Philippine economy

[OPINION] Why play the game of life? To keep the game going

John Cheng
[OPINION] Why play the game of life? To keep the game going
'How did we come to this point? When did we collectively agree that humanity’s worth came down to economic terms such as gross domestic product and consumer price index?'

The global economy is experiencing a shock that exceeds the impact of both the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis. It’s been draining to keep up to date with the continuous stream of worsening news. The atmosphere of uncertainty is the only thing that has stayed consistent throughout – and there is growing fear that the end is nowhere in sight. 

An unwavering sense of dread hangs in the air as we try our best to construct the foundations of the “new normal.” But something else lingers besides the fear of the pandemic. A faint feeling of defeat and helplessness permeates and stifles our efforts to muster hope.

It has induced a state of frantic self-preservation that has made us anxious and suspicious of one another. Everyone is unsurprisingly focused on looking out for themselves while simultaneously feeling trapped – and dragged – in a cage we can’t escape from.

Living to work or working to live?

As our nation is crushed by COVID-19 and its paralyzing effects on the economy, we find ourselves embattled with the dilemma of having to choose the proper method of reopening our country. The government has been in debate over the decision of prioritizing health or the economy. All of this has been compounded by the allegations of corruption within our state-run health insurance agency. The issues and problems we face are complex and multidimensional, but what perplexes me most is the rhetoric of justifying economic activity over our humanity.

Our economists have already advised to suspend our economy in favor of focusing our resources towards the safety of our citizens. The administration frames the situation as if it were a trade-off; that to save the entire country, the welfare of everyday Filipinos is dispensable. This could not be further from the truth. Austan Goolsbee, President Obama’s former chief economist, illustrates and argues that countries that have prioritized health not only had better health outcomes, they had better economic outcomes as well. He asserts that the health of the country and its economy “go together, for better or worse.” It is unclear why the government has not heeded this call – nonetheless, it is the majority of the Filipino people who suffer from the decision of a few.

It feels like the system is trying to pummel us into submission – by reiterating that this is the norm – and that to extricate ourselves from it is impossible. Our existence has been reduced to our ability to be a “productive” member of society – that worth is determined by wealth and the capacity to produce it. That we have to toe the line – or be dragged – if not, suffer being left behind.

I feel an immediate repulsion from the idea of being deeply embedded in this system that puts precedence in productivity over humanity – but at the same time, I know that I can’t conceive of any semblance of thriving outside of this. How did we come to this point? When did we collectively agree that humanity’s worth came down to economic terms such as gross domestic product and consumer price index? Life has devolved into a cold and ravenous game.

Finite and infinite games

In economics, there’s a concept called the tragedy of the commons. It demonstrates the challenges of sustainability in a finite world. The tragedy occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in pursuit of personal gain. This results in overconsumption of a good to the point of depletion.

In the long run, everyone eventually loses out from this behavior because selfishness eradicates that which we all cherish and wish to enjoy. This is why public places or goods usually end up heavily deteriorated. It also explains why the environment has gone through so much degradation in the last 60 years alone – when a resource is easily accessible for everyone, how do you regulate its consumption?

In the game of life for an average Filipino, the tragedy they face is that the odds are heavily stacked against them. The rules of life appear straightforward, but there’s an impression that they’re unbalanced – even rigged – against them. They are told that the resources allotted for them to navigate through this game are sufficient, fair, and more than enough for them to overcome anything.

But this pandemic has exposed the game’s flaws – the loopholes and cheating – that tip the balance in favor of the powerful few. Equality and human rights have never been more ascendant, and yet we’ve come to a point where we idolize those who have successfully hoarded wealth, even at the expense of others.

This behavior is perpetuated by a system that glorifies the strongman, the go-getter, who is possessed with an unrelenting obsession to win. It is empowered by the incessant narrative that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing;” that life is a rat race – won only by the strongest and most cunning – and that’s just how it has always been. We feel compelled to participate in a frenzied and automated lifestyle, despite being acutely aware of how flawed and corrupt its mechanisms are, just to survive. 

This seemingly endless period of shifting labels for our quarantine has forced me to confront this uncomfortable realization. It has made me question what privileges I’ve leveraged to make sure I have an advantage over others. It has highlighted the great expanse of inequality – one that I have been insulated from – here in the Philippines.

I feel a nauseating awareness seeing how the game has been greatly tipped in my favor. How else have I contributed to taking away opportunities from someone else? How has my position in life excluded somebody else? It is long overdue for us to confront the deep and deadly consequences that this imbalance poses on the unprivileged majority.

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Religious scholar James P. Carse offers a profound alternative to the insatiable lifestyle we’ve all been conditioned for in his book Finite and Infinite Games. He prescribes viewing life as an infinite game because, “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” His words provide a deeper perspective of life; one that isn’t rooted on conquering, but on continuing.

The game is meant to be shared

At a time when nations seem to be under a kakistocracy, the imperative of cooperation and partnership is urgently needed. This pandemic should teach us that working together instead of against each other yields more success and is more satisfying. If all of us were playing just to win during this time, the winner would probably stand alone.

The finite play for life is so serious – bordering on paranoia – because in our chase for wealth, status, and power, nothing will be enough to satisfy us. We will languish looking over our shoulder to make sure that we’re “winning.” Life will be more joyous and satisfying if our preoccupation consists of making sure everyone is able to enjoy the game.

It would be better to view life as an infinite game; not meant for excluding others for the sake of a legacy, but building one for the sake of others. Life is so precious and it has the potential to be more – if we only remember to create spaces for others to play in it too.

Keep the game going

I refuse to believe that tragedy and self-destruction are our inexorable fate. I don’t accept that we’re collectively resigned to allow this system of injustice to continue. It is up to us to change the rules of the game; to set up a fairer and more equitable system that preserves the game for all. This entails questioning our daily motivations and aspirations. We would have to be suspicious of our capacity for rationalizing our self-interest. We would have to care less about carving out our place in the world; to feel compelled to be ashamed of the instances when our ambitions encroach on the wellbeing of others. 

Let us stop playing the game of life narrowly just to win; rather, let us make sure that it lasts for others to enjoy. The alternative is terrifying, and we know it – because we’re already living it. –

John Cheng is a businessman and former International Baccalaureate economics instructor. His interests include philosophy, streetwear, and searching for the perfect slice of pizza.

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