INDEPENDENCE DAY the Movie and Zero Sum Games

Paul Bograd

Posted on July 11, 2007

Maybe somebody has to lose?


Well I counted it up yesterday. I’ve been gone from for 6 months. No excuses; just caught up in other work, a bit of geo-political alienation I suppose and no small measure of laziness.

I am not sure how to jump back into AsianPundit, after being away for so long.

Back in my pre-married days I had the same dilemma with girls I had dated, then never called again and then called again after 6 months. You never really know what to say, but you just jump back in the water. So as Jack Nicholson say’s in The Shining… “He’s Back!”


Since I am a chronic early riser I try to catch up on old movies during the coveted 6:00 – 8:00 am time slot. This morning’s feature was Independence Day, the 1996 Sci-Fi tale of mankind’s triumph over interstellar aliens intent on destroying and invading the earth. The Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum feature film is a terrific compilation of clichés and predictable perfect endings with paternal redemption, romantic fulfillment and Arabs and Israelis (among other blood enemies) joining forces to kick some alien ass. Don’t get me wrong; I really liked the movie. After all, “Art” is intended to represent the illusion of all the perfection, clarity and absoluteness of resolution that real life rarely is. I guess that is why the George W. Bushs of the world are such extraordinary artists… well maybe Bullsh*t artists, but artists none the less.

So what does this have to do with Zero Sum Games; you may be asking yourself.

Well Independence Day ends pretty predictably:

  • The drunken, embarrassment of a father played by Randy Quaid is redeemed in the eyes of his children when he completes a Kamikaze like bombing of an alien spacecraft.
  • The nerdy, environmentalist, intellectual is redeemed in the eyes of his macho-seeking ex-wife and the militaristic American President when he goes off on a combat mission, nukes the aliens and comes back smoking victory cigars.
  • Arab and Israeli air force pilots forget a couple of thousand years of irreconcilable hatred and join forces to attack the ugly aliens… and they are really ugly.
  • All mankind, including African tribes armed with spears come together in triumph over the pan ultimate and absolute evil alien attackers.
  • And last but not least, the key to the triumph is a “productive computer virus”. (FYI, I am opposed to capital punishment for anyone; but for those who create computer viruses, I will make an exception.)

Still wondering what this has to do with Zero Sum Games?

As my morning coffee dwindled down it occurred to me that in order for any good to happen someone had to lose out. If someone wins it is always at the expense of the loser. I mean for mankind to win; the aliens had to die. For the drunken father to be redeemed his children had to lose him. It took an alien invasion and the destruction of the earth for Arab and Israeli pilots to be allies. And the intellectual had to turn to physical violence to be redeemed by political society and get his ex-wife back. Even the Will Smith character had to jettison his professional ambitions in order to pursue his true love in the arms of a beautiful, single parent, exotic dancer.

So as my morning wore on and I returned to my professional life thinking about politics, elections, trade and commerce I found one of my fundamental beliefs had been broken with a certain degree of finality.

For a long time I believed that in economics, politics, trade, spirituality and commerce that the concept of the Zero Sum Game was avoidable.

While I have been harboring some questions for the past few years, I still held to the core belief that:

  • Pathological poverty could be overcome without confiscating the wealth of others.
  • Quality health care for the many did not come at the expense of freedom of healthcare choice for the individual.
  • Global trade did not come at the expense of national well being.
  • Spiritual and religious co-existence did not come at the expense of religious freedoms.
  • Rising tide raises all boats!
  • One for all and all for one!
  • Too many other political, religious and economic clichés to mention.

Or as the Elvis Costello song once put it: “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?”

You Get the Idea!

But even in the fictional perfection that is art, we exist in a Zero Sum Game.

This simplistic, jingoistic, Sci-Fi film, Independence Day; with its absolutist message of good over evil, romantic love conquers all, and world saving computer viruses, cannot escape that someone wins and someone loses. There is not a win-win situation.

So maybe we need to revisit the current globally dominant perceptions of economics, politics, spirituality, trade and commerce. Maybe we should consider that they are actually Zero Sum Games?

  • Maybe reducing pathological poverty does require confiscatory policies toward the top seven percent of global wealth.
  • Maybe developing less developed economies does come at the expense of the developed economies and not simply as small by-products of increased wealth to the top. Maybe it doesn’t trickle down!
  • Maybe we cannot tolerate so-called religious freedoms if they come at the involuntary cost of freedom of expression, basic human dignities and quality of life of the non-believers.
  • Maybe real electoral fairness and honestly counting the votes will require the dismantling of elite societal structures that randomly overturn the popular will.
  • Maybe reasonable energy pricing will require the limitation of profits in the energy sector across the supply table; corporate, individual, tribal and national.

Nowhere is the fundamental debate on Zero Sum Games more important than in Asia. Global economics create greater and greater wealth gaps between the haves and have-nots; political and social strains create fundamental conflict between the self determination and individual empowerment inherent in democratic governance; and the elites’ willingness to abrogate democratic process in order to preserve the status quo. Spiritual and fundamentalist religious movements challenge the basic tenants of logic, reason and science that have historically formed stable societies.

The Zero Sum Games of Independence Day were harmless, escapist and fun cinema fiction; but just maybe we need to reconsider our perception of Zero Sum Games if we want to change real life, for real people.

So as they say… Let the games begin.

No Comments

Leave a response