In Praise of Competence

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack/ Washington Post/ Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (Especially to Gallagher fans, may he rest in peace. Take the win now, watermelons),

“It’s a pity both sides can’t lose,” Henry Kissinger famously said about the Iran-Iraq war. The key to the joke is that it’s implicitly impossible for both sides to lose in a zero-sum contest (another key to the joke is Kissinger’s Strangelovian nihilism). But it occurs to me that’s just not true. Everyone can lose in all sorts of zero-sum contests. Dr. Falcon explained that in War Games: Everyone loses in a global thermonuclear war. According to the internet—which is never wrong—giant Burmese pythons die all the time after eating alligators that are too big for them. I have to assume that in the long history of duels—with swords, guns, or, in the case of Mork versus the Fonz, thumbs and index fingers—there have been plenty of times when both combatants lost. 

Heck, it’s also worth noting that there’s a very strong case that both Iraq and Iran lost the Iran-Iraq war. And while some people think Iraq sorta-kinda won, both countries were certainly worse off after the war, especially all the dead and wounded people.

Everyone can lose (or at least not win) even in the simplest binary contests. Even in checkers, lots of games are played to a draw. As a matter of scoring, that’s not the same thing as a loss, but it’s not the same thing as a win, either. In more complex contests it’s very easy to win at one stage and then lose even bigger because you won. And vice versa. How many business stories involve early failures that led to even greater successes?

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