The Zero-Sum Game and a Water Line

Today I’m going to indulge in some blogo-therapy.  I hope that my readers will bear with me and I’ll do my best to provide some food for thought along the way.

Let me begin by saying that I was a horrible economics student.  Dry dry stuff, graphs, yuck.  I don’t remember much beyond “supply and demand” basics but I do remember finding the idea of the zero-sum game pretty interesting, probably because it was something I kind of understood.  If you’re not familiar with the idea, it’s basically about dividing up finite resources among participants such that if someone gets “more” someone else necessarily gets “less”.  Winners and losers.

A simple and concrete example of this that we probably all know about is the “family hold back” idea around a dinner table.  David and I run into this one sometimes when Jeff decides to join us for dinner last minute.  We might have two potatoes baking–Jeff gets one and we share the other.  This is actually a win-win because who needs the carbs, but you get the idea.  If someone takes “more” another person has to get “less”.  Examples of this abound in our everyday lives, particularly around things like money and time, since most of us see those things as finite resources.

But a zero-sum mentality around non-finite resources is also very very common.  There are so many times when interpersonal problems and issues are framed as win/lose when other possibilities abound.  And that leads me to our current unplanned construction project:



We are relocating our main water line from its current location due south of our house to this location in the front of our house:


You can see where they are coming today to cut across our cul-de-sac to where a new meter will be.   So disruptive and unnecessary.  Here’s what happened…

We learned that there was an issue with the current location of our water meter when a soon-to-be neighbor (call her “L”) knocked on our door explaining that she was building a house on the land to the south of our home and she was concerned that our “temporary” water line might be running across the lot.  Valid concern.  As she frantically swung her papers around, we learned that in 1993 there was an agreement made with the current owner that within a year the temporary meter would be relocated.  Well it never happened and now she, and we, had a problem.

In the spirit of win/win and cooperation we got busy trying to figure out where the lines actually went, because of course she gets to build her house.  We found out by toning the pipes that our water line ran along the edge of her property and actually shared a trench with another neighbor’s water line.  Years before L had given an easement to our neighbor for these lines.  Naturally, we assumed that we could work out a similar arrangement with her since she couldn’t build on that area anyway.  Let me mention that while nobody likes easements it’s hard to find a property up where we live that doesn’t have some.  Our neighbors all have easements from us to use the cul-de-sac for example.  It’s just  something you live with up here.

We shared all this information with L assuming she would not be interested in forcing this disruptive and costly work.  We were willing to assume any and all responsibility for the line that had been attached to our property for twenty years and provide her with any legal protections.  But L is operating from a psychological scarcity place and she was all about free-floating fear.  Enter the zero-sum game.  It became clear to us (when she showed up at our house with the builder) that she didn’t want to find a win-win solution.  She wanted to win.  I could see the crazed child in her grabbing what was hers unwilling to consider the needs of others or see a bigger picture (like decent neighbor relations).   Somehow, she perceived that we were taking something from her and she couldn’t tolerate it.  And that more than anything led us to the decision to detach from her and make plans to relocate the line.

As an aside, we might have been able to fight this in court given the cost to us, but we decided a long time ago not to engage with crazy if we can help it, and this had crazy written all over it.  No regrets about our decision.

I think it’s always valuable to consider our own zero-sum tendencies.  Do we engage with the world from a place of fear and scarcity or abundance?  Is there enough love to go around?  Can we all be successful?  Can we afford to be generous or must we protect our piece of the pie?

Thanks for hanging in with me.  It’s been a helpful “session”.




4 thoughts on “The Zero-Sum Game and a Water Line

  1. You’re welcome. 😉
    Seriously, though, it’s very sad when people approach life with this mentality. If they’d raise their eyes a little, they’d see that a little cooperation and goodwill will bring returns in spadefuls. I’m sorry that this woman is your neighbour.


  2. I agree and thanks for the compassion. There’s really so much that’s driven by fear. Not easy to overcome but I think it’s worth it. Regarding her being a neighbor, we are lucky that we live in a semi-rural area so there’s still lots of desert between us 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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