Tag Archives: common good

I Plan To Buy This Book

I have previously quoted Nick Hanauer, a billionaire with a clear vision of economic reality and a refreshing respect for data and evidence.  I first encountered him when he was supporting Seattle’s “Fight for $15.” He pointed out that jobs are created when workers have sufficient disposable income to purchase the goods offered in the marketplace. (If no one is buying your widgets, you are very unlikely to hire additional people to manufacture them.)

In the absence of any empirical evidence,” Nick explained, business owners kept repeating the same false threats over and over: “It’ll be a job killer. It’ll harm the very people it’s intended to help.” Even though these warnings had no basis in economic research, local media repeated the lies uncritically.

Seattle did, in fact, raise its minimum wage, and despite the dire warnings from opponents of the measure, its economy survived. Nicely.

Hanauer was introduced to Donald Cohen, who had noticed a similar effort– businesses arguing that safety regulations kill jobs–and the two of them teamed up to collect other examples. There turned out to be a clear pattern: whenever a social benefit has been proposed, powerful voices have warned that the policy would only hurt the very people it’s intended to help.

They decided to write a book, and enlisted progressive author Joan Walsh. The three of them have produced a volume they’ve titled “Corporate Bullsh*t,” tracing decades of (surprisingly similar) arguments from America’s captains of industry—against abolition, against child labor laws, against women’s suffrage….

There’s a pattern.

According to a letter sent by a friend describing the book (no link available), the book uses a lot of humor to make its point. As Hanauer is quoted,

If you think that you are going to talk the Chamber of Commerce out of saying that raising wages kills jobs by showing them the economic evidence [to the contrary,] you are deeply, deeply naive,” Nick says, adding that ridicule plays “an essential role” in debunking these claims and changing the public conversation for good.

A review of the book from The New Press goes into more detail:

From praising the health benefits of cigarettes to moralizing on the character-building qualities of child labor, rich corporate overlords have gone to astonishing, often morally indefensible lengths to defend their profits. Since the dawn of capitalism, they’ve told the same lies over and over to explain why their bottom line is always more important than the greater good: You say you want to raise the federal minimum wage? Why, you’ll only make things worse for the very people you want to help! Should we hold polluters accountable for the toxins they’re dumping in our air and water? No, the free market will save us! Can we raise taxes on the rich to pay for universal healthcare? Of course not—that will kill jobs! Affordable childcare? Socialism! It’s always the same tired threats and finger-pointing, in a concentrated campaign to keep wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful.

Corporate Bullsh*t will help you identify this pernicious propaganda for the wealthiest 1 percent, and teach you how to fight back. Structured around some of the most egregious statements ever made by the rich and powerful, the book identifies six categories of falsehoods that repeatedly thwart progress on issues including civil rights, wealth inequality, climate change, voting rights, gun responsibility, and more. With amazing illustrations and a sharp sense of humor, Corporate Bullsh*t teaches readers how to never get conned, bamboozled, or ripped off ever again.

I haven’t read the book yet, so I am approaching it with my own prejudice: the importance of credible empirical evidence.

If X is damaging, how do we know? Has it been tried? Under what circumstances? With what results? Have those results been replicated?

It is perfectly possible for a well-meaning policy to be unworkable or damaging–but an assertion to that effect needs to be backed up with evidence, not rhetoric.

Americans have a bad habit of giving credence to arguments made by the wealthy and powerful simply because those making the arguments are wealthy and powerful. It reminds me of that lyric from “If I Were A Rich Man.”  “The most important men in town would come to call on me, asking questions that would cross a Rabbis eyes–and it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong…When you’re rich they think you really know.”

Come to think of it, that goes a long way toward explaining why naive people listen to Trump…



What The Right Really Wants

Vox recently published an interesting postmortem of the midterm elections, looking to see how right-wing intellectuals (a term which I consider an oxymoron) are responding to the lack of that promised “red wave.”

This New Right “intellectual” movement arose after the 2016 election; its approach to Republican politics is a commitment to relentless, aggressive culture war. (Fortunately–at least in the recent elections–voters have seemed unreceptive.)

The article describes three distinct, albeit overlapping, reactions. One is a call to display what the article calls “some tactical moderation” (most notably by bracketing abortion, which was clearly not a winner for the GOP); another “centers on whether Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis represents the movement’s future, and what reasons there are to prefer one over the other.” The third centers on democracy itself.

A minority of New Right thinkers responded to defeat by suggesting the electorate is too far gone for conservatives to ever triumph — and even questioning the value of democracy itself.

“Democracy did not end slavery, and democracy will not end abortion,” declared Chad Pecknold, a self-described “postliberal” theologian at Catholic University.

The “thinkers” pursuing all-out culture war want to discard the conservative commitment to limited government; they argue that limiting the power of the state “stands in the way of waging an effective counterrevolution.”  They believe that their culture war can only be won “by jettisoning libertarianism and using the levers of policy to roll back the left’s cultural victories. Out with tax cuts, in with bans on critical race theory in schools.”

Abandoning the culture war, on this perspective, is not mere folly but national suicide. For some on the New Right, the idea that their approach to these issues might be unpopular is unthinkable. 

One star of the New Right argues for switching allegiance from Trump to  DeSantis –saying that he “backstops his culture-war agenda with capable governance.” (Granted, no one in his right mind could argue that Trump can even spell governance,  let alone provide it.) This DeSantis partisan believes DeSantis will be more able to deliver on the New Right’s shared goals: “to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers’ unions, and overturn the school boards.”  In other words,  eradicate “woke-ness.”

If the DeSantis contingent doesn’t terrify you sufficiently, there are the New Right “integralists.” These are “Catholic arch-conservatives who believe that the United States government should be replaced with a religious Catholic state.”

Integralists are a part of a broader “postliberal” trend among right-wing intellectuals that traces the cultural decay of American society back to its ruling liberal political philosophy: the doctrine that government should liberate people to pursue their own visions of the good life. Liberalism, they argue, promotes licentiousness and a corrosive individualism…

Postliberals believe that instead of protecting individual freedom, government should aim to promote the “common good” or “highest good”: to create a citizenry where people live good lives as defined by scripture and religious doctrine. This leads them to support an even more active role for the state than even the national conservatives, endorsing not only aggressive efforts to legislate morality but also expansions of the welfare state.

And here we come to the crux of the anti-democratic argument. It isn’t new.

Liberalism–properly defined–rests on a belief that humans are endowed–born with– certain “inalienable” rights that government must protect. The liberal conception of the common good is a society in which government respects those individual liberties to the extent that their expression does not infringe on the rights of others.

A liberal polity will argue–often vigorously–about where that line should be drawn. As I used to tell my students, freedom of religion cannot excuse the ritual sacrifice of your newborn.Figuring out what it can excuse is harder. Every liberty protected by the Bill of Rights has sparked philosophical and legal debate over the extent to which government must respect it–does your freedom of religion allow you to discriminate against people your church considers sinners? Does your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches prevent government from going through the garbage bag you’ve left on the curb for pickup?

What the New Right wants is statism.  

These “thinkers” assume that they will be the ones who decide what the common good looks like–and they want government, under their control, to enforce their vision. (They’re not so different from the Tech moguls who want to impose their beliefs  by remaking society in their own image.) That approach to governance is incompatible with the cultural assumptions of most American citizens–not to mention the U.S. Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

You can call this philosophy a lot of things, but it sure isn’t American. 

There Are Two Kinds Of People…

How many conversations have you had during which someone (maybe you) opined that “there are two kinds of people…” and followed  that up with one of the roughly zillion ways that we “slice and dice” our fellow humans?

People who are open versus those who are closed. People who are honest versus those who aren’t. People who live in fear versus those who embrace change. People who are bat-shit crazy versus people who live in the admittedly-messy real world…

The New York Times recently ran a guest essay that made me think of another example: People who genuinely care about others–including their own children and grandchildren–and those who don’t.

The subject of the essay was something called “Longtermism”–a term I find somewhat off-putting. It began with a thought experiment, asking readers to imagine living the life of every human being who has ever existed — in order of birth. The experiment then went further:

But now imagine that you live all future lives, too. Your life, we hope, would be just beginning. Even if humanity lasts only as long as the typical mammal species (about one million years), and even if the world population falls to a tenth of its current size, 99.5 percent of your life would still be ahead of you. On the scale of a typical human life, you in the present would be just a few months old. The future is big.

I offer this thought experiment because morality, at its core, is about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and treating their interests as we do our own. When we do this at the full scale of human history, the future — where almost everyone lives and where almost all potential for joy and misery lies — comes to the fore.

If you knew you were going to live all these future lives, what would you hope we do in the present? How much carbon dioxide would you want us to emit into the atmosphere? How careful would you want us to be with new technologies that could destroy, or permanently derail, your future? How much attention would you want us to give to the impact of today’s actions on the long term?

These are some of the questions that motivate longtermism: the idea that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.

As I was reading this, it seemed like a very long introduction to a very important–and very obvious–observation: what we do in the present will affect untold numbers of future people, so we need to act wisely.

We can make the lives of those who will come after us better–or much worse.  Given that reality, it is important to think about the long-term impact of our actions.

As the author notes, most of us tend to neglect the future in favor of the present, with the result that future people are effectively disenfranchised. “They can’t vote or lobby or run for public office, so politicians have scant incentive to think about them. They can’t tweet, or write articles, or march in the streets. They are the true silent majority.”

Yes–but not entirely.

Perhaps it is understandable that people who never had children would dismiss the effect of their actions on that future “silent majority” (although I know a lot of childless people who care passionately about future generations). But those of us who have children and grandchildren have an obvious and important stake in the future. 

A number of the people who comment on this blog are–like its author–elderly. Most of us–granted, not all– are financially comfortable. The bad decisions being made by today’s courts and legislatures, the potential loss of democracy as a result of the significant number of Americans who live in Never-Never land, the existential threat posed by climate change–these things really don’t–and won’t–directly affect us.

But we care about them. A lot.

We care because we care about our progeny, and the progeny of our friends and neighbors. I suppose that makes us “longtermers.” Actually, I think it makes us humans.

I’m not sure what to call all the people who clearly don’t care about others–the people who didn’t care about their neighbors enough to wear a mask during a pandemic, and don’t care enough about future generations to divest of fossil fuels. The author tells us that “there is remarkable overlap between the best ways we can promote the common good for people living right now and for our posterity.” I agree.

Unfortunately, however, there are two kinds of people: those who care about the common good, and those who  clearly don’t.

Citizens Aren’t Consumers

Criticisms of capitalism and market economies–fair and unfair– are plentiful. I’ve noted before that–as with most debates about political and economic systems– reality is more complicated than either the defenders or critics seem to recognize.

This post is not going to wade into those waters–I’ll leave my (hopefully more nuanced) economic arguments for another day–but I am going to argue that America’s devotion to the operation of the market has had one unfortunate  cultural consequence: it has strengthened a widespread belief in the notion that citizens are customers, rather than shareholders, of government.

And the customer, no matter how unreasonable, is always right–or at the very least, entitled to significant deference.

I’ve noted this confusion between citizenship and market consumption before; an article about recent attacks on school boards by parents and political activists have reinforced my concerns.

During the school masking debates, an essay in the New York Times considered the roots of the hostile confrontations at school board meetings. One of the people quoted in that discussion referred to a “citizen consumer” concept , which he said was helping him “to better understand the open-the-schools crowd.” I was unfamiliar with the scholarship around that term, so I googled it.

According to one paper abstract posted on the Oxford Scholarship Online website

Americans spend far more time thinking about what to buy, and what not to buy, than they do about politics. Political leaders often make political claims while using consumer terminology, and political decisions resemble consumer decisions in surprising ways. Together, these forces help give rise to the consumer citizen: a person who depends on tools and techniques familiar from consumer life to make sense of politics. Understanding citizens as consumer citizens has implications for a broad array of topics related to public opinion and political behavior. More than a dozen new experiments make clear that appealing to the consumer citizen as consumer citizen can increase trust in government, improve attitudes toward taxes, and enhance political knowledge. Indeed, such appeals can even cause people to sign up for government-sponsored health insurance. However, the consumer citizen may also prefer candidates whose policies would explicitly undercut their own self-interest. Two concepts from consumer psychology—consumer fairness and operational transparency—are especially useful for understanding the consumer citizen. Although the rise of the consumer citizen may trouble democratic theorists, the lessons of the consumer citizen can be applied to a new approach to civic education, with the aim of enriching democracy and public life.

I definitely fall within that group of “democratic theorists” who believe that confusing consumerism with democratic participation is very troubling.

The people who have embraced this approach are people with something to sell: the political strategists and public relations gurus whose business is peddling political policies and candidates. Those of us who decry the identification of political choice with consumer marketing agree with an organization called “The Common Good Collective,” which describes the difference between the citizen and the consumer:

A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy, regardless of their legal status. It is one who chooses to create the life, the neighborhood, the world from their own gifts and the gifts of others. Many who have the full legal rights assigned by their country continue to wait for others to provide them with satisfaction and contribute little to democracy or the well-being of their community. At the same time, there are major contributors to community and democracy who do not enjoy the legal status of “citizenship.” Nevertheless, these people still] function as full participants in what is necessary for a democracy to work.

A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life. This act of surrender goes by many names: client, patient, student, audience, fan, shopper. All customers, not citizens. Consumerism is not about shopping, but about the transformation of citizens into consumers.

Citizenship is a hotly debated political subject. Look for ways to participate in this discussion by contacting elected officials and supporting grassroots organizations assisting refugees and undocumented neighbors. As you do, consider, how might I call everyone I meet into deeper participation in our community? How might I loosen the grip of consumer culture on my life, noting and offering “care” in ways that move beyond transaction?

One of the accusations frequently leveled at Trump–aka “the former guy”–was that he was entirely  transactional, always concerned with “What’s in it for me?” He was the choice of  voters who saw themselves as “consumers” entitled to demand a political “product.”  If that product benefitted them at the expense of less savvy or less empowered consumers, tough.

Consumers don’t worry about the common good. Citizens do.




About That Reading List…

After I described my course on Individual Rights and the Common Good in a previous blog, several readers asked if I would post the reading list.

Because I’m at home with limited access to both my office and memory, I don’t have the complete list, but here are those I do have: Thomas Smith, Aristotle on the Conditions for and Limits of the Common Good, from Volume 93 of the American Political Science Review; John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (Chapters 9 and 10); DeTocqueville’s Democracy in America (Book 2, Chapters 27, 28 and 29) and an essay “DeTocqueville on Individualism” from a website titled The Laughing Agave; John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (Chapter One); John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (not the book, but an excerpt published by the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in the summer of 1985; The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self, by Michael Sandel, from the journal Political Theory in 1984; Liberalism, Community and Tradition by Joel Feinberg, from Volume 3, #3 of Tikkun; Church, State and Women’s Human Rights, by Martha Nussbaum, from Criterion: A Publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago; cases considering the rights of LGBTQ persons against claims of religious liberty: Bowers v. Hardwick, Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas and Obergfell v. Hodges, and cases I don’t have in front of me balancing property rights against nuisance laws and other governmental regulations.

The official course description was: Considers the tension between individual and majoritarian rights in our constitutional system, and the effects of that tension on the formulation of public policy.

The course was an investigation of that tension–the right of citizens to personal autonomy, on the one hand, and the equally strong human need to be part of a cohesive community, on the other.

As I pointed out in the course syllabus, the fundamental issue in political philosophy–as well as in day-to-day governance–is who decides? What sorts of decisions must government be empowered to make, and which must be left to the individual? Answering that, of course, requires that we explore many other questions–what do we mean by “the common good?” How much social consensus is necessary for a government policy to be considered legitimate?

Can public policies encourage the the development of an inclusive “we” from America’s increasingly diverse “I’s” without violating fundamental individual rights?

The class was cross-listed, meaning that both undergraduates and graduates could enroll. Because it wasn’t a required class, it attracted students who were actually interested in exploring those questions. It was fun to teach–or more accurately, to introduce them to what important thinkers have said about these issues, and to serve as a discussion guide.

As I listened to the political debates Americans have been having this year, I’ve really missed the kinds of thoughtful analyses and debates I heard from my students. Conspiracy theories that provide easily identified “bad guys” and heroes, religious dogmas that impose answers rather than helping adherents wrestle with important questions, insistence upon categorizing everyone as “us” or “them” –these are all hallmarks of a flight from genuine engagement and civic responsibility.

I have hopes that with Biden’s election, and his choice of competent adults to head the agencies charged with doing the people’s business, we can emerge from the embrace of ignorance, the corruption and the bigotry of this horrible four-year experiment with government by tantrum, and approach policy argumentation the way most of my students did.

For those of you who wanted the reading list–I hope you’ll let the rest of us know your reactions as you plow through!