Winners and Losers, Competition and Collaboration

Back om 1996, a left of center economist, Robert Frank, wrote a book called The Winner Take All Society. He was particularly interested in the labor market, where those at the top—athletes, movie starts, singers, CEOs, football coaches,… all get paid outrageously extravagant salaries while those who are not at the top get a small fraction of that amount. Most singers and actors have a day job. Careers in professional sports are often short for the non-super stars. There are a few very highly paid lawyers, but the majority just earn fairly ordinary incomes and spend their days dealing with wills and estates, or  work as prosecutors or public defenders while hoping to become a judge.

Winner takes all applies to other areas of our lives besides earning a living.  In fact, having a seven figure plus income and a stash of financial assets enables the lucky few to tip the scales further in their favor.  As major political contributors, they give us a lopsided tax law that gives special treatment to capital gains, even though capital gains are no different from a salary increase in terms of putting food on the table. They were fully supportive of Trump’s outrageous “favor the rich” tax bill with huge giveaways to corporations and a few measly bones thrown at the rest of us.  Adding insult to injury, the bones to the average citizens expire in 025, but the giveaways to the rich are permanent.

A second area in which the rule of winner takes all applies is politics. You probably know the old joke about what do we call the person who finished last in the med school class? Answer: Doctor. What do we call Loren Boebert, who won re-election by a scant 546 votes?  We call her Congresswoman, the Honorable Loren Boebert.  And the second -place person, by a tiny margin, is lost in the mists of history.  Who ran against her? The recount was only a month ago, but I had to look it up. (Adam Frisch).

Winner takes all is part of the reason why those who govern our nation are elected by a minority of the electorate. Some of that tyranny of the minority is built in the constitution in the two senators per state and the electoral college. Some of it is the result of gerrymandering. Some of it is the prevailing practice of electing by a plurality rather than a majority, as many states choose to do. (Frustration with runoff elections is a major factor in the spread of ranked choice voting among the states.) In particular, the prevailing Republican Party practice of winner takes all in presidential primaries allowed a candidate who was supported by a minority of his own party to claim the nomination from a crowded field in 2016.  It could easily happen again in what looks like a crowded Republican field in 2024.

The winner of the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel is known to just about everyone on the planet, but the cardinal who came in second is never even identified.  There is only one Heisman Trophy winner (at least the Olympic games honor three medal winners!), only one class valedictorian, only one governor or president. The winner takes all the power, prestige, and perks of office, just as the winner of a game of monopoly lords it over those whom he or she has forced int bankruptcy.

In January of 1832 when Jackson nominated Martin Van Buren to the prestigious position of minister to Britain, Senator Henry Clay denounced it as nothing more than the same patronage practices that had been practiced for years in VanBuren’s home state of New York.  In response, New York Senator William L. Marcy defended the appointment with his famous words “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”

The winner take all practice of “to the victor belong the spoils” is enshrined in the firmly held American belief that competition is a good thing in all aspects of life. At least in some cases it’s a win for the team—football, political party, nation, or best decorated house in town at Christmas.  There are friendly competitions, and there is no doubt that competition can spur some of us to our best efforts.  But winners are always a small minority. What about the rest of us?  Is there no space for those of us who are good, or even very good, but not necessarily the very best, the top of the heap? Is there no way of organizing society to tamp down on the “winner at all costs,” “winning is the only thing” mentality that drives our culture?

There is an alternative to competition, cooperation or collaboration. Being part of a work, volunteer, social or familiar body that values each person for their contribution, their uniqueness, and practices that best line of Karl Marx, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need.  Many years ago, I had a friend who had a full time job that didn’t pay very well, while her husband worked for the same entity in a much more admired and well-compensated position.  He pointed out that she was only earning a quarter of the family income, and her response says, not I contribute exactly what you do.  I give my job my all, my best.  That’s an equal contribution. It bespeaks a partnership in which each person’s effort is valued and appreciated and not measured in monetary terms.

I complained a while back that an organization on whose board I served had been taken over by the bean counters, an admittedly derisive term for those who are focused intently on the details. One of my friends, a member of the organization but not in a leadership role, reminded me that she was a bean counter, fascinated and absorbed in the financial details.  I had to amend my complaint to admit that at one time the organization was heavy with big picture people and also that the bean counters had an important role to play.  What was needed was the leadership that could strike a balance between the two.

A well-run business, corporate or other, would encourage the organization to compete without for the clients or customers, but use a thoughtful balance of competition and collaboration to get the work done within.  In an ideal world, so would the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate. The same is true for the other institutions of society.  We need more winners not fewer, but we also need to avoid the stigma of being labeled a loser. And we need to learn and practice how to honor the contribution of every member of the work team, family, community, or whatever entity of which we area a part.

Make it your New Year’s resolution!

Accentuate the Positive

I was recently reading a book on environmental justice, and I was struck by an observation about motivating people.  The writer argued that we should not use guilt or fear to motivate people to be more environmentally responsible, but rather gratitude and love for the Earth our Mother.  That feeling of doing a good deal by recycling, or gardening organically, or driving less and owning a more fuel-efficient and less polluting car is a great reward.

That idea of positive motivation has a lot of implications for how we encourage people to develop good habits, habits that are good for them and for others as well. Yet how rich in our world are the negative commands.  Starting with the Ten Commandments, eight of which are Thou shalt not.  The only two positive commands are to keep the sabbath and honor your father and mother.

A bias toward negative commands and negative motivations—fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of punishment—is pervasive in our highly competitive society, which creates a few winners and a lot of losers. In their book, The Winner Take All Society, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that many of the rewards in our society go to Number 1, whether it is a football championship, the Best picture Oscar, the spelling bee championship, the job at a prestigious law firm, a presidential election, or the prom king and queen.  Everyone else is an also-ran.  Being good enough is not good enough. “Loser” is one of President Trump’s favorite  tweet insults.

Some of the well-intentioned efforts to counter this set up for disappointment and build self-esteem, especially in young people, have gone awry.  Participation trophies. Blue ribbons and smiley faces for every pupil. The gross overuse of the term “awesome.”  how we can encourage people in a positive way that will make them feel successful and being who they are and doing what they do?

Collaboration and cooperation is one strategy.  There are lots of co-operative games out there, and lots of ways in engaging in activities that are not competitive.  Teamwork doesn’t have winners (unless, of course, it is team sports where there is a champion!). Both in paid work and in volunteer communities, there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating in collaborating with others, learning new ideas and building new friendships. We celebrate the solitary writer or artist, the lone genius in her lab, but in reality, some of the best work arises from the synergy of learning from one another.  I remember one time when I led the process of writing a mission statement for my congregation.  It was highly participatory. I could identify 55 people (in a 120 member congregation) who had a hand in its construction, and no, it didn’t look like the proverbial camel (a horse designed by a committee).

A second strategy is to let go of attachments to rewards and do what you do for its own sake, for the pleasure of doing, alone or with others. You can run a marathon to win, or just to improve your time or to enjoy the experience.  You can be an excellent cook whose efforts are appreciated without winning the prize at the county fair or being the best contestant on a cooking show. You can be a good writer and be appreciated by your audience without making the New York Times Best Seller list or winning a Pulitzer prize.  There is room for more than one.  And competing with yourself to do better at whatever you are doing means you are always a winner.

Or, like the writer on environmental justice, you can do what you do as a worker, a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a volunteer, a citizen our of gratitude for the riches that life has bestowed on you.  It’s your choice.  For your sake, and everyone else’s, I hope you choose that path and practice it without attachment to rewards and when possible, in collaboration with others.