The zero-sum president

Free Exchange on the Obama SOU:

STATE of the Union addresses tend to be long, winding affairs, filled with a grab bag of policy ideas that will alternatively appeal to and irk people across the political spectrum.

(…) Perhaps more distressing, he implied in several places that the reason to become more like China was that only by doing so could America defeat China, and others, at economics. Consider the line:

Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win.

Leaving others, one is forced to conclude, to lose—not once, not occasionally, but always. And what is likely to be the outcome of unending defeat? Destitution? Are we to hope that other countries are left with no gainful employment opportunities at all? If that means dreadful poverty, then Mr Obama ought to be dragged before an international tribunal. But maybe it’s not so bad, in which case we have to wonder why it’s so damned important to “win” whatever contest it is we’re having. Is the implication that it’s possible to get by all right, to not be poor, without having lots of demanding manufacturing jobs? That doesn’t sound so bad, actually; are we sure America doesn’t want to sign up for that? Of course, if this is the nature of economic activity, and if America is determined to defeat other countries, it’s worth asking whether it wouldn’t make sense to deliberately sabotage other places, or bomb them; after all, it’s hard to lose to a country whose people are dead. On the other hand, if victory is so important, we might expect other countries to retaliate, or preemptively attack. Maybe it would be better if the world divided itself into two competing but fairly isolated factions locked in a sort of “cold war”.