Pulling together

Sacrifice is needed now, and not just by the most fortunate

April 12, 2009|By Michael Lipsky

Speaking to Congress recently, President Barack Obama praised "the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their jobs." His sentiments need to be echoed and acted upon by community leaders everywhere.

Some have already heeded the call. In early February, Montgomery County teachers accepted school administrators' proposal that they forgo raises they were expecting in order to avert layoffs. Last year, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank voluntarily cut his salary from $500,000 to $26,000, saying he should be paid according to his Baltimore-based company's performance.

Similar decisions have been made at many nonprofit organizations, including establishment fixtures such as the National Academy of Public Administration. The organization I work for also did similar belt-tightening.

For years, we have been in thrall to a bubble economy that worked to convince people that the pursuit of self-interest not only would be rewarded but was essentially "correct" for the human condition. We need to recover a public philosophy that recognizes more deeply that our fortunes are tied up with one another.

Consider the recent focus on executive pay within banks and other companies receiving funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). The emphasis on disciplining only those whose enterprises receive support from the financial "bailout" diverts us from a much larger opportunity.

Indeed, executives of every institution who earn significantly higher compensation than the rest of us should be urged to take a holiday from extraordinary income. Executives could, like Whole Foods' John Mackey, voluntarily limit their pay as part of a plan to conserve jobs. Or they could publicly announce that they are donating significant parts of their incomes to institutions that provide for the needy. University presidents and the well-compensated executives of major foundations and charities should also be encouraged to sacrifice in these times.

The point should not be to reprimand people for receiving large incomes. But we should ask them to show that they share and are responsive to the common experiences of the society.

Moreover, many firms do business with government to carry out public activities, and their income flows directly from revenues hard earned by taxpayers. These executives should subscribe to a common effort to share the financial strain, as should the leaders of the many nonprofit organizations and educational institutions that also receive substantial public funds.

Even membership organizations such as the YMCA and the Boy Scouts could waive fees for those who have fallen on hard times. Other members would pick up the slack. And those of us who are by no means millionaires but are fortunate enough to have good jobs and earn above-average pay can do our part - whether through a rollback in pay or hours so a colleague can keep a job or through donations of time and money to a charity in need.

All of these efforts would ultimately be insignificant unless they were stitched together by a public conversation that focuses on the ways Americans are mobilizing to meet common needs. People talking about how they can better help one another will in turn make wiser decisions about how to weather the downturn, and how best to use "stimulus" money on the way to recovery.

Most people embrace contradictory qualities: toward selfishness and self-involvement on the one hand, and toward charity and generosity on the other. Very few are entirely selfish or entirely saintly. We don't need to transform values; we need to give greater approval and make social space for the Good Samaritan spirit that already exists.

Michael Lipsky is senior program director of Demos, a national public policy center. His e-mail is mlipsky@demos.org.

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