Public Good

 

 

The Public Good

 

Worker at a factory learning that his plant is being shut down and his job is gone.

 

 I worry that the idea of a common good is declining. Suddenly, for example, that dour intellectual battleaxe of the 1950s, Ayn Rand, has found an enthusiastic new audience among young adults. This is the same Ayn Rand who identified self-interest as the highest good and preached that caring about others was a fake value invented by the contemptible weak as a means of hobbling the heroic strong.

Somehow, her ideas have acquired a patina of cool.

I was fulminating about all this the other day, sounding, I’m sure like the crusty old codgers of my youth. Picture skinny old men shaking their canes and yelling in high-pitched, cracked voices, “Young people today! No respect!”

My wife heard my fulminations and took me to task. “Young people are no more selfish than they ever were,” she said. “In fact, less so. Just look at websites like Kickstarter and Kiva and Indigogo, and how popular they are.” For anyone who doesn’t know, these websites let anyone seeking money for a cause connect up with people who want to donate (or loan) money to their exact cause. And it’s working. People really are getting funding for all kinds of good works, and a lot of it is coming from the young; maybe most of it.

But I never disputed the idealism. I’m not saying young people are getting more selfish. I know lots of young adults who have compassionate feelings and want to reach out. They just want to choose who they reach out to. They want their giving to reflect who they are. Helping others becomes, to some extent, an act of self-definition, self-realization. Self-expression.

Which is fine. But I’m just saying, the social compact of old offered a different proposition. It proposed that individuals relinquish their idea of themselves as the center of the universe and see themselves as smaller parts of a greater whole, a society whose collective promise was that no one would be left (entirely) behind.

At the leftist end of the axis, that compact was expressed as socialism. And when I was young, though “communist” might have been a curse word to older folks in mainstream America, calling someone a “socialist” was no worse than calling them “European.” Many young people cheerfully embraced “socialist” as a label. They saw no stigma in it. In many quarters, “socialist” had a positive connotation. It meant you believed it was right to care about the well-being of the whole society and that you had a duty to contribute to that well-being. Giving money to a beggar was fine, but it was merely charity. Fighting for a social program that would help thousands was on a higher plane, more noble, and that’s what being a socialist was all about, that struggle.

That’s the thing that’s vanishing, seems to me. In its place, rising up like swamp gas, is a notion that the whole will take care of itself if only every individual looks out for his or her own interest vigorously and competitively, giving now quarter and asking for no help. Seeking the well-being of one’s own individual self is what has glamour now.

I overheard a conversation between two twenty-somethings in a bookstore one day about an election. The guy was telling the woman that he was not going to vote for a certain candidate.

Why not? she asked. After all, the candidate had the right stand on many issues; and she went on to list positions of which she and her guy both evidently approved.

Yes, the guy admitted, “but on the other hand…” And he cited a list of issues on which the candidate was at odds with him. In fact, declared this fellow, he had decided not to vote at all, because: “There just isn’t any candidate out there who really represents ME.”

I thought about his expectation. I thought about the implication that the only candidate worth voting for is one whose preferences and positions exactly match your own. At some level (polls tell us) that is what many voters look for in a candidate now—a surrogate self: someone who “represents” them by looking, sounding, talking and thinking exactly as they do.

I have to say, I’m not one of those voters. A candidate who held exactly the same positions and preferences as me would be ineffective. And a candidate exactly like me would be a disaster. I’m good at some things, but I know I’d be no good at being president. Or vice president. Or the Senator from California. Or dogcatcher of a small town. I’m looking for someone whose positions and approaches I can approve of in the main, and who also, in my judgment, would be able to work with enough different people to effect some worthwhile changes and who could take decisive but judicious action when needed.

To me, if you’re looking for a candidate exactly like yourself, you’re looking at voting as a form of self expression.

What strikes me is the way this development in politics mirrors a modern trend driven by technology. This goes back to the algorithms that power all search engines. These identify the preferences of the person searching and offer them (the algorithm’s best guess of) what they’re looking for and also of what else they might like.

As some hi-tech professional once put it (I forget who or where) “each person who visits Amazon.com enters a bookstore visited by no other person on Earth.”

That’s because anyone with a history of purchasing books on Amazon is offered a range of books that have been selected by the search engine based on that consumer’s earlier choices. The same is true of Netflix. Pandora, Youtube, et al.

The same is true of Google: every single person who seeks information from Google gets a different set of options. When I Google the term “Egypt”, I get lots of information about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian elections, the Arab Spring, etc. When a friend of mine Goggles the same term on her computer, she gets a list of websites about mummies, the temples at Luxor, airlines offering bargain flights to Cairo, etc.

But that’s not the worst of it. Another friend mine has enthusiastically embraced the idea of “seasteading”—of building floating cities on the ocean and declaring them sovereign countries. He tells me the idea is catching on wildly; there’s a virtual prairie fire of enthusiasm about it in the country. “Just Google seasteading,” he urged.

He said this because when he Goggles the term he gets endless lists of blogs that rave about seasteading. When I Google that term, I get sites on which people are ranting about how naive, dopey, and possibly unethical the idea is.

Here’s the creepy thing. I got these sites the first time I Googled “seasteading.” The list Google gave me wasn’t derived from choices I had previously made about this term Somehow, Google’s algorithm had an opinion about my opinion of seasteading. It turns out that Google’s algorithm has its opinion about my opinion of any topic I might look up, every topic I might ever look up.

What does this mean? To me it means that we’re slowly losing the capacity to see what the universe looks like from any place except where we are standing. As people do less and less live interacting with communities of other people in problem-solving settings—in offices, schools, town hall meetings, union sessions, conferences, and so on—and let their interactions with the world be mediated increasingly by search and information technology and its algorithms, this trend will speed up. Every person will in fact be the center of the universe.

