As I have mentioned in this column before, I am a big fan of former labor secretary and economist Robert Reich.
Rarely do I share near total agreement with someone and their particular view of the world. However, when I saw the title of his new book, “The Common Good,” I thought we might finally deviate in our perspectives. I often state that I think we should do what’s best for everyone, not what’s best for me personally. But I have grown quite cynical the last couple years, losing faith in people and our society.
Reich even notes that despair: “Some of you may feel such a quest to be hopeless. The era we are living in offers too many illustrations of greed, narcissism, and hatefulness.”
You know the saying “misery loves company.” And I have been quite miserable. So, with a roll of the eyes, I began reading the book.
And then, of course, he nails it:
“A love of country based on common good entails obligations to other people, not national symbols. Instead of demanding display of respect for the flag and anthem, it requires that all of us take on a fair share of the burden of keeping the nation going — that we pay our taxes in full rather than seek tax loopholes or squirrel away money abroad, that we volunteer time and energy to improving our community and county, serve on school boards and city council, refrain from political contributions that corrupt our politics and blow the whistle on abuses of power even at the risk of losing our jobs. It has sometimes required the supreme sacrifice.”
The common good is about sharing the virtues of our country (and our planet). We are better when we lift the quality of life of everyone. It is not just about seeking the rewards, but also sharing the sacrifice.
In business, it is about returning the interest of stakeholders and not just the shareholders. Stakeholders include not just the owners/investors, but also employees, suppliers, creditors, and the community. Corporations used to consider both shareholders and stakeholders in their business decisions—they were a part of the community,
However, Reich noted that in the 1980s, “a wholly different understanding about the purpose of the corporation emerged.” Corporate raiders, “targeted companies that could deliver higher returns to the shareholders if they abandoned their other stakeholders — fighting unions, cutting the pay of workers or firing them, automating as many jobs as possible, and abandoning their original communities by shuttering factories and moving jobs to a state with lower labor costs, or moving them abroad.”
It became about the prosperity of the few at the expense of others.
To achieve the common good, we will need leaders that not only serve to financial interests, but also the trust and integrity of institutions they serve, whether it is business or government. Reich quotes Shimon Peres, who said, “We need a generation that sees leadership as a noble cause, defined not by personal ambition, but by morality and a call to service.” Reich summarizes, “The purpose of leadership is not simply to win. It is to serve.”
Undeniably, we live in a winner-take-all society. Successful people are admired and honored, often ignoring the means of that success, including moral digressions and ethical sacrifices. Reich writes, “little or no attention is given to how they obtained their wealth. They may have avoided or skirted laws, paid off politicians, engaged in insider trading or price fixing, defrauded investors, or even brought the world economy to near ruin because of their disregard for the consequences of their schemes… The subtle message is that the common good doesn’t really count. Wealth and power do.”
There is much more to the book, which I highly recommend. He writes a lot about education as a common good and the benefits of civic duty. The underlying message is that we need to start changing our priorities and definitions of success. There is nothing wrong with personal ambition and obtaining success, but there is no reason you can’t help others when you get there.
And we need to redefine patriotism. We need to stop with the grandstanding and the belief that, for example, protesting the NFL is some sort of patriotic activity. In addition to thanking our service members for their sacrifices, we need to make our own. We need to engage in the political process, researching candidates and issues and removing the money that is corrupting our democracy. We need to hold accountable those who break the rules and take advantage of others.
Working toward the common good is the ultimate expression of patriotism. Our country is stronger together.