Imperfect Periodical

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Posts Tagged ‘James P. Carse

#WINNING the Wrong Game

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Charlie Sheen’s gonzo poetry producing, cocaine fueled nervous breakdown, has kicked off the first meme of the year with “Winning”. I’ve seen friendly aquaitences and close friends alike adopt the slogan for their own declartions. The cult of positive thinking casts a powerful spell over it’s adherents, and not without good cause. There are real benefits to keeping a bright outlook on life, if for no other reason than the opposite– the dark spiral of self-depreciation- is just as narcissistic but not nearly as fun for everyone involved.

Yet I’m disturbed by the speed with which people have adopted the Sheenism, without paying any mind to the mind that produced it. Without giving any thought to the process that produced that mind.

Charlie Sheen sits at the apex of our system of American royalty. A second generation actor with a career spanning three decades and millions of gallons of tabloid ink. Sheen is paid, to play a characture of his bad boy reputation,¬†at a rate that would make some hedge fund managers jealous. When he went off the deep end late last year it didn’t really come as much of a surprise.

Nor should it have. He’s got more money than he knows what to do with. So he spent it on cocaine and porn stars. It’s a pretty standard American male fantasy, actually. The only difference between Sheen and most American men is that he has the means to pull it off. He’s getting away with metaphorical murder- keeping two mistresses, admiting to drug use seemingly without legal consequences, and telling his bosses to fuck off in the most conspicous way imaginable. That’s winning alright.

The problem is that Sheen, like the rest of us, is playing the wrong game. It’s the same game that the hedge fund managers play. The game called “He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins”. For the man with the tiger blood the toys have been defined as whores. For the gentlemen at Goldman Sachs it’s merely filthy lucre. They treat their personal portfolios like X-Box Live leaderboards, and move capital around with the same capacity for empathy displayed by a fourteen year old playing Call of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer. (Translation for non-gamers: none whatsoever.)

Recently I read an analysis of the financial meltdown that explained the crisis as the direct result of a real demand in the financial market. It seems that the massive amounts of wealth accured at the top of the economic food chain here were just sitting around, not being utilized. Now capitalism doesn’t work if capital isn’t kept liquid. The type of finance capitalism we practice demands the maximum return possible for the minimum amount of risk. The sub-prime dervitive markets answered this demand- to spin straw into gold (money into mo’ money mo money mo money!)- without having to deal with all that pesky development of actual products and technologies.

Short version: really rich people had so much money, and the rules of their game require that they gave more than the next guy, so they put it all on the best bet they could find with the least apparent risk. Which turned out to be a titanic amount of bullshit.

Maybe they should’ve just spent it on blow and call girls. It would’ve generated more jobs, at any rate.

Now here’s where I’m going to get a bit metaphysical, so if you want to bail out I understand. Here are some links to funny Charlie Sheen remixes to entertain you- but before you go let me say that I’m going to get metaphysical in the semantic sense, not in The Matrix sense, so you might want to stick around.

There are at least two types of games, according to philosopher James P. Carse in his book Finite and Infinite Games. Finite games are those played to win, while Infinite games are played with the only goal in mind being to keep playing. Within that construct there can be be many, many instances of Finite games. The thing is that the super rich are playing a series of finite games that look a lot more like wrestling than, say, football (American or FIFA, take your pick).

In entrepreneurial capitalism, as in football, competition is good. It leads to innovation and helps push players to the peak of their abilities. The contest becomes a creative force as much as it is a struggle between opposing forces. In doing so it takes it’s place as a positive component of an Infinite game: the innovation allows for the Infinite game to continue.

Total domination and annihilation, on the other hand, makes for pretty poor sport. Both sub-prime derivatives markets and coke fueled media orgies are finite contests with scorched earth endgames. You can’t keep playing when no one can pay back their mortgage or you’ve OD’d in the penthouse of the Wynn.

These Finite games are played with a myopic worldview. The terms of the game are so constrained that players cannot begin to conceive of an Infinite game: that play can be an end unto itself.

In the end I’m probably being unfair to one of my examples here. I suspect that in his more lucid moments Charlie Sheen might be able to grok an Infinite game, and prefer a world where everyone was #WINNING and losing was, at best, a temporary condition.

I don’t have as much faith in the hedge fund managers.

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