The Daily Illini

We no longer live in a zero-sum world

Wisdom Cannon

Wisdom Cannon

By Austin Stadelman, Columnist

Before the Industrial Revolution, a vast majority of the world worked in agriculture. In the early 1800s in the  United States, between 75 and 80 percent of the labor force worked in agriculture, producing just enough food for themselves, and perhaps the people around them, to survive.

In a pre-industrial, agriculturally driven world, there was only a fixed amount of land for farming. This means the only way to maximize agricultural output, and therefore maximize a person’s wellbeing, was to own resources at the expense of another. For someone’s piece of the pie to get bigger, someone else’s has to get smaller. This is known as a zero-sum game.

This type of world makes invading other empires or raiding villages and cities an effective means for gaining a larger piece of the pie. Hence, in part, why humanity has been so violent and ridden with inequality for most of its existence.

This was the way the world worked for all of human history. That is, until the Industrial Revolution. Machinery allowed for an explosion of productivity in not only agriculture, but also in innovative technologies that have improved the lives of billions of people in the last century. Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, said “measured efficiency growth rates increased from close to zero (for thousands of years) to close to 1 percent per year” in the blink of an eye. New technology became the focal point of economies and people across the world became better off without shrinking anyone’s piece of the pie.

This is known as a positive-sum game, and it is the world we currently live in.

What drives these changes is what has been driving human progress since we became conscious — innovation. Humans have a unique ability to innovate and create better circumstances for ourselves.

This new positive-sum world creates the case for making the entire world better off, not just those people within your own constructed borders. When people from poor countries gain access to developed markets, they become more productive, and more than half of the top technology firms in the United States were founded by people who either were immigrants or had immigrant parents.

That is not to say countries should open all their borders to their fullest extent, as cultural difference should not be ignored; rather, this shows humans across the globe are talented, capable and able to act on those talents when working in wealthy markets.

The justification for this idea is not difficult to prove. When people have access to education, for example, they become researchers, engineers and other forms of innovators who help to solve humanity’s never-ending problems. The incentive for people to become innovators is no more complex than simple supply-and-demand principles.

Innovation is used to fill a demand that people desire. Those desires are always occurring as the human lifestyle evolves, and they will always need to be met with a good supplied by innovators. For example, the taming of horses for transportation didn’t stop human desires for faster transportation, because cars were invented, and the invention of cars did not stop that desire either, because planes were invented. The string of desires by humans will always be met with innovators attempting to fill the demand and make profit off of it, and not a small amount of it, either.

Medical research is a prime example of the possibilities in a positive-sum world. If more people across the globe had money to pay for cancer treatment, say 5 billion people instead of only 1 billion, cancer research funding would exponentially explode.

Because of the nature of innovation and the profit incentives it entails, we’d find more effective means for treating and potentially curing cancer in a shorter amount of time. Essentially, imagine if the world collectively put in five times the current total amount of money put into curing cancer. We would have more efficient research labs, acting to benefit all of humanity, in every corner of the world — not just in the West.

The ideal way to do this would be to invest in poor and developing countries to ensure they’re developing in the right direction and their populations are educated and equipped with the right resources. Bill Gates recently launched a billion-dollar project aiding India in becoming more energy-efficient as it continues to develop and populate at one of the fastest rates in the world, meaning it would also pollute at one of the highest rates in the world if something wasn’t changed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also pledged developed countries would send $100 billion annually to poor countries by 2020 to help them pay for the energy transition. These projects not only help poor countries, but they also help our own people live better lives through environmental security for generations to come.

These are the types of actions needed to ensure a better humanity for all of us in the present and for the future generations we bring into the world. The Industrial Revolution served as the catalyst for what humans are capable of when we cooperate and, even until now, we may have only seen a preview of it.

Austin is a junior in LAS.

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