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How we can save America from itself

As self-interest has grown to dominate politics and business, former labor secretary Robert Reich wants to see a return to the country’s founding ideal of focusing on the common good of its people.

How we can save America from itself
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Nearly 250 years after America was founded, only 18% of Americans trust the government to do what’s right. Fewer than half think that the voice of someone like themselves matters in politics, ranking just above Algeria and Venezuela in a recent poll. As the current president has lied, by one count, more than 3,000 times so far–and spread conspiracy theories, called immigration judges “corrupt,” attacked the idea of due process, and said that he would be “smart” not to pay income tax, among other things–trust continues to drop.

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In a recent book called The Common Good, Robert Reich, the former labor secretary and a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that we’ve lost a sense of the idea of the common good and a true understanding of patriotism, and then explains how he thinks we can begin to bring it back.

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“Patriotism is not simply about securing our borders or waving flags or standing for the national anthem,” Reich says. “Real patriotism, if you examine what is meant historically, is about sacrificing for the common good.” The common good–the idea that we’re all in this together, and society doesn’t function if we each think only of ourselves–depends on trust that others, from individuals to our politicians, are committed to the same thing. As trust in governments, businesses, and other institutions has eroded, Americans now talk less about the idea the of the common good.

“Slowly and gradually, over the past 40 years, we’ve come to accept the kind of ethic of whatever it takes to gain wealth or power, even at the expense of the basic ideals of our society,” Reich says. “That, to me, is the greatest tragedy.”

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Donald Trump isn’t the cause of the problem, he adds, though the president is accelerating and legitimizing it. The steep decline in trust in government began with the deceptions in the Vietnam War and Watergate, followed by a long series of other scandals, from Congressmen taking bribes, to investment banks defrauding investors in the first dot-com bubble. Trust in businesses also declined as businesses changed from what Reich calls stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism. A Coca-Cola CEO in 1959 told a crowd that executives should balance interests of stockholders, the community, customers, and employees, rather than putting stockholders first. By 1988, the company’s CEO at the time said, essentially, that shareholder value was all that he thought about.

Robert Reich [Photo: Flickr user HarvardEthics]
“This was a new idea in America,” Reich says. “It was antithetical to the form of capitalism we had had up to that time, and it led to a much more efficient economy, but also one in which wages stagnated, workers had less security, entire parts of the country were abandoned–I’m talking specifically about Northern New York State, the Rust Belt, various other places that had been the headquarters of companies founded in these locations.” The idea of maximizing profits at the expense of serving people spread to health insurance, hospitals, and banks.

Corporations also began to ramp up lobbying efforts in Washington, and saw results. As Trump put it when explaining his own donations, “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.” By 2010, the Citizens United court case said that corporations could spend as much as they wanted to support or oppose political candidates.

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Gradually, the idea of the common good faded. “We’ve lost the vocabulary of the common good,” says Reich. “We seem to accept now without even any question that everybody is out for himself or herself, that politics is nothing but a competition among competing interest groups dominated by big money, that in the jungle of economic competition, anything goes as long as it’s clearly illegal, that the spirit of the law doesn’t really count.”

But the common good is an idea that’s fundamental to the country; the founders called it “general welfare,” and set up the government to reinforce civic virtue. “By civic virtue, they meant a concern for the welfare of all,” Reich says. “They didn’t believe that government should be doing it all, obviously, but they did want a citizenry that cared enough about the nation as a whole that they would forego self-interest for the sake of maintaining a democracy that worked for all.”

Without that commitment to the common good, things fall apart. Reich asks us to consider Martin Shkreli, the pharma CEO who bought a lifesaving drug and then jacked up the price 5000%, and imagine living in a world filled with Shkrelis. Taken to an extreme, you wouldn’t be able to trust that your bank wouldn’t steal your money, or that your pharmacist would give you the right medicine, or that the restaurant serving you food wouldn’t poison you. Everyone would be out for themselves. When people see the game as rigged, they begin to see cheating as logical.

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Reich suggests a few ways to bring society back on course, starting with leadership, including in business. Given how much power they have amassed, companies should use it for good. More could follow the example businesses like Patagonia and become benefit corporations, legally obligated to consider stakeholders, not just shareholders. “A CEO’s responsibility is not simply to maximize shareholder returns, but also to help build public trust in the company over the long term,” he says. “You don’t need changes in laws and rules to do this, except perhaps changes that make a company less myopic with regard to short-term profits.”

He also suggests that society needs to make better use of the tools of honor and shame. Nonprofits and universities, he argues, shouldn’t name buildings after people who have overtly harmed society (such as the David H. Koch Theater for dance, or a center at Harvard named after A. Alfred Taubman, a donor who was convicted of price-fixing). There could be more awards for citizens and companies who fight for the common good.

And when people are shamed for acting against the common good–like Shkreli, who was scolded by Congress–it could go further. “Congress never followed up,” he says. “There’s not the slightest interest in Congress of controlling the prices of lifesaving drugs or preventing Martin Shkrelis of the future from doing precisely what Shkreli did. In other words, public shaming needs to be accompanied by real disincentives, or else it’s just a circus show.”

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Reich also suggests that we all need to commit to “resurrect truth,” by seeking out multiple sources of information and breaking out of self-imposed bubbles when we read the news. Furthermore, we need to fight to prevent tech companies from mining our data to feed us customized information (which keeps us trapped in said bubbles) and pushing for better education for all so everyone is better able to distinguish truth from lies. Civic education, which has been eliminated from the standard high school curriculum, is also something he thinks should come back.

Despite the current state of American politics, Reich has hope. “I am optimistic because I am a student of American history,” he says. “I know that we’ve bounced back several times before from periods in which we’ve seemed to have lost sight of those ideals. We’re very resilient.”

“I’m also optimistic because if you look at young people today, you see a generation that is very idealistic, very committed, very dedicated to these same principles, much more tolerant, and very eloquent,” he says. “Look at those teenagers in Parkland, Florida. I’ve taught young people over the last 40 years. I’ve not seen a generation that is this committed to the basic ideals of this country. Finally, I’m optimistic because Donald Trump has brought out in very clear relief the fragility of our democracy and our democratic institutions. He’s caused many people to become very active for the first time in their lives in terms of protecting our democracy and the central values of this country.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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