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Book Review: The Common Good by Robert Reich

Robert Reich is an economist and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkley. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Cabinet of President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997 and was a member of President-elect Barack Obama's economic transition advisory board. Dr. Reich presents himself as a voice of reason in these highly polarized political times, with one of his signature issues being a deep concern over the growing gap between rich and poor and the rise of income disparity. He once again addresses this subject, though from a different angle, in his 2018 book The Common Good. In the book, Dr. Reich makes the case that there has been an alarming shift in the public attitude from one of working for the benefit of the populace as a whole, to one of personal gain and gratification, a win-at-all-cost,"what's in it for me?" mentality. He makes the case that there is an urgent need to change this way of thinking and return to the philosophy espoused in John F. Kennedy's famous statement about asking not what the nation can do for the individual, but what the individual can do for the greater good.



Dr. Reich addresses his subject over 184 pages in three parts. In the first part he attempts to define what is meant by the "common good", focusing on the example of vulture capitalist Martin Shkreli, who justified raising the price of the essential medication Daraprim from $13.50 to over $750 per pill overnight, by claiming that his duty to maximize profit for his company's shareholders was more important than any moral obligation to those requiring the medication. Reich goes on to discuss the societal transition from public good to private gain in many fields, including politics, education, sports, and in the corporate world, noting how the focus has changed from one of concern for the good of society as a whole, to a self-centered focus on making as much money as possible, while staying one step ahead of arrest.

In the second part of the book, Dr. Reich attempts a historical analysis of how this transition occurred, citing four events in particular as giving substantial impetus for this chance in societal character. In the final section, he proposes a number of remedies to get society back on the right track, including changes in education, appropriate honor and shaming, vigilance against distortion of news and information distribution, and a commitment to and a plan requiring public service, much like the military draft that was once in place. The most convincing part of the book is in Dr. Reich's analysis of current corporate leadership. He notes that there had once been the view that corporate leadership took in a multitude of interests besides shareholders: employees and their families, unions, consumers, and the environment. He notes how this has changed to the point where attention by CEOs to anything other than the financial bottom line is not only highly discouraged, but in fact punished.

Much of this book is an attack on President Donald Trump, citing him as a central example of how the common good has been sacrificed in favor of selfish gain at the expense of civility and integrity. These portions will delight the President's detractors, while causing his supporters to write off the rest of the book as partisan rhetoric. On the one hand, it is understandable how the author may wish to illustrate some of his points by using examples of the win-at-all-costs philosophy committed by leadership at this level. On the other hand, it is problematic for the author to get his message of abandoning partisan interest in favor of the common good and the need for unity on this issue by participating in the political polarization, alienating a large segment of the population, and giving them a reason to dismiss his important message as poorly-veiled partisanship. Readers will have to objectively discern for themselves the correctness of this approach.

The central message of this book is an important one, not only at a political and corporate level, but at an individual level. At its core, this book asks us how much we as individuals are willing to put aside our individual "what's in it for me" approach in favor of one that is rooted in a "love thy neighbor" philosophy. It is one thing for all of us to point fingers at politicians and corporations for being selfish and driven by personal profit. But are we as individuals willing to engage in such a paradigm shift when doing so means that our own personal wealth may be adversely affected? Dr. Reich deserves high marks for making us think about such an important question so vital to our future and that of coming generations.
Tags: author: r, category: essay, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history
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