Op-ed columnist Charles Blow has a piece in today's New York Times about the "politics of envy," an already tired trope that likely Republican presidential nominee and leveraged-buyout specialist Mitt Romney has been trying out this primary season.
In the piece, Blow quotes Elizabeth Warren, who chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the Troubled Assets Relief Program and who is running for the Senate seat in Massachusetts that Romney unsuccessfully ran for in 1994, on the obligation we all have to "pay forward" our financial good fortune:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along....”
"Greed is good" is a great logline for a movie, but it's a terrible way to organize society. Gordon Gekko didn't "liberate" Teldar Paper, and the United States is not (as Paul Krugman reminds us) a "malfunctioning corporation"; it is, rather, an ongoing political and social experiment in which the interests of 300 million people sometimes compete but more often overlap; in which "equality of opportunity" is an ideal and not yet a reality; and in which the concept of "the public good" was, for much of the twentieth century, bound up with the equally important concept of social mobility.
Unfortunately, as new survey data from the Pew Research Center makes clear, more and more Americans believe the post-WW II social contract in the U.S. has been shredded and that tensions and conflicts between the haves and have-nots are growing.
That sense is one of the key drivers behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, it will be an important point of debate in this year's presidential contest, and it's something all of us who work in or cover philanthropy need to recognize and address.
-- Mitch Nauffts