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The Common Good Hardcover – February 20, 2018
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“Against the grain of much liberal thinking . . . Reich’s proposals would make a good starting point for a new progressive political project.” —Michael J. Sandel, The New York Times Book Review
“Very timely . . . Reich’s work is an important call for reform that should appeal to a wide audience disaffected with the status quo.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Reich’s lucidly defining and empowering call for revitalized civic awareness—complete with an enticing list of recommended reading and discussion guide—is an ideal catalyst for book-group conversations.” —Booklist
“Clear-voiced and accessible.” —Publishers Weekly
“Brief but well-argued . . . a provocative essay.” —Kirkus
About the Author
ROBERT B. REICH is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations and has written fifteen books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into twenty-two languages, and the best sellers Saving Capitalism, Supercapitalism, and Locked in the Cabinet. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He is co-creator of the award-winning film Inequality for All. He is also chair of the national governing board of Common Cause. He lives in Berkeley and blogs at robertreich.org.
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Without the collective good, there is no society. Without regulatory restrictions insuring intellectual property and competitive fair play, there is no American economy. To suggest that our economy is “free” in any literal sense is to ignore the very principles of competition on which Adam Smith built his economic model. It is a model built on the ideal of truth and equitable competition, not the ideal of individualism without rules or constraints.
If we are a nation of law and order, it is because we, in our collective sense of right and wrong, have voluntarily committed to the ideal. It’s a commitment not to our individuality, but to our individual peace and prosperity through collective cooperation and self-restraint. Without the self-restraint that can only come from recognition of the common good the police would have virtually no chance to keep the peace. It is the ideal, as much as the police (who clearly deserve our respect and support), which keep the streets safe.
If modern science has taught us anything it is the degree to which our world is integrated. The quality of our environment is determined not by the local ecology of a prairie here and a rain forest there, but by the balance achieved within a complex and integrated global ecosystem. The most impactful economic theory flows not from presumed theoretical behaviors but from the recognition of how much our actual economic behavior is driven by human psychology. Human biology and medicine, by the same token, cannot be understood outside of the influence of evolution and the body’s integrated systems.
If there is a common theme to the malaise currently paralyzing our politics it is the historically inaccurate digital perspective that there is only democracy and authoritarianism. Any attempt to promote the common good on any front, including gender and racial equality, immigration, prison reform, income inequality, etc., is quickly and effectively dismissed by the people holding the microphone with a simple allusion to the slippery slope of tyranny, fascism, and, of course, communism.
As Reich points out, however, when Ayn Rand was establishing the ideological foundation of the conservatism now embraced by the ruling political class in Washington, the Allied powers did not defeat fascism, nor did the US defeat the USSR in the Cold War, by employing the opposite ideology. We defeated the repulsive authoritarianism of the mid-20th Century by doubling down on our commitment to the common good and the guiding ideal which redefined it in a uniquely American and effective way.
Technology has integrated our lives more than ever before. And whether you think that’s good or bad, we aren’t going to turn back the clock of technology. (Nor do I think we should want to.) Attempting to make the common good irrelevant or undesirable by abandoning our collective ideals of a commitment to truth, inclusion, and compassion, we aren’t going to resurrect America’s golden years. Those years were built on a commitment to the common good, not its rejection.
As any honest accountant will tell you, no accounting is without fault because no accounting can, by definition, be complete. The context of reality is just too complex and multi-faceted. Reich’s account is no different and many critics, I’m sure, will be quick to point to all of the offenses he chose not to include in his book. I could, too. But that kind of reciprocal finger pointing is one of the forces that undermine the common good today. It is the ultimate “broken window”, as Reich refers to it. The simple fact is that the problem is bigger than the individual injustices that collectively define it.
In the same way, every solution Reich provides (e.g., commitment to truth, education, leadership as trusteeship, etc.) is part of a duality that he doesn’t always fully explore. If we have a responsibility in the name of the common good to universities, for example, they have a responsibility to our common good as well. Again, however, a duality is just that. Or to put it in more colloquial terms, two wrongs don’t make a right.
All told, Robert Reich has a perspective. We all do. In the end, however, I don’t believe his is just a personal perspective. It is the reality: “If we are losing our national identity, it is not because we come in more colors speak more languages than before. If is because we are losing our sense of common good…We have never been a perfect union. Our finest moments have been when we sought to become more perfect than we had been.”
A superb and quick read that should be on everyone’s reading list.
The reason this book is so compelling, I think, is that it rings of a truth that I've known for a while but haven't actually heard anyone say. Consider how it starts. It begins with Shkreli, the American hedge fund guy who bought out a pharmaceutical company, then raised the price of a cheap life-saving drug just to make money. In a completely selfish way, he stated that he didn't care if people couldn't afford it, because he "was only interested in making money and we live in a capitalist society." He said it wasn't illegal and he would do everything he could to make more money. He said he regretted not raising the price higher. He antagonized everyone around him. The good news is that he also did illegal things, so they were able to jail him, but what if he hadn't? What if he only raised the price? It made me think of Epipens, for example, and other drugs, whose price has only recently been raised here in American, whose pharmaceutical owners are making huge profits. It's not hard to do the math.
So, Shkreli's story was both fascinating and repulsive, but then Stumpf appears, a criminal parading as good man. It's hard to know why he bothered, but there Stumpf was, saying politely that he was a man interest in being helpful. It broke soon after that he was making hundreds of millions of dollars destroying millions of American's lives. Could he really have wanted to be helpful? As I read, I thought about it. But no. Stumpf's behavior was clearly predatory. He was making money. And he didn't go to jail. He was too rich.
Robert Reich is talking about these two men first because that's what is bleeding our society dry now. Our businesses, our politicians, our Congress, and even our president, they are straightforward about making money to the detriment of the good of most of the people. And I think we are brainwashed into thinking this is how it has to be. This book discusses how it was in 1975 and earlier, before Reagonomics took hold, before we allowed the people who are so desperate to make and stockpile an infinite amount of money to the detriment of others in this country.
One last thing. Is there even such a thing as, "A Common Good"? You know, that's something that Reich talks about a lot throughout this book. As I was reading, a certain realization formed in my own mind. It's my own opinion. Reich paints a good picture of what the common good is. Here's what I personally came up with myself but if you read this book, and I think you'll really enjoy it if you do - "A Common Good" refers to several things, but most importantly, it refers to these things: 1. Recognizing other people as human beings and not hurting each other for any reason, not even to make money (so, not breaking laws and not worrying about laws because you have no desire to break them because you don't want to hurt anyone); 2. Doing everything you can to help others as long as it doesn't hurt yourself (so, paying taxes and supporting schools and things like that).
In conclusion, I haven't ruined the book for you because it's a lot more than what I've just said. It's really worth reading.
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