The Progressive Ensign

insights and analytics to build an economy that works for all

Category: Common Good

Maybe We Do Make Choices for the Common Good – More Than We Think

 

Image: Your Little Planet

James Madison was concerned that the basic character of man was self-interest and he would not act if in a power position for the common good.  While, this self-interest aspect of people is turbo charged in capitalist nations, it may not be the choice many of us make when we see the light of the common good and make choices that benefit all of us. Certainly, Madison put great faith in a diverse, well informed citizenry making good choices for their representatives who would act with ‘enlightened interest in the public good’.  Our government of checks and balances provides a way for the this enlightened good idea to be discovered from free speech and forcing self-interested people to recognize they had gone too far and needed to see the needs of all the people.

Our media has taken the negative perspective (it sells advertising and gains attention) that there is a tragedy of the commons, which Prof Garrett Hardin popularized in 1968, that people have a tendency to always go for the self–interest choice, i.e. overgrazing a plot of land to make more money from the ever increasing number of livestock that a herder wants to graze causing overgrazing and killing the life support ability of the land.  There are countless examples of over farming from large regions like the Midwest in the 1930s causing huge dust storms and forcing migration of farmers to California and the West.  Today, we see self-interest to the max in stock buy backs where corporations purchase their own stock to reduce the number of shares and drive the price up, so executives and shareholders would make more money – at the expense of employees not receiving raises, investments in research to increase productivity and reduce product prices or increasing investments in employee training and development.

Yet, maybe we do make the choice for the common good when offered.  Lecturer, Dylan Selterman, at the University of Maryland, asked his students an extra credit question if they would like to have 2 or 6 extra credit points to your final grade, but if 10 % of the students asked for 6 extra points none would receive them.  Class after class would go over the 10 % limit, until he provided a third choice – altruistic – you can select zero points.  After offering the third choice enough selected the zero point or two-point option so that would be under the 10 percent limit. The classes learned if they were not too greedy with their extra credit point choice they all could win.

So, how does choice and information play a role in developing and implementing common good policy?  A 2008 classic study by consumer researchers found that if hotel guests were provided a message that said ‘the majority of guest reuse their towels’ then towel recycling would increase dramatically. While, today we are used to recycling towel there were two elements:  one – providing information that towel recycling would reduce water usage and two – you have a choice to reuse or not reuse your towel.

Source: Journal of Consumer Research – 2008

The common good dilemma in regulating industry are more challenging because of the profit motive and personal benefit in making more money by increasing profits and reducing costs.  For chemical factories, installing scrubbers and extra equipment to return cleaner air to the sky is a cost, while just using the air for their factory and workers is free. Yet, all people beyond the factory are hurt from air pollution.  Generally, penalties for violating air pollution standards, or court cases have been the only way to stop polluting behavior.  But is there another way; getting an industry sector to work together, see that in their own interests if they all reduce air pollution they will benefit because they all breathe cleaner air – and they all have the similar costs if they all install equipment or even share technology and air pollution equipment in a group purchase.  Maybe when everyone is taking action, it is seen as the right choice and reduce costs for all with the benefit that everyone will enjoy clean air. Plus, if everyone is making the same investment, the costs will be similar across the industry and no single company is hurt financially or by Wall Street analysts.

Representative Government Handles Damaging Factions Best

(Editor Note: Insight Bytes focus on key economic issues and solutions for all of us, on Thursdays we spotlight in more depth Solutions to issues we have identified. Fridays we focus on how to build the Common Good. Please right click on images to see them larger in a separate tab.)

Image: Your Little Planet

Today, we see with the populist movement across our country in cross currents both right and left factions seeking to take control of the major parties.  In one case, the GOP populists were successful in taking control of the Republican Party in 2016.

James Madison saw the issue of how to deal with factions who may override the needs of the people for the public good.  In Federalist Paper No. 10, Madison said;

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Certainly, his observation of what happens when factions move against the common good is true today, as we see the oligarchy faction taking control of the populists by making huge donations to our representatives in Congress.  Madison saw that taking away the liberty of the faction was like taking away the air we breathe and keeps people engaged in their government.  Plus, he saw issues in making laws to constantly set limits which would change around the effects of the factious movement.  So, what might the answer be?

He knew that he was dealing with the inherent nature of man:

“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man, and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity…”  Thus this factious, tribal nature of man unfortunately is coming forth with ever increasing strength and lack of civility.

