lou Huang to let everyone propose street layouts. It’s an incredible example of participatory politics, but also one of the best demonstrations of zero-sum planning: for every element you add, you need to take something away. Even if you widen the street, you’re implicitly shrinking someone’s lawn or driveway. It forces you to make value distinctions.

San Francisco

And, locally, you can see it in the housing unaffordability debate. The artificial scarcity created by, amongst other things, zoning, community review processes, geography, and land speculation, turns a problem of housing scarcity into a fierce debate over which kind of housing is most important, because we’re only going to build a fraction of what’s necessary. Closely connected is the re-emergence of degrowth and its dumber elitist cousin, Malthusianism. One of the patterns in the zero-growth + zero-sum nexus is that the folks who propose negative growth, population limiting, or an end to mobility are often proposing it for other people: they already live in the town, already have children, but are eager to stop others from following in their path.

I don’t have a pitch or a synthesis of these ideas: these are working notes for a pattern I saw emerging. I think where I go from here is understanding the capture of value. I think that’s what was buried in Giridharadas’s argument: that growth is real, but it’s owned by pre-existing winners, not the rest. One of the most appealing elements of Georgism is its proposal of a land value tax that redistributes unearned value directly.

But a land value tax is still futuristic, even though an irrelevant presidential candidate has signed on to it. For now I find myself stuck between the theory of zero-sum games that promote scarcity, infighting, and stagnation, and growth ideology that amplifies inequality. Where to go from there, I’m not sure.