What Trump Could Learn from the Golden State Warriors

Op-Ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 15, 2017

As the travails of President Trump have dominated the headlines, so has the jubilant season of the Golden State Warriors filled the sports pages. Whether the team will be invited to the White House, and whether it would accept such an invitation, remain open questions. But there is much the president could learn from the Warriors, especially from their approach to success.

Both have faced challenges in their own spheres, the complexities of 21st century global politics and the quest for an NBA championship, respectively. Both are exceedingly competitive. But consider how their different understanding of competition and cooperation have influenced the way they have engaged their respective challenges — and how these different approaches have influenced their degree of success.

Trump seems to understand the world and its challenges as a zero-sum game. A deal is negotiated with a rival over how to divide a pie. Any added sliver of pie one takes from the deal creates an equivalent loss for the rival. Whoever gets more pie is the winner. This is a worldview adopted by those preoccupied with comparisons, the size of your inaugural crowd versus mine.

The Warriors, both as an organization and a team, have understood that the challenge they confront is anything but a zero-sum game. Indeed, the game of basketball is closer to what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma, a game where strategies based on self-interest lead to bad outcomes for all. Arms races, street crime and environmental degradation are examples of outcomes from such games. Only by somehow deferring self-interest to the collective interest do the players all prosper.

Basketball is a sport obsessed with statistics. To obtain lucrative individual contracts, NBA players are understandably concerned with “putting up good numbers” before their next salary negotiation. But to an extent rarely seen in professional basketball, the Warriors have become renowned for their selfless play. Teams of the past have scored more points, but the Warriors regularly set new records for assists. There is more joy among the Warriors from a sneaky pass to a teammate than in individual scoring records.

In contrast, rather than perceiving the mutual gains from cooperation with other countries in areas such as international trade and global environmental issues, Trump pledged to Put America First, a pledge consistent with a zero-sum understanding of the world. The undertakings of previous U.S. presidents, such as the signing of the Paris climate agreement, the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the NATO alliance and various international economic treaties have partially restrained American self-interest to collectively benefit the global community.

Trump perceives international cooperation as a form of charity from our country to foreign countries that we can no longer afford, rather than as teamwork that ultimately produces gains for all players, including ourselves. In this zero-sum worldview, trade agreements do not produce mutually beneficial gains, as economic analysis demonstrates. Instead they result in domestic firms losing markets to foreign firms. Immigrants do not add to the prosperity of the domestic economy, as economic analysis consistently indicates. Immigrants steal jobs.

One wonders whether the Warriors would be the NBA champions if Stephen Curry had announced he was going to Put Steph First. How unlikely that Kevin Durant would have wanted to join such a team. And even if he had, consider how different a group of talented but self-interested players would have looked from the athletic harmony in motion we witnessed in the postseason. Even the rich talent pool of the Warriors may not have withstood such a myopic understanding of the game.

In a similar way, even our talented and resource-rich country may not withstand a myopic view of global cooperation. The president should invite the Warriors to the White House. And if he does, he may learn about more than basketball.

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