Thomas Paine was a man of the enlightenment who saw “virtue” as the cornerstone of a new vision to “begin the world over again.” By virtue, he meant rising above your own self-interests to do public good. He also said “the greatest offense of all to the great Father is when we seek to torment and render each other miserable.” Not, by the way, the words of an atheist. So should not our presidents be men and women who seek to be virtuous, who, to quote the Statue of Liberty, seek to turn the misery and torment of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” into happiness?
Vision, determination, leadership, and hard work…all potentially good qualities in both an American businessman and an American president. But there is another, deeper, level of characteristics in many successful businessmen in a capitalist society, characteristics not, perhaps, so attractive when considered as qualities to lead and inspire a nation.
The fundamental principle of running a business in America is to make money, preferably for yourself and secondly for shareholders, but NOT to do public good. A fast food chain aims to sell you the cheapest food at the highest possible price, not to concern itself with your health – unless, of course, it sees a profit in the idea of doing so.
To quote Abba Ramos, a veteran organizer in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union:
“If they can get a trained monkey to unload that boxcar tomorrow morning, rest assured, they’ll have them over there and they’ll have some bananas for lunch, and you’ll be out on the street looking for work. Simple as that. You’ve got to remember, they follow only one rule of economic law, and that’s that maximum production-minimum cost yields the greatest amount of profit. They don’t deviate from that.”
And another set of characteristics potentially begin to emerge – ruthlessness, greed, self-aggrandizement, lust for power, beliefs of superiority, lack of morality, lack of caring for anyone else, and an intense instinct for self survival and success. These are not good qualities for the job of being responsible for the people of a nation.
And so, as we roll, or descend, into another presidential campaign, we have once again an opportunity to think about the qualities that we look for in our leader.
Obama, after Harvard, became a community organizer on the streets of Chicago, no doubt mixing with some shady characters and no doubt living on a tight budget, but certainly working to improve some peoples’ lives and living conditions. He then went on to make more than $5 million for writing his autobiographies.
Romney, after Harvard, helped to found Bain Capital. Now it gets interesting. Bain Capital’s job was to go into struggling companies and implement a strategy that would either save them, close them down or, perhaps, move them overseas. The only consideration was the possibility of profit. Peoples’ jobs, the welfare of the community, and a sense of compassion were not part of the transaction. And Romney made more than $200 million through this work, saving companies or closing them down or moving them out of the country. The prime motivation for this work was not “virtue” in any sense of the word but, rather, making a lot of money.
Thomas Paine wrote:
“When it shall be said in any country in the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not repressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness; when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.”
We have a way to go. Who might best help us along the way? That is the question.
This article was sent out by the author to the AFL-CIO Blog and a variety of other labor publications. Ruskin is the director of the Harry Bridges Project and the author of “The Life of Thomas Paine.”
Photo: The ability to inspire, which Obama demonstrated when he spoke in Berlin, Germany four years ago, is lacking in many business leaders. Jae C. Hong/AP