Opinion | What Biden Needs to Tell Us

Sometimes social revolutions emerge from ordinary ideas. In the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers like William Petty, David Hume and Adam Smith popularized a concept called “division of labor.” It’s a simple notion. If I specialize in doing what I’m good at, and you specialize in what you’re good at, and we exchange what we’ve each made, then we’ll both be more productive and better off than if we tried to be self-sufficient.

It seems banal, but division of labor was part of a constellation of ideas that liberated our civilization from the savage grip of zero-sum thinking. For millenniums before that, economic growth had been basically stagnant. Many people simply assumed that the supply of wealth was finite. If I’m going to get more of it, it will be the result of conquering you and stealing what you have. In a zero-sum mind-set, the basic logic of life is dog-eat-dog, conquer or be conquered. Property is theft. Predators win.

Division of labor, on the other hand, and the other principles that underlie modern capitalism, encouraged a positive-sum mind-set. According to this way of thinking, the good of others multiplies my own good. Steve Jobs got to enjoy a fortune, but I get to enjoy the Mac I’m now typing on and tens of thousands get to enjoy the jobs he helped create.

In this kind of society, life is not about conquest and domination but regulated competition and voluntary exchange. Not about antagonism but interdependence. In this kind of marketplace, Walter Lippmann wrote in the late 1930s, “the vista was opened at the end of which men could see the possibility of the Good Society on this earth.”

In other words, a dry economic concept like “division of labor” helped inaugurate a moral revolution. A positive-sum society is a more pluralistic and tolerant society because all its members are encouraged to pioneer their own specialty. People are rewarded for their skills and imaginations, not their ability to intimidate. Competition for comparative advantage unleashes untold human creativity, drive, innovation and ambition.

The errors and scandals of the early 21st century (Iraq, the financial crisis, etc.) produced a crisis of legitimacy for this brand of liberal democratic capitalism. People lost confidence that the elites knew what they are doing or were serving anybody but themselves. This disillusion led to a concomitant rise in global populism. In 2002 only 120 million people lived in countries governed by what The Guardian called “at least somewhat” populist leaders. By 2019, more than two billion did.

Populism thrives on a zero-sum mind-set. The central story that populists tell is: They are out to destroy us. Populist leaders invariably inflame ethnic bigotry to mobilize their own supporters.

America’s populist in chief, Donald Trump, exemplifies this mentality. Trump grew up in a zero-sum world. In the world of New York real estate, there’s a fixed amount of land. Trump didn’t have to invent a new concept, just screw the other side. In 2017, the Vox writer Dylan Matthews and his colleagues read all of Trump’s books on business and politics, and concluded that zero-sum thinking is the core of his mind-set. “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win,” Trump and his co-author wrote in “Think Big and Kick Ass.” “That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win — not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”

MAGA is the zero-sum concept in political form. What’s good for immigrants is bad for the American-born. What’s good for Black people is bad for whites. Trade deals are exploitation. Our NATO allies are out to screw us. Every day for Trump is an Us/Them dominance game.

Zero-sum thinking is surging on the left as well. A generation of college students has been raised on the dogma that life is a contest between groups — oppressor versus oppressed, colonizers versus colonized.

This thinking is rising across the globe. Despots are trying to grab territory to increase wealth and glory. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, state- and nonstate violence was higher in 2022 than it was a decade before.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t seek to recapture Russian greatness by leading a nation that cures cancer or produces technological innovations; he seeks glory by conquering Ukraine: You lose, I win. Xi Jinping no longer talks of the U.S. and China as friendly competitors; he describes a world in which we are locked in a zero-sum war for supremacy: He wins, we lose. As my colleague Thomas Friedman has noted recently, Hamas could have turned Gaza into Dubai — a land of capitalism, growth and opportunity. But Hamas rejects the whole ethos of modern capitalism for a more primitive ethos: Jews die, we dominate.

We all have complaints about the age of go-go globalization, but what’s followed is far worse — global economic competition being replaced by political and military confrontation. And the thugs are winning. Russia now has the momentum in Ukraine. China is growing increasingly aggressive in the waters around Taiwan. Trump is leading in many polls.

Many of us greet 2024 with a sense of foreboding. We need Joe Biden to be as big as this year demands. We need a leader who shows that he grasps the scope of global crisis and has a vision for how to return to a positive-sum world of growth, innovation and peace.

Personally, I’d ask Team Biden to take a look at Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. A lot of people thought Reagan was too old that year. But he told a bracing story about the global threat and he had a vigorous vision for America’s future. Team Biden is not going to go all Reaganite, but it could promote a liberal version of two of his themes — law and order and the spirit of enterprise.

Law and order. We are in the middle of a multifront conflict that pits the forces of civilization against the forces of barbarism. In a civilized world, people create rules and norms to make competition fair, whether it’s economic, intellectual or political competition. Barbarians seek to tear down those rules so thuggery can prevail. Biden needs to position himself as the candidate for law and order — in Ukraine, against Hamas, at the ballot box, on America’s streets and, yes, on the southern border. He has to stand for the rule of law against growing chaos.

The spirit of enterprise. One of the great achievements of Biden’s first term is that America is once again a nation that builds things. Manufacturing employment is up. More broadly, the American economy is surging, with fast growth, plummeting inflation, real wage increases. Far from being in decline, the U.S. economy is driving the world.

Biden needs to paint a portrait of America’s future not with statistics but with a vision of a way of life. Liberal capitalism involves a set of concrete social actions: starting a business; building better schools; working together with people in companies; rising from poverty to buy a house; raising children not to be culture warriors but workers and innovators.

This liberal dream is still ingrained in the nation’s bones. It’s been covered over by several years of bitterness, disillusion and pessimism. Maybe Biden can reach something deep in every American and revive the optimism that used to be our defining national trait.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X and Threads.

Check out our Latest News and Follow us at Facebook

Original Source

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *