The Unraveling of The Common Good

By Herb Bowie

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The Common Good by Robert B. Reich

I’ve recently read The Common Good by Robert B. Reich, and can recommend it heartily. It’s a lovely little book that can help remind us all that we have obligations to the societies in which we live and work, and that contributing to the common good should not just be an occasional option for rich philanthropists, but a daily calling for all of us. His book talks about the importance of democracy, education and the rule of law as well as the actions of individuals.

Still though, I can’t help but feel that Reich’s description of the unraveling of the common good in the USA is incomplete, and so I’d like to offer something of an addendum with the words that follow.

Let me start with a few personal notes that will illustrate my starting point as well as anything.

My father bought me my first car in 1967, when I was in high school. It was a white 1962 Chevrolet Corvair that we called “The Big Dent.” I can’t say that it was a car meant to last the ages – it leaked about a quart of oil per week by the time I acquired it – but it was an innovative automobile, sporting an air-cooled engine mounted back where the trunk would usually be found. It was also deemed Unsafe at any Speed by Ralph Nader, and Chevrolet decided to cut its losses and abandoned the model in 1969.

When I graduated from college in 1973 my father helped me acquire another used car, and this time it was a Datsun 510 wagon.

What had changed over this six-year period? In the fifties and sixties the big three US automakers competed only with each other. But that “competition” often consisted of churning out an assortment of cars that all had different-looking sheet metal but under the hood were all very similar to each other. It was not until Japanese cars began being sold in quantities on our shores in the seventies – and not until gasoline prices started to increase – that Americans began considering foreign automakers – led by the Japanese – as serious competitors to Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

In many ways this was a very good thing. Japanese cars were often cheaper, longer-lasting, more economical and of higher-quality than their US counterparts. Toyota single-handedly started the Lean revolution in manufacturing, helping to bring costs down and quality up for all sorts of products manufactured all over the world.

At the same time, though, especially for those of us in the US, this sea change ushered in a new era of instability. In hindsight, the twenty-five years following World War II created for Americans a somewhat illusory sense of prosperity and reliably steady economic and social progress. During a period that began with the release of Frank Capra’s film It’s A Wonderful Life and concluded with our successful landing of the first men on the moon, the smooth upward trajectory of our progress seemed inevitable.

And then, I think, we saw the following truths play out over the years and decades that followed.

  1. Distribution of goods and services becomes global.

  2. Competition among companies becomes global.

  3. The labor pool becomes global.

  4. As human population levels increase, and as a higher percentage of our global population seeks to avail itself of the benefits of modern technology, demand for goods and services continues to rise.

  5. Natural resources such as oil become more scarce, and therefore become more costly.

  6. Markets are not stable, and are frequently upended by innovations that few saw coming.

  7. Human beings and institutions easily become complacent.

  8. The pace of change in technology, industry and society is unrelenting.

  9. Individuals prove better than organizations at foreseeing and preparing for changes that may be headed our way.

  10. Although competition is often a harsh and unforgiving process, it is the only mechanism we have discovered so far that can continue to reliably produce changes in species, industries and organizations that allow us to successfully adapt to evolving environmental conditions in an ongoing fashion.

Looking back over this list of emergent truths and the history of the last five decades, it’s hard to see how any person or institution could have forestalled any of this, or could reasonably argue with the veracity of any of these statements today.

And yet, given these ten truths, much of our decline in the common good here in the US has followed naturally, if not always inevitably.

Given the rapid pace of change, and the uncertainty of markets, and the pressure of global competition, corporations began to realize that they could no longer afford to guarantee generous pensions for their employees.

Given the pressure of global competition, along with the availability of global labor pools, companies began to realize that they had to hold down the costs of salaries and benefits in order to survive.

Given the rapid pace of change combined with global competition and global labor pools, companies began to realize that older, more senior employees were often more costly, less adaptive, and less knowledgeable of current technologies than younger employees, and so were not carrying their weight.

As we observed the rise and fall of various corporate players on the global stage, it gradually became clear that, just as labor was becoming more commoditized, the indisputable value of visionary leadership was increasing. When we look back on the rise of Apple, for example, and stop to ask how it went from near bankruptcy and irrelevancy to becoming the most valuable company in the world, over a span of 20 years, it’s hard to arrive at an answer that doesn’t heavily involve the leadership of Steve Jobs. Other examples are evident. And so, as the value and salary of the average worker stays the same or declines, the value of a good CEO goes up.

As workers began to feel the pinch of stagnant or declining wages and benefits, and see the reality of constant change all around them, they started to question why their government seemed to continue on year after year, steadily increasing their taxes, and doling out generous benefits to government workers, without undergoing any radical changes of their own, and without any checks on their size, their budget, or their ambitions.

As labor pools, consumer markets, and industries all became more global, the ability of the US federal government to control what was going on became increasingly tenuous.

And gradually an uncomfortable dynamic around the costs of US goods and services began to emerge.

  1. Advances in technology continue to improve consumer products and worker productivity;
  2. Increasing global demand for goods and services tends to increase their costs;
  3. Increasing scarcity of natural resources tends to increase costs;
  4. As production becomes more global, lower relative labor costs help to hold down the costs of goods and services for US consumers, even though these same trends also result in lost jobs and stagnant wages for US workers.
  5. Unintended but significant environmental impacts become more severe, as everyone tries to avoid adding the costs of environmental impact avoidance into this uncomfortable equation.
  6. An ever-widening gap emerges between the quality of goods and services available to the well-off vs. the quality of goods and services that are affordable for the average worker: the former buy organic at Whole Foods, while the latter dine on industrially-produced fast food beneath the Golden Arches; the rich drink Perrier or Fiji water while the poor are poisoned by the water coming out of their taps.

None of what I’m saying here is meant to gainsay any of the valuable wisdom shared generously with us by Reich in his latest book. On the other hand, I firmly believe that it’s important to look at our modern problems from a systemic perspective, as well as from a values orientation. In order to achieve lasting, positive change, we need to consider structural issues in addition to the issues of values that Reich so ably addresses.