The usual hype is that each presidential election presents us with the clearest and most important choice we will ever face. For this once, the hype just happens to be true. The candidates, Obama and Romney, offer sharply contrasting agendas on how much the goal of achieving fairness should inform our policy and tax decisions.
It turns out that fairness is very much hardwired into our human nature. Darwin said that if you want to understand human psychology, you should study baboons and babies, not books of philosophy. Chimps and monkeys tell us an intriguing story that elucidates who we are and may provide a valuable tip on who will win this election. They love cucumbers and carrots and will work hard at complex tasks to earn them -- but they love grapes even more. If a chimp gets used to being upgraded to grapes as a reward, he will disdainfully refuse the previously very desirable cuke or carrot and may even angrily throw it back at the experimenter. And a chimp will similarly reject proffered cukes if he sees another nearby chimp being differentially rewarded with grapes. The obvious message to the experimenter, and to us, is- 'you must play fair'.
Pretty interesting stuff. But then it gets really fascinating. If you pair two chimps within sight of each other, and shortchange just one of them with cucumbers, the other will sometimes stand up for his buddy by rejecting his own portion of grapes. These chimps -- let's call them the Democrats -- are not only demanding fairness for themselves -- they want fairness for their buddies. Altruistic fairness doesn't always prevail, but, under the right conditions, it is inherent to the chimp make-up -- and to ours.
Human beings have both capacities -- we can be ruthlessly selfish or selflessly fair. Whether we listen to our better angels or act like hyenas at the carcass depends on context and circumstance and person. Starvation selects for selfishness, but some people are selfless even when starving -- while others stay selfish even when sated. For most of us (but not all), a point is reached where grapes become less sweet if we are the only ones who get to have them, while our fellows are having a very hard time of it. We then do the fair thing-perhaps a cucumber or carrot will do the trick for us if this means our buddies will also get something to eat.
Fairness certainly has its limits. Complete equality works only for hunters and gatherers- it doesn't stand up to the huge accumulation of surplus wealth that came with agriculture, exploded with the industrial revolution, and is now being greatly expanded by globalization. The bigger the pie, the more unequally it will be split. That's inevitable- human nature, economics, and political science all dictate that substantial inequality is here to stay. We have done the experiment- the utopian dream of a completely equal society turned inevitably into a communist nightmare.
But unfairness also has its limits. The net worth of the top 1% of U.S. citizens is $8.4 million -- 69 times the median for everyone else at $121,000. And the gap is rapidly widening under trickle down policies that don't ever really trickle down and taxation that hits the secretary with a higher rate than her boss. Latest example -- the 1 percenters have reaped 93% of the income gains accruing from the recovery that occurred after the deep recession caused by them through greedy financial manipulations.
There are reasons to think we are now at a tipping point and headed back to some semblance of greater equity and common sense. The unfairness has become too blatant to ignore and its economic consequences too devastating to accept. The apologists for extreme inequality (this means you, Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, et al) have badly overplayed their hand in fashioning the Romney/Ryan ticket and in exacting a no-new-tax-on-the-super rich pledge from the Republican party.
Romney is the perfect poster boy for excessive wealth acquired through legal tax evasion. His unwillingness to be transparent about his previous tax returns and questionable offshore accounts turn dry statistics into an in-your-face reality -- the modern successful robber baron. Ryan is the fashioner of a radically draconian budget that deeply cuts services for everyone so that the top 1% can acquire an even more outsized share of our national net worth.
This ticket has too much baggage to fly.
Romney has attacked Obama for wanting to redistribute wealth, trumpeting that this is not the American way. He has it backward. In fact, an actual redistribution of wealth has already been going on for thirty years -- wealth taken from the middle class and given to the super rich. Obama is just trying to bring things back toward the traditional distribution that applied before the Bush tax giveaways to the 1%. Failing empires often suffer from precisely this kind of reckless greed- which always winds up destroying the economy and rending the social fabric. As a country, we must choose to return to the much better balance we have maintained for most of our history from Jackson to Reagan -- with just occasional destructive detours for faux gilded ages like the one we are in the midst of now
Obama is the moderate trying to restore the longstanding American traditions of fairness and social mobility. The Romneys, Ryans, and Kochs are not at all conservative in the real sense of wanting to conserve hallowed American traditions. They are instead radicals in sheep's clothing, trying to further rig an already rigged deck so as to further favor the already favored very few. If our economy is to thrive and our polity to remain resilient, we must reduce what is becoming a really outlandish extreme of inequality.
I predict that the first presidential debate will crystallize the stakes in this election and serve as prelude to an unexpected landslide victory for fairness. The issue is not just that Romney is an inept spokesman and lackluster debater (he is both) -- it goes beyond the medium to the stale snake oil in the message. As Abraham Lincoln said -- "you can fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time."
The apologists for inequality have tried every gambit in their bag of tricks -- blame Obama for Bush's disastrous wars, deregulation, and deficit spending; question Obama's birth, faith, and loyalty; and (most shamefully) obstruct centrist policies for political gain, even at the expense of national interest.
Against this distracting calumny, Obama will argue the simple and indisputable point that we need to share the sacrifice and split the pie more fairly if we are to thrive as an economy and cohere as a nation. A considerable degree of unfairness is an unavoidable part of life -- but beyond a certain point, it is a luxury the US and our people can no longer afford. We the people want a fair deal.
Allen Frances is a professor emeritus at Duke University and was the chairman of the DSM-IV task force.