Competition doesn’t always cut it

Marketplace Staff Jun 5, 2009
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Competition doesn’t always cut it

Marketplace Staff Jun 5, 2009
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TESS VIGELAND:Today President Obama continued his tour of the Middle East and Europe. He’s talking a lot about cooperation — with the Muslim world and with Germany, a country he dubbed a “critical partner.” Cooperation is a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Sounds commonsensical. But commentator K.C. Cole says the idea also has some grounding in math.


K.C. Cole: Whether we like to admit it or not, much of the financial mess we’re in was caused by the credo that greed helps everyone. That looking out for “number one” is practically our patriotic duty — a legacy of the “me” generation.

And yet, most of us routinely help each other out even when we don’t have to. We tip waiters, give up our seats on the bus, subscribe to public radio.

This unexpected streak of altruism shows up even in situations where conflict is the point. Enemy soldiers facing each other in trenches during World War I often made tacit agreements to live and let live. It’s also true in times of stress: During the Great Depression, sharing was at an all time high.

So why do people so often go against what seems to be their own self interest?

A branch of mathematics called “game theory” has found that, in fact, cooperative strategies seem to prevail in computer matches designed to reveal what makes a winner. Surprisingly, the top dog turns out to be not the most consistently ruthless, but the one who reciprocates in kind.

Math really does prove the golden rule. To be successful, do unto others what you would have others do unto you. The condition is: “Or else!” If you’re “nice” and the competition retaliates, then you have to retaliate right back; if you don’t, you’re a sucker. But forgiveness is part of the equation too. Slap the wrist, and move on.

There must also be an expectation that the two sides will interact another day. And let’s face it: We’re all in this economic melting pot together. Unless you’re ready to flee to Antigua, best to cooperate.

Competition does keep us on our toes. But when competition means obliterating everyone, then the predator, in effect, eats all its prey. If Wall Street speculators suck up so much money that businesses die and no one can sell or buy products or pay taxes everybody loses. Just do the math.

Vigeland: K.C. Cole is a professor at the Annenberg School at USC. Her latest book is “The Universe and the Teacup.”

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