Our Common Good


At the White House, Obama denounced the vote, saying Republicans chose “once again to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest few Americans at the expense of the middle class.” In a statement issued after the vote, he said he would keep pressing Congress to help the middle class. “It’s just plain wrong that millions of middle-class Americans pay a higher share of their income in taxes than some millionaires and billionaires,” he said.

Thumbs up to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the lone Republican to vote for this step toward fairness.

Thumbs down to Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, the lone Democratic defector.

As an editor, you develop a B.S. meter—an internal warning system that signals caution about journalism that doesn’t feel trustworthy. Sometimes it’s a quote or incident that’s too perfect —a feeling I always had when reading stories by Stephen Glass in the New Republic. Sometimes it’s too many errors of fact, the overuse of anonymous sources, or signs that a reporter hasn’t dealt fairly with people or evidence. And sometimes it’s a combination of flaws that produces a ring of falsity, the whiff of a bad egg. There’s no journalist who sets off my bullshit alarm like Ron Suskind.

Issues of accuracy, fairness, and integrity come up nearly every time Suskind publishes something. Key sources claim they’ve been misrepresented and misquoted, that basic facts are wrong, and that the Pulitzer-winning reporter has misconstrued the larger story as well. One discounts such complaints to some extent, of course. Good journalism often makes its subjects unhappy, and the kind of Bob Woodward-style White House reconstructions Suskind has come to specialize in inevitably favor those who pay the implicit blackmail of cooperation in exchange for sympathetic treatment. But Woodward is meticulous within the limitations of his method, and you seldom hear his subjects complain that he’s gotten the details wrong or misrepresented their views by manipulating quotes.


Nixivan had invited his friends to supper and was cooking a succulent piece of meat for them. Suddenly, he realised that he had run out of salt. So Nixivan called to his son.

‘Go to the village and buy some salt, but pay a fair price for it: neither too much nor too little.’

His son was surprised.

‘I can understand why I shouldn’t pay too much for it, Father, but if I can bargain them down, why not save a bit of money?’

‘That would be the sensible thing to do in a big city, but it could destroy a small village like ours.’

When Nixivan’s guests, who had overheard their conversation, wanted to know why they should not buy salt more cheaply if they could, Nixivan replied:

‘The only reason a man would sell salt more cheaply than usual would be because he was desperate for money. And anyone who took advantage of that situation would be showing a lack of respect for the sweat and struggle of the man who laboured to produce it.’

‘But such a small thing couldn’t possibly destroy a village.’

‘In the beginning, there was only a small amount of injustice abroad in the world, but everyone who came afterwards added their portion, always thinking that it was only very small and unimportant, and look where we have ended up today.’

-Paulo Coelho (The Devil and Miss Prym)

Peter Corning:

The bitter, unresolved partisan struggle over our national debt, culminating in a near-default and an historic credit downgrade by the ratings agency Standard & Poors, is above all a struggle over competing visions of fairness - and ultimately a battle for the soul of this country.  

In the rancorous, down-to-the-wire “negotiations” [sic] between the Republicans and the Democrats, the two sides advanced radically different visions of what would be a fair outcome.  President Obama called for “shared sacrifice” - everyone doing a part to deal with our anemic economy and our deepening national debt problem, including some “revenue enhancements.”  The Republicans claimed that any increase in taxes would hurt the “creative class” and undercut job creation.  (“What job creation?” one might ask.) 

More important, though more muted, was the moral claim on the right that taxing the rich - especially to support the unemployed and the poor - is unfair.  As the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist puts it, tax increases amount to “stealing” money from those who have earned their wealth and who deserve to keep it.

A subtext for this moral claim was provided by the famed 1950s novelist Ayn Rand and her “gospel of selfishness.” To quote one of her characters, the architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead: “All that proceeds from man’s independent ego is good.  All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil… The first right on earth is the right of the ego.  Man’s first duty is to himself…His moral law is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men….The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is - hands off!” 

Warren Buffet disagrees.  In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, he wrote:  “While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate.   Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors. These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places…


The bottom line here is that Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, and other defiant libertarians have got it wrong about fairness.  As I explain at length in my book, The Fair Society, a viable “social contract” requires us to take into account and balance three distinct fairness claims.  The first is "equality" with respect to our basic biological needs - an imperative that we all share equally and a prime obligation for every society.  The second fairness principle involves providing adequate rewards for merit (“equity”), though not all claims for merit are valid (obviously).  And the third principle is “reciprocity” - paying a fair share to support our society in return for the benefits we receive.

