Not long after 9/11, the newly formed Transportation Security Administration came up with the now ubiquitous slogan, “If you see something, say something.” More recently, it developed a new message to remind the traveling public that when we see a forgotten briefcase or backpack that needs attention: “We are all in this together.”
Both of these messages combine our concern for the common good with human fears of threat.
Maybe it is time for “We’re all in this together” to escape the corridors of subway stations and Amtrak terminals, and makes its way to….say the Presidential election.
Here lately we’ve been hearing about the 47 percent of Americans who are different from the other 53 percent. The 47 percent who paid no federal income taxes last year were described as moochers who refuse to take personal responsibility. We’re all in this together, has given way to a debate between makers and takers.
There are risks around us, to be sure, and if we see something that threatens the body whole, we should say something.
One thing we can say is to paint pictures of those 47 percent…..the retired schoolteacher living on a modest pension and social security; the aide who works in a nursing home bathing our elders; the college student working their way through school; the cross guard who braves all kinds of weather to help our kids safely cross the street, the waiter and the cooks who prepare and serve our food when we enjoy a night out.
Are we not in this together with them too?
Last Sunday New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof shared the compelling story of his college roommate Scott Androes, who in the midst of a midlife crisis quit his job and gave up health insurance as something he couldn’t afford. He ignored signs that something was wrong with his health until one day blood turned up in his urine. A trip to emergency quickly confirmed Stage four prostate cancer. Soon his college buddy had racked up more than half a million dollars of health care bills.
Kristof’s point wasn’t to excuse his friend’s terrible mistake, but to suggest instead if we had a universal health system, his old roommate might have made a different choice, saving costly care and changing Scott’s future prospects.
A follow-up Kristof column continued the story, reporting, sadly that his friend left this life, on Monday, the day after the first column ran. Kristof reported that what surprised him most was the “savagely unsympathetic” response to Scott Androes’s story. One reader from Oregon wrote, “I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.”
Kristof counters: “First, a civilized society compensates for the human propensity to screw up. That’s why we have single-payer firefighters and police offices…When someone who has been speeding gets in a car accident, the 911 operator doesn’t sneer: ‘You were irresponsible, so figure out your own way to the hospital’– and hang up”
“My second argument is that if you object to Obamacare because you don’t want to pay Scott’s bills, you’re a sucker,“ Kristof continues. Because the hospital that treated his friend considered the care provided a charity case, Kristof reminds his readers that, “We’re all paying for that.”
In this world becoming obsessed with 47%ers and 53%ers, makers and takers, Kristof offers a final thought worth carrying with us:
“To err is human, but so is to forgive. Living in community means being interconnected in myriad ways – including by empathy. To feel undiminished by the deaths of those around us isn’t heroic Ayn Rand individualism. It’s sociopathic. Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization.”
For wealthy people, it is becoming increasingly urgent to tell our stories in a way that truly values every individual. That knits back together compassion with the ideal of financial success. That elevates shared prosperity. That makes a strong commitment to work towards ensuring an economic future for the 100%.
It is no longer enough to tell these stories to our friends. We need to shout them from the rooftops. We’re all in this together!
Author: Scott Klinger, Policy Director of Wealth for the Common Good