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The Common Good – Robert B. Reich

by Venky

Common Good

The America of today finds itself at a seminal crossroad. Riven by an imploding income and wealth inequality, racked by rising intolerance towards the marginal section of the populace and roared on towards inexplicable paths by a demagogue playboy-turned- entrepreneur-turned-President, the world looks on with a mixture of astonishment and admonition as The United States of America totters under the weight of its own contradictions and teeters perilously close to a precipice of socio-economic catastrophe. With asinine trade wars, tariff barriers and dangerously egregious military posturing, America is not only fast losing its renown as the bastion of responsible super power, but also acquiring a reputation bordering on the shameful.

The time could not have been riper for one of the most balanced progressive minds working his wares today, Robert B. Reich to not only encapsulate the perils of such a pressing time, but also to provide a prescription (neither pun nor opioid intended) to wriggle out of what seems to be a god-awful mess. “The Common Good” does exactly that. Purposeful in its content and powerful in intent, the latest book by Mr. Reich is a clarion call for his countrymen (and to the world) to bring back the edifice of Common Good on top of which stands (or at least once stood) American ideals and values.

The compact of the Common Good that first reared its virtuous head under the able stewardship of titans such as James Madison, Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, and which has as its wellspring the collective contribution to the common good for the combined wellbeing of citizenry and country, began fading away in the late 1970s. Bemoaning such a trend, Mr. Reich highlights dastardly behavior of immoral and unscrupulous capitalists such as Martin Shkreli – who after buying up licenses for generic drugs went on to jack up the price of Daraprim, a vital drug from $13.50 to $750 – exacerbated an already worrying trend of income inequality boosting the personal wealth of a select few at the cost of the remaining. Egged on by the philosophy of beacons of capitalistic creed such as Ayn Rand, the incentives for norm breaking began to show enormous gains. As Mr. Reich points out, this led to the “broken window” syndrome first noticed by political scientist James Q. Wilson. “……a broken window in a poor community left, unattended signals that no one cares if windows are broken there. Because nobody is concerned enough to enforce the norm against breaking windows, the broken window becomes a kind of invitation to throw more stones and break more windows.”

This broken window syndrome led to a raft of jaw dropping scandals including but not limited to the Lewis Powell memo; Richard Nixon’s Watergate; the green mailer Carl Icahn’s hostile takeover of TWA; the Savings and Loan scandals; The Michael Milken conviction; the Enron saga; The Deepwater Horizon Spill and the Financial Crisis of 2007. Mr. Reich in his book devotes an entire chapter titled “Exploitation” to list out the macabre scams and scandals that rocked both the US economy and people’s faith in the Government to rule in a manner unbiased and bipartisan.

Mr. Reich identifies “three structural breakdowns” as being the primary triggers leading to the collapse/breakdown of the Common Good:

  • Whatever-it-takes-to-win-politics;
  • Whatever it takes to maximize profits; and
  • Whatever it takes to rig the economy
  • While, Whatever-it-takes-to-win-politics, “disregarded what had been the unwritten rules of good government, based on equal political rights – enabling the most powerful players to extract all political gains”, the whatever it takes to maximize profits rule, “rejected what had been the unwritten rules of corporate responsibility, based on obligations to all stakeholders – allowing CEOs, Wall Street and Investors to extract all financial gains. Finally, the third structural destabilizer, whatever it takes to rig the economy, “dismissed what had been the unwritten rule that the “free market” should work for everyone – permitting the most powerful economic actors to extract almost all economic gains.”

These three insidious destabilizers according to Mr. Reich rigged the game in favour of the singular preserve of a few elites thereby creating social, civil, political and structural imbalances. “Duty is replaced by self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. Calls for sacrifice and self-denial are replaced by personal demands for better deals.”  To quote the renowned sociologist Robert Putnam, “we bowl alone.”

While the situation seems to be hopeless, Mr. Reich asserts that it can still be reined in and the Common Good can make a revival. Citing the stellar examples of Senator John McCain who returned to Washington in July 2017 from his home in Arizona – where he was undergoing treatment for brain cancer- to cast the deciding vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake wading into his fellow Republicans for not standing up to Trump, Mr. Reich demonstrates that the tenet of Common Good has not yet been completely eviscerated from public conscience. Borrowing from political scientist Archon Fung, Mr. Reich notes, “when losing candidates congratulate winners and deliver gracious concession speeches, they demonstrate their commitment to the democratic system over any specific outcomes they fought to achieve.”  Mr. Reich thus argues that politicians and corporate chieftains alike must view leadership as a trusteeship which entails responsibilities toward nurturing and enhancing the power and virtue of the Common Good.

Mr. Reich also makes a very interesting case for balancing honour and shame. While America seems to be honouring and extolling greed and capitalism, true courage and selflessness goes unnoticed down the wayside of history. Mr. Reich argues for heroes such as John Mindermann and Paul Magallanes, the FBI agents on duty when the Democratic National Headquarters Committee break-in took place at the Watergate complex in 1972. He also exhorts the nation to institute appropriate “Common Good” awards for exemplary acts such as whistle blowing, civil servants, teachers and social workers. Mr. Reich also warns the people to keep an open mind and not fall prey to tactics enlisted by various quarters to elicit a particular reaction thereby fueling and funneling their individual agendas. In an era where political results are influenced by cyber bots and powerful conglomerates, Mr. Reich echoes Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words of wisdom, “everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.”

Finally, Mr. Reich finishes with a flourish demanding a comprehensive civic education for all irrespective of any divide. He talks about a civic education, that “must instill in young people a passion for truth. It should enable them to think critically, be skeptical (but not cynical) about what they hear and read, find reliable sources of information, apply basic logic and analysis, and know enough about history and the physical world to differentiate fact from fiction.”  This view mirrors that of the political philosopher Martha Nussbaum who recommended, “students should learn not only that citizens of India have basic human rights, for example, but also about the problems of hunger and pollution in India and the implications of these problems for the larger issues of global hunger and global ecology.”

Robert Reich has done his bit and more. It is for America to now listen and act. In the interest of general humanity and the Global Common Good, the world hopes it will!

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