Reciprocity is where Ayn Rand’s brand of libertarianism fails the fairness test.  Indeed, such terms as “fairness” and “social justice” are not even a part of her lexicon.  It’s a fatally defective philosophy.  

Our choice is clear: We can opt for a fair society, or we can follow the dark, well-traveled road taken by so many failed societies of the past (and present), which leads to a nation that serves the interests mainly of the rich and powerful.  To me, the right choice is obvious.

David F. Weiman, professor of economics at Barnard College:

But the New Deal brought more than jobs — it enhanced quality of life, especially among the most vulnerable. We can see its impact on infant mortality, which increased during the early years of the Depression after falling sharply for more than a decade. Without the New Deal’s health and nutrition initiatives as well as investments in water and sewage-treatment infrastructure, millions of lives would have been lost.

This new idea of a federal safety net not only inspired Social Security in the 1930s, but also Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s. FDR and LBJ asked all working adults to care for American seniors and the poor. Before the New Deal, it was unthinkable that retired people could turn to the government for income or medical care. That responsibility fell directly to their children, if they had them. That’s why the Republicans’ proposed cuts to Medicare are so shocking — they shift these costs from the federal budget back to the family budget.

But even if these cuts get through Congress, they can’t take away America’s infrastructure. The New Deal’s Public Works and Works Progress administrations spurred rapid productivity growth in the midst of the Depression. New roads and electrical power networks paved the way for post-World War II economic expansion built around the automobile and the suburban home. Astonishing 21st-century innovations such as next-day FedEx deliveries and Wi-Fi still rely on these aging investments. We associate FDR with massive hydroelectric dam projects — including the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams in the West, and the Tennessee Valley Authority in the South — but the New Deal also electrified rural America through cooperatives that distributed cheap, reliable power. Nearly 12 percent of Americans still belong to these collectives. Without the New Deal, they would be stuck in the much darker 1920s.

As would modern travelers. Without the New Deal, New York commuters would be without the FDR Drive, the Triboroughand Whitestone bridges, and the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels. There would be no air traffic at LaGuardia and Reagan National airports. D.C.’s Union Station, wired for electricity during the New Deal, would have a very different food court. Between New York and Washington, Amtrak runs on rails first electrified during the New Deal.

Out West, the New Deal gave us Golden Gate Bridge access ramps, the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, the first modern freeways, and San Francisco and LAX airports. Between the coasts, it brought more than 650,000 miles of paved roads, thousands of bridges and tunnels, more than 700 miles of new and expanded runways, improvements to railroad lines, and scenic routes such as the mid-South’s Natchez Trace Parkway. Without the New Deal, of course, some of these would have eventually been built by state and local governments or the private sector — years after America’s recovery from the Depression. 

Moreover, private infrastructure improvements would have bypassed poor regions such as the South. Because of its vision and virtually unlimited borrowing capacity, the New Deal underwrote Southern modernization with new roads, hospitals, rural electrification and schools. These public investments paid off. After 50 years of stagnation, average Southern incomes began to catch up with the national average during the New Deal era. Even today, the South receives more federal money than it pays in taxes. Though the South has embraced tea party conservatism, the former Confederacy would probably lag behind the rest of the country in a world without the New Deal.

Across America, the New Deal fashioned a new social order that empowered marginalized groups, notably industrial workers. Through support for unions and the Wagner or National Labor Relations Act, FDR codified workers’ power to bargain for fair wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions. These policies, as well as steeper, more progressive income taxes, secured a more equitable income distribution from the end of World War II to the late 1970s. And the Fair Labor Standards Act — mandating a minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek and improved working conditions — brought benefits to all workers, not just those in unions. The New Deal gave us the weekend. Would we have one without it?

Beyond days off, a New Deal for labor built on the founders’ principle of countervailing political power. Unlike his cousin Teddy, FDR was not a famed “trust buster.” Still, while endorsing cartel-like control over key industrial sectors, his New Deal encouraged trade unions to curb the economic power of big business. With the dramatic increase in private-sector union membership in the 1940s, millions of workers could assert their collective voice in the political process on par with large corporations, while federal agencies mediated conflicts and forged compromise between organized private interests. 

This last legacy of the New Deal — fairness — may be its most important. If House Republicans have their way, we may be stranded in a world without it.