A rare example of a selfless act shows that we have the power to improve our communities, our nation, and the world around us.
by Chuck Hassebrook, Center for Rural Affairs
A corporate CEO made a shocking request last year.
Ethan Berman of RiskMetrics “requested that he receive no increase in salary, zero stock options, a smaller bonus than last year, and a piece of the company’s profit sharing equal to that received by all employees,” according to the New York Times.
It’s a refreshing departure from those on top grabbing all they can get. The Wall Street Journal reported the latest excess. Corporations are paying taxes for their top executives and hiding it from stockholders. Gillette shareholders paid $13 million of taxes on their CEO’s golden parachute.
Berman’s selfless act compels some moral reflection. It is often assumed that we must act according to our selfish interest. But in truth, we often protect what we value most by acting unselfishly. Each of us is part of something bigger that is at least as important to us as extra cash. Our true interest is tied to the health of our community, our nation, and the world around us.
If our community dies, even as we prosper, we too suffer as schools close, churches dwindle, and our neighbors leave. Even taxpayers in Omaha, Des Moines, Sioux Falls, and Kansas City feel the effects of rural decline.
When there is no opportunity for young families to earn a living and pay taxes, rural communities become tax takers. Metro residents pick up the tab. But when we revitalize rural communities, they become economic and fiscal contributors and city people benefit.
Similarly, if working people, family farmers and small business people are denied the American dream, they lose their stake in America and their reason to give back. But if they share in the good life, they have a reason to take responsibility for sustaining it. America is made stronger, to the benefit of all.
It’s also true at a global level. Desperately poor people in the developing world form legions of potential low-wage workers. In a global economy, that depresses wages worldwide. And if the world’s poor look jealously to America, it lessens our security. When the whole world shares in prosperity, we are more secure in our lives and livelihoods.
Nonetheless, inequality is intensifying. Top management and the best educated – particularly those residing in the centers of commerce – demand ever more for their services, while working people and rural areas fall behind. Wealth is concentrating. The gap is growing between rich and poor, between the upper middle class and lower middle class, and between rural and metropolitan.
Those economic forces won’t be changed by CEO Ethan Berman alone saying “no thanks.” But good citizens recognizing that their true interest is tied to the common good can work together to change trends and shape their own destiny.
Ordinary citizens make a difference by committing time and energy to community projects or just spending a little more to shop locally. Landowners who forego the highest cash rent enable young families to get started or survive in farming. Successful professional and business people donating to local foundations for stimulating small business development help revitalize local economies. Many of us in rural America hold substantial assets. We can make a difference by investing them in the future of our community.
We also advance our common interest through public policy when we look beyond selfish interests. When we advocate for limits on what we might someday receive – for example limits on farm program payments or estate tax exemptions – we ensure that opportunity is widely shared and the community and nation are strengthened.
We all benefit when we endure short-term sacrifice (paying taxes) to invest in a long-term greater good. If our America is to sustain itself, we must invest in conservation of natural resources to meet the needs of future generations.
If our struggling communities are to be made strong, government must invest in entrepreneurship to create genuine opportunity. We must invest in education – including help for the new immigrants into rural America to gain the language skills they need to become contributing members of our communities.
If trade is to benefit all Americans, we must invest in creating opportunity for the poor in developing nations so they too can prosper, rather than become a drag on wages.
No society can fully achieve the common good if its people act solely on the basis of their selfish interests. America and its communities are strongest and we all benefit when, like CEO Ethan Berman, we act accordingly.
post a question or comment here or contact John Crabtree, firstname.lastname@example.org
Center for Rural Affairs
Values. Worth. Action.