We see partisanship growing to new heights of conflict.  Our Congress has very few Senators willing to cross party lines as this chart illustrates so well:

Chart: Reddit.com – 113th Congress – 5/11/14

Only two senators Sen. Susan Collins – R – Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski – R – Alaska seem to be the only ones willing to cross the isle.  Sen. John McCain – R – AZ cast the deciding no vote last summer on repealing the Affordable Care Act.  How can this total lack of vision in the public interest be? An act of Congress effecting every American and we cannot create a common vision of what the future of health services for all?  Creating that common vision, building consensus and moving the country ahead together is the responsibility of our elected leaders – clearly they are not doing their job.

The common good is certainly missing. Madison thought a pure democracy of citizens voting in a public forum to decide major matters would not work in a large geographically dispersed area and that a faction could easily overtake the democratic vote.  He advocated as structured in the Constitution a republic of representatives of the people who could see the damage possibly done to the republic by the faction.  Sen. Mc Cain invoked the need to strengthen the common good when he said his no vote was due to lack of ‘common order’ and process in the creation and rushed partisan vote taken without hearings from experts, citizens and consideration of amendments.  In McCain’s no vote on ACA repeal, Madison’s vision worked, of ‘a body of citizens, whose wisdom may discern the best interest of the country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partisan considerations.’ However, in so many other pressing issues for our country the elected leaders financially bound to their donor’s will are not solving urgent issues confronting the citizens and their public interest.

Where do we go from here to build the common good aligned to the public interest? We will look at various proposals to build the common good in this series of posts beginning next Friday.

What Happened to Our Common Good?

 

Image: Your Little Planet

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote a series articles in 1787 called the Federalist Papers defending the newly written Constitution. In Federalist Paper No. 57, Madison proposed to ‘first obtain for rulers men who possess the wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good’. They were quite concerned that an overbearing majority would run over the needs of the public good or a minority group.  Or that a ruling class of the privileged and wealthy would use the tools of government to continue to gain more wealth at the expense of the common people.

Today a sense of the common good is almost non-existent in our political discourse as our federal government has become so partisan as to be completely inept at coping with the common problems facing Americans.  There is intense conflict between factions about our public interest in clean air, water and land, safe communities, equal economic opportunities, an open education system for all, justice for immigrants seeking to contribute to our country and being a leading light of democracy around the world.  On many issues, corporations, public interest groups and other nations are ahead of us by 10 – 20 years in solving many foundational issues of our time.

What happened to our shared sense of the Common Good?  One way to understand the loss of our common shared interest is in the lack of trust Americans feel in their democratic institutions that have the responsibility to protect and sustain our common interests and public good.

Source: Pew Research Center – 12/14/2017

There has been a slow and continuous decline in public trust since President Eisenhower until the ultimate low today during President Trump’s administration.

We see two major factors for the lack of trust.  One, is that economic inequality has been increasing over the last 60 years to the point where it is at the worst it has ever been since 1929.  Americans expect their government to be the rule keeper of a fair shot at economic opportunity not a bastion for the rich and powerful.  As the wealthy donors have taken over control of both major parties, the influence of the average citizen has been reduced to nearly nothing except at the ballot box – but not in legislative policy.  A study by Professors Martin Gilens of Northwestern, and Benjamin Page of Princeton found that the opinion of the bottom 90 % made no difference in laws passed by Congress over a 20-year period. For example, the present GOP Administration is out of step with most Americans that want a clean environment even if there is an economic cost based on a Gallup poll. Americans know that the system is rigged as both candidates on the far left and far right, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gained great support by proclaiming that the economy and government was rigged against them.

The second major factor was the evolution of media and the Internet.  In the 1950s and 1960s families gathered around the television set to watch Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley bring them the news for the day.  These new anchors had teams of trained journalists in how to gather news, provide airing of opposing views and investigation to reveal the facts of the story. As cable news programs became popular people drifted away from central network journalist supported news programs toward popular ‘viewpoint news’ programs like Fox News or CNN.  Then, from 1995 until today, the Internet was a catalyst for the growth of blogging, and ‘friend news’ which had virtually no formally trained journalists and limited understanding of the difference between facts and opinions.  Opinions spread virally through the Internet often with no foundation in formal fact gathering or fact finding investigation techniques. Today, we even have presidential spokespersons talking about ‘alternative facts’ to justify their policies or opinions.

We have come a long way from a shared common understanding of the facts to base opinions and policy ideas about. Unfortunately, the factional conflict is tearing at the foundations of our democratic institutions that keep our country free and protect the rights of all.

Next week, we will examine deeper how Madison and the founding leaders viewed factions and how to deal with them to keep new ideas coming yet keep the Union together.  They had ideas that are insightful for our situation today as they placed their trust in the people to make the right decisions when provided with good information and facts.

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