The Progressive Ensign

insights and analytics to build an economy that works for all

Category: Self Interest

What are our goals as Americans?

(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. Click on the Index Topic Name at the beginning of each post to see more posts on that topic on PC or Laptop.)

Image: bu.edu

We need to come together on what we all want if we are to have a government that works for all not just the rich. What are our goals?  What is our mission as a country?  What binds us together in seeking the common good?

The Preamble to the Constitution provides insights and guidance:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Let’s look at the first phrase ‘ to form a more perfect union’ – this phrase implies that things are not perfect that the country is a work in progress.  To ‘establish justice’ for all means not a system of justice just for the top 1 % or the privileged.  Justice means that the law is blind to outward power or religion, race, color or other personal factors.  Justice says that equality of justice for all under the law needs to happen in applying the law to all, so the poor, black or others don’t feel the weight of justice on them greater than other people. To ‘ensure domestic tranquility’ we won’t enjoy life, raise families, perform in our jobs, or provide service if our country is in constant uproar or unsafe.  Peace needs to be protected and available to every citizen, including those living in ‘unsafe areas’, they have a right to live in a safe neighborhood too.  Tranquility means the political dialogue between difference points of view is conducted in civility and respect.

To ‘provide for the common defense’ means that we expect our government to keep us safe from foreign aggression and the government – not vigilantes are to keep the peace under the Constitution. To ‘promote the general welfare’.  Key environmental elements of our existence we all share; air, water, land  means we will be strident in protecting our natural resources. We need to support institutions that sustain the general welfare like federal, state and local agencies that ensure we have access to all these environment elements but also, education, health and freedom to travel.

Finally, to ‘secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity’ implies that there is equality of opportunity for all.  We all have differences, we have the liberty to pursue whatever goals we have for our lives, our families and our friends.  We need to ensure that equal opportunities are safeguarded and provided for all regardless of wealth, race, color, religion or orientation. Education is a keystone to our providing a path for those at the lower end of the income scale to apply themselves, get a good education and contribute to our country to the highest level of their ability possible.

Our country thrives as the most prosperous country in the world because we let people be free to follow their dreams and help those who come to our shores to pursue their dreams here.  We need to remember the goals the Preamble to the Constitution sets out to establish through a government by the people. We must become united in these shared goals to make real progress in solving the national problems we face.

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 towels 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 is 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.

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