I’ve just finished reading Robert Reich’s The Common Good (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018). The book shocked me. In it, Reich offers voluminous statistical data to show that since the 1980’s, we Americans have moved away from our devotion to the common good to a focus on what’s-in-it-for-me. The results have been serious damage to our country.
Reich says that “the Common Good consists of our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society—the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.” I’m inclined to equate a concern for the common good with altruism and disinterest in the common good with egocentrism. Reich doesn’t go that far, but he does begin his book with the story of Martin Shkreli who made a fortune by exploiting others. He bought the rights to a drug called Daraprim, the only approved treatment for toxoplasmosis, a disease that can cause seizures, blindness, and death in cancer patients and people with AIDS. He then raised the price from $13.50 per pill to $750.00. He justified his action by claiming the we Americans live in a capitalist society where everyone makes as much money as he can. Shkreli, in sum, exemplified the opposite of devotion to the common good.
The end result of the move away from the common good is the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the top 1 percent. Reich cites the statistics: “By 2016, the typical American household had a net worth of 14 percent lower than the typical household in 1984, while richest one-tenth of 1 percent owned almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent put together. Income has become almost as unequal as wealth: Between 1972 and 2016 the pay of the typical American worker dropped 2 percent, adjusted for inflation, although the American economy doubled in size. Most of the income gains went to the top. In 2016, the annual Wall Street bonus pool alone was larger than the annual year-round earnings of all 3.3 million Americans working full-time at the federal income minimum wage of $7.25 and hour.”