Politically, my whole life I have been committed to the notion of a public good and to the idea that each of us has a duty to contribute to it. But that enterprise depends on a common vision that all the members of a society can enter into. Politics is partly about building that common vision. I fear for the prospects of such a politics in a world from which the very idea of a public good has vanished and nothing remains but private interests duking it out in a competition of all against all.

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3 Responses to Public Good

  1. Lara Tauritz Bakker November 2, 2012 at 8:31 AM #

    I recognize your feelings, Tamim. I remember, years ago now, sitting on a beach with some friends, complaining about the new tv commercials, which increasingly were suggesting that something was REALLY good if you did nót want to share it: too good to share. My friends laughed at me for being so naively idealistic. I think they probably would have liked Ayn Rand, at least at the time. A few years later, during a training program for young consultants, a couple of colleagues were talking among themselves about Atlas Shrugged, and how wonderful it all was. Have these people changed since then? I don’t know. I hope so. Maybe having children will make a difference: never is it clearer that choosing only for yourself is the wrong thing to do than when you have your own children.

    On the other hand: the commercials have changed again. The Zeit Geist seems much more focused on friends, on sharing good things with your loved ones. I read the other day that, despite the financial crisis, good causes are collecting more funds than ever (in the Netherlands at least). And only a few weeks ago, I tearfully read an account of Malala Yousafzai, went on Facebook and found a global community sharing my feelings. So, I would say, on the whole we are moving in the right direction again. I hope that sooner than later, all girls, in Pakistan and anywhere, and all boys too by the way, will be able to go to school, to become what they want to be, to live a life that is both peaceful and exciting, healthy and free.

    This is what was – and is! – attractive in Obama’s ideas about the world: that there is reason for hope. That together we can make things better. And, historically speaking, things already are better than they were ten years ago (According to a study by the Brookings Institute, a Washington think-tank, the proportion of people living in poverty – on income of less than $1.25 a day – is less than half what it was in 1990, surpassing a UN goal that was targeted to happen in 2015). Of course, we are not there yet, in that world where nothing needs improving. Of course, our young people – and our older fellow humans! – are not nearly as compassionate as they could be. But this is not a reason for depression: it is a reason to believe in the possibilities of the future, and to work at achieving the world we want to live in, for ourselves, for our children, for all living beings.

    By the way: Tamim, you might not make an ideal president, but I bet you could write some beautiful and inspiring speeches!

  2. Ransom Stephens September 29, 2012 at 11:12 PM #

    Ayn Rand, first. I reckon that as long as people actually read The Fountainhead (the best), Atlas Shrugged (the worst), and Anthem (the easiest), they’ll have a fighting chance of seeing that Rand herself mistook her own philosophy. Perhaps in the times she lived, when Soviet power and bureaucratic apparatchiks daunted the will of individuals against a mightly and unsympathetic Machine, her definitions of losers and moochers made sense. But now, the moochers are the international corporations who steal from and stifle individual talent. The moochers are the ones who rape the environment, mooching its benefits for that person in the face of the future.
    The issue of targeted marketing swings several different directions. That your genuine desires are contradicted by your search results (I’d wondered why, when I google “Ransom Stephens” that this rock star appears who I’ve never met, much less ever been) is evidence for a bug. Buggy software tends to get fixed. Perhaps this will be a short-term problem. Maybe not.
    When I lived in England in the 80’s I found it novel and quaint that everyone of every age, new the songs on the top 40. Everyone queued up to watch “Top of the Pops.” Grandparents could discuss The Sex Pistols or Madness with some authority because there were only 4 radio stations and 4 TV channels. At the same time in the US, I was listening to KMEL and my mom was listening to KSFO – the playlists had no intersection. We knew not of each other’s cultures. But there in Jolly old, I saw grandmas hugging kids with leather and hair and quizzing them on the meaning of Iron Maiden tunes.
    Not so much quaint as united. It brought them together. Now, when I tune in MSNBC, I’m critically aware that I’m watching Rachel instead of Bill-O because there is no cronkite from whom to get an actual scoop.

  3. Laurie Harriton September 29, 2012 at 12:04 AM #

    I’m with Debby. I think young people have not really changed. They are all a strange and beautiful mixture of idealistic and self-centered. They are figuring out the world. And, they read many other things beside Ayn Rand! I grew up in a hotbed of socialism, yet read The Fountainhead with no reaction besides it was fun to read and Robert Roark was cute. It did not affect my hopes that I would find my identity and improve my world. Remember all the young men of our generation reading Neitzche? And thinking they were Supermen? And thinking that the religions of the world which stress justice, poverty and charity were created by the non-supermen? The losers? Why I remember a certain young man who now works for Kiva going through that phase an entire generation later. These same kids were selflessly canvassing for Obama 4 years ago. It is logical to think that if they are no longer blindly for him, they will no longer blindly quote Atlas Shrugged. I think it is a shame that this young man is not voting because no one represents HIM, but remember, he is young. It may not mean that he wants an exact copy of himself in office, just that it takes a while for idealistic kids to accept the idea of voting pragmatically. Voting pragmatically is a very mature thing to do, and involves a genuine level of compromise. We want our ideas to be the sexiest, we have to keep putting them out there in a compelling way. Young people will follow. And they won’t be technologically bombarded with their pre-existing points of view because they have none! It is creepy that Google presents our sides of arguments to us. But on the whole, I like ads targeted to me. And the young man who now works for Kiva shares (shhhhh) my Netflix account. So the movies they choose for me now include Kung Fu action films. Yuk. I miss when it was just my preferences. So have faith, chill on the curmudgeonliness, and keep the pressure on!

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