Jack Lew’s $10 Treasury Mistake with Alexander Hamilton

If you ever study alternative dispute resolution methods, the central principle that you will learn is that not everything in life must be a zero sum game. A great mediator is different from a good mediator if he is able to find ways to expand the pie rather than distribute existing resources in the most tolerable way to concerned parties.

Usually, these type of tactics are most useful when trying to sort out disputes between struggling but still profitable businesses and the creditors that are receiving less than they are fully owed. Imagine if you operate a restaurant in 2009 that makes $10,000 per month against $11,000 in operating costs with a $3,500 monthly rent being a big chunk of those operating costs. If you have a zero-sum mindset and represent the landlord, you are going to be focused on evicting the restauranteur and finding someone else as a tenant.

In addition to the ill-will and emotional toll associated with this strategy, it may be suboptimal to kick out the restaurant operator because you do not know whether a new tenant can be found quickly or if the $3,500 monthly rent is the appropriate amount to charge in lift of the more disfavorable economic conditions that are prevailing at the time. Someone with an expand-the-pie mindset might recommend encouraging a renegotiation of the rent to something like $2,500 per month and then 10% of the profits thereafter for four years.

If the $2,500 doesn’t get paid, you can admit you tried to work things out and then go through with the eviction. If the $2,500 gets paid but there are no profits to share, you might be even with the circumstances had you evicted in the first place and then found a new tenant (but without the additional emotional hassle). If the profits go up a little bit, you might get performance in line with the original contract. And if things recover moderately or better from 2010 onward, then you would have created a financial windfall for yourself by being creative and in a position to negotiate for synthetic income during the downturn.

The problem, however, is that we are constantly surrounded by zero-sum situations and we can be fooled into thinking that is all there is. For a Republican to win, a Democratic must lose. For the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series, the Chicago Cubs must lose. To become the CEO, no one else must be promoted to that spot. It’s a Pavlovian thing–seeing zero-sum games in most areas of your life can lead you to make assumptions that disputes must be resolved in a zero-sum manner even if you could be better satisfied by trying to create an innovative no-lose option.

This flaw in promoting zero-sum game thinking is so powerful that it even affects the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew. He recently announced plans to remove Alexander Hamilton from the bill because he found it pro-social to put a woman on U.S. currency. He is making the mistake of thinking it must be Feminists vs. American Founders. Lew’s conduct–suggesting that Hamilton must be removed in favor of some female-to-be-named-later–suggests that even he is not immune from gravitating towards zero-sum thinking.

If Lew had taken an alternative dispute resolution course somewhere along the way, he would know that this currency controversy could be solved by creating a new bill. You can add a dollar amount–no existing form of currency needs to be replaced. I can imagine that a $15 or $30 would be a welcome addition to the wallets of American.

This decision would be a way to satisfy the feminist call for currency representation while also continuing to pay respect to Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the United States which include: creating the national bank, starting the Federalist Party, creating the U.S. Coast Guard, authoring all economic policies under George Washington, creating a system that linked states’ debts to the federal government to give them legitimacy, creating a system of tariffs to promote American imports and exports, and playing a central role in reestablishing ties with Great Britain after the Revolutionary War. Also, Hamilton founded the U.S. Treasury and created the very position that Lew is now using to dismantle his legacy.

You don’t have to erase Alexander Hamilton. America has done fine with seven bills in circulation–the $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. There’s no reason you can’t add a $15 or $30 to that list. Conditioning yourself to think in an integrative, rather than distributive, way is also a great social skill to develop. It’s possible to make enemies when you give to others in a way that excludes the offended party, but the most vicious hatreds are usually borne out of taking something away from someone. Lew could have easily solved the American currency dilemma without creating any antipathy in the hearts of those that deeply appreciate Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the founding of America.