Frank and Cook�s book, The Winner Take All Society, forces us to reconsider our position on the inherent good of the free market in light of newly emerging forms of destructive, albeit free, competition and growing income inequality. Written in the vein of a thinly veiled rebuke of the moral and social decline of the American economy and society, the book appears to focus too much on specific individuals, and merely states a few implications for society as a whole. In my mind, what the authors posit as the verities for individuals and corporations under a winner take all banner just as readily applies to the nation and ultimately, the world. Taking their arguments one step further, advances in high technology, such as the internet and telecommunications, have increased productivity, transformed labor markets all over the world, and created uniform standards for goods and services that can now be consumed anywhere in the world. In effect, technology has made the world a similar, smaller place. Thus, what is true economically in America now is most likely true elsewhere, though cultural differences still remain.
While winner take all markets can, with the aid of technology, make the goods and services of the few available to everyone in the world, they also have many negative consequences. Winner take all markets magnify the consequences of first mover advantages, making it difficult, if not impossible, for those late to the competition, be they corporations or countries, to establish themselves. Winner take all markets continue to increase the disparity between wealthy, industrialized countries of the North and the impoverished, besieged economies of the South. Winner take all markets continuously lure our most talented individuals into socially unproductive and often individually and socially destructive tasks. Many of the world�s economies already invest too little for the future, be they nations struggling to develop (such as those on the African continent), or fully industrialized nations (such as the United States), and the growth of winner take all markets has encouraged wasteful patterns of investment and consumption. Finally, winner take all markets have the proven ability to undermine what is in the best interests of our culture and society, and given the terrifying ability of winner-take-all markets to rigidly engender and enforce conformity, standardization, and one-upmanship, this growing phenomenon can only be counter-productive and disruptive to the efforts of indigenous peoples to maintain and preserve their fragile and threatened cultures.
Quite literally, in winner-take-all competitions, the rules really are there are no rules. As such, these competitions lead people to do very crazy things. When large payoffs are at stake and there is a very real certainty of the loser(s) getting absolutely nothing for their effort, contestants have powerful incentives to spend money to enhance their chances of winning, and have little or no moral compunction to exercise restraint and sensibility in their behavior. This is especially the case where unfettered, free competition is the rule and covenants and/or regulations to ensure orderly, equitable markets are not the norm.
Thus, there seems to be an inverse, negative relationship between investment in these all or nothing competitions and their (social) value to the larger group. As the pace of investment, size of the investment and the risk associated with the investment in the winner take all competition increases, the social and economic value of the competition steadily decreases. While these investments look justifiable from the individual�s or nation�s standpoint, especially if there is a considerable chance that the individual stands to win, and win big, the concomitant dueling that these investments fuel almost always appears excessive from the standpoint of the society. As such, these all-or nothing competitions have led to a plethora of economic versions of military arms races between individuals, corporations and nations.
Although one could surmise much of the content from experience and simple common sense, I generally found the book to be a straightforward and thought-provoking read. Yet, many of the examples demonstrating the extent to which such competitions have infiltrated all aspects of our economic life, as well as the often ridiculous, comical and increasingly desperate attempts by individuals to thrive in these all-or-nothing environments, profoundly scared and disturbed me. The authors could have done away with the last chapter, a rehashing of the same old remedies to the problem, and written a much better ending which could have summarized the main points of the book and discussed their implications, going forward, for all participants in the new global economy.
In conclusion, these all-or-nothing competitions have steadily become �the only game in town�. Yet, I seriously doubt that these dangerous economic games are really worth playing.