Parker Brothers made millions of dollars marketing the table game Monopoly. It takes two to three hours to play a round of the game. Its history can be traced back to 1904, when it was developed as a teaching tool to explain the single tax theory.
Poker is a game where betting begins with some form of forced bet by one of the players. Each player is betting that the hand he has will be the highest ranked. Each of the other players must either match the maximum previous bet or fold.
Both games include one striking similarity: one player ends up with more only as another player ends up with less. They are zero-sum games. The only way one can gain is at the expense of someone else. It is like an apple pie: if one person eats more, another person gets less. Over the years many well-intentioned folks have swallowed this analogy as an axiomatic factor of life. If you have something, it is because someone else does not. You took it away from someone else, or you wouldn’t have more. It becomes very easy to deduce that the reason we have an abundance of poor people in the world is because we have a few other people who have grabbed a huge portion of the pie and left everyone else without. Before careful examination of the issue, I used to swallow that reasoning hook, line, and sinker.
One day I was doing some research for a paper I was writing. The material I was reading raised the fact that the three richest men in the world control more wealth than all six hundred million people living in the world’s poorest countries. I was tempted to embrace the seemingly obvious point that the reason there are six hundred million impoverished people in the poorest countries is because the three men had snagged all the money before it got to the six hundred million. At that point I had to ask myself the realistic question, “How much additional money would those six hundred million persons have in their pockets today had Bill Gates and his two other buddies not earned all that money?” I was forced to answer, “Probably not one additional penny,” because wealth is a different myth. It is not a clump of something; it is not a zero-sum game. The gains of the winners are not simply products of theft. People can grow wealth if they are allowed to do so. People can create successful enterprise and thus create wealth and enrich all who are associated with the undertaking. Production is the wealth. At the end of my research, I was faced with a different question: “Just why have the six hundred million people in the poorest countries not been able to produce more than they have?”
I have walked this world’s slums and have become acquainted with the locations of abject poverty. I wasn’t on a luxury tour bus—poverty was the location of my work for twenty-five years. I have been driven by the belief that something positive can be done to reverse poverty. Strong economies cannot be built on sick people. So, for more than twenty-five years, Project C.U.R.E. has been dedicated to taking health and hope to over 125 developing countries of the world.
A most delightful and encouraging phenomenon crossed my pathway while trying to deal with ingrained poverty. The United Nations declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit. And in 2006 the Nobel Peace Prize went to Muhammad Yunus for his work providing microcredit to the poor.
The idea germinated in Bangladesh in 1976 with the Grameen Bank delivering small loans at low interest rates to rural poor. The program became a popular tool for economic development throughout the developing world and sparked a revolution in micro-entrepreneurship. The newly created enterprises generated employment, and the efforts began to create and grow real wealth. Today 75 percent of all microcredit recipients worldwide are women who are now given a chance to establish a sustainable means of income. Growing the enterprises increases disposable income. That leads to more economic growth and development.
The new business owners of the microenterprises don’t have more because someone else in the village has less. Others in the village, in fact, also end up with more. Everyone starts to become better off. What a glorious experience it is to see the power of debilitating poverty being reversed, and people who have been held down by governments and tradition being given an opportunity to become part of the solution rather than the problem.
Using zero-sum thinking is acceptable at the Parker Brothers’ Monopoly board or the challenging poker table, but please, don’t succumb to the temptation of applying zero-sum thinking to the economics of real life.