The Great American Tug of War

Author: David M. Shribman

The great tension in American life today may not be Republican versus Democrat, nor rural versus urban, nor rich versus poor, nor liberal versus conservative, nor management versus labor, nor even President Donald Trump versus his never-Trump opponents. All of those tensions, to be sure, are part of the national conversation. And though they all represent vital themes in America, and though the specific conflicts they provoke may be of great moment, they still are largely of the moment. They fill our newspapers and our websites, they dominate the dinner table and the coffee shop and even the NFL sidelines, but they do not address the fundamental tension in our national life, our spiritual lives, our enduring values.


Instead, nearly every debate in Congress, in the chambers of our courts, in the sanctuaries of our religious institutions, in our neighborhoods and in our families revolves around a core tension, the one we confront when we rear our children, when we deal with our relationships, when we conduct our business, when we seek to engage and to harness our dreams — indeed from the moment we rise from sleep to the time we recline for rest. The tension is simple to state and difficult to resolve:


Me versus Us.


This unresolved tension takes form in the fundamental questions we face every day: Do we live to serve ourselves or to serve others? To reap rewards from our toil, or to toil without reward? To sculpt goals that are personal, or societal? To be selfish, or selfless?


Is a civilization’s goal to promote individual liberties or group liberties, to promote personal wealth or to share the wealth? Is a nation’s character formed by the entrepreneurial instinct or the charitable impulse? Is its guiding folklore the relief effort after a hurricane and the barn-raising after the fire, or is it the manufacturing magnate and the solitary innovator in a Silicon Valley garage?


This tension — and these foundational questions — drives much of our liturgy and literature, from the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (“Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others”) to Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (“He wished to raise the class at the expense of individuals rather than individuals at the expense of the class”). It lies at the heart of the human condition.


It also comprises a peculiarly American problem, for only in the United States has individualism, the “me” of the tension, been elevated to a core, defining value and national characteristic.


Feature ShribmanIllustration by Heads of State

American individualism — a concept that Herbert Hoover, then Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of Commerce, employed for the title of his hugely influential 1922 book — is a defining element of American culture. Hoover celebrated the notion that “each individual shall be given the chance and stimulation for development of the best with which he has been endowed in heart and mind,” and his view has spawned scores of subsidiary questions that get to the heart of Me-versus-Us as it plays out today:


Is there a contradiction — or maybe instead a mystical connection — in the rugged individual on the plains of our pioneer past, whose survival depended on good neighbors? Or in the individual performance of a masterly athlete like LeBron James, whose championship efforts depend also on the skills of his teammates? Or in the luminous work of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose artistry and acclaim depended on teams of publishers and editors such as Maxwell Perkins and his colleagues at Charles Scribner’s Sons? Or in the exultation of the soaring stock market, which helped account for American households, foundations, estates and businesses contributing $410 billion to charity last year?


On the surface, such questions may spawn a facile, “little-of-each” answer, but they beg for deeper examination — into motives and methods, into options and opportunities, into results and the moral reckoning that gives meaning to our lives even as it strains our souls. We dare not ask them in our rush to riches, yet they preoccupy us in the hush of our private reflections. They linger in our consciousness and our consciences even after we dismiss them with easy answers and self-serving rationalizations.


Fundamental to the Judeo-Christian tradition for 2,000 years has been the concept that everyone seeks to fulfill their individual life as well as to serve the larger society. We do not live in isolation; we are called to participate in the common good, to seek a balance between ourselves and others, in which our good becomes part of a larger goodness. 


If this tension has been the core of Western values for two millennia, why does it bedevil us especially now, filling us with guilt, or purpose, or even confusion? And why — today, in an age when questions of global trade and global warming are on the front burner — does it seem so searing, perhaps more so than at any time since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, or even the Civil War a century earlier?


“For 2,000 years, there has been a limit on religions’ understanding of the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others,’” says Rev. Jim Antal of the United Church of Christ. “The challenge for our generation is to include as ‘others’ generations yet unborn. Our society needs a new moral map, and it has to recognize the power the past eight or nine generations have had to wreck the earth. Now we need to amp up our moral capacity to make sure we don’t.”


That’s Me-versus-Us in an arc generations long.


Our angst over this issue may well come from how narrowly we define the common good, or how narrowly we apply the Golden Rule. We often distill these big concepts into small actions, but do we sometimes go too far? Cynthia Baker, who heads the religious studies department at Bates College in Maine, argues that too often both Jews and Christians direct their outreach, their sense of social responsibility, and their charitable activities to their own people — “the notion,” as she puts it, “that if we don’t look out for ourselves, who would look out for us?” That view, applied globally, promotes a very circumscribed sense of social responsibility. “Both in Judaism and in Christianity, there is individualism and narrow communitarianism,” she asserted. “But both have broader universal responsibilities, responsibilities for all of humanity.”


How the money gets made

We almost certainly can imagine business executives, cultural leaders, even foundation heads responding to these religious thinkers: Easy for you to say. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius spoke of how easy it is to watch from the shore when the sea is high and the winds are dashing the waves about — or, in this case, to preach from the safety of the pulpit and the lecture hall about moral purity and the unvarnished common good. But beyond the seminary residence and the faculty club, these leaders might say, lies a harsh world not of sense and sensibility but of dollars and cents, and while money may be the root of all evil it is also the foundation stone of effective social activism and social change. The aphorism they might apply is, “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world” — which happens to be the motto of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.


“If you want to make the world a better place, you need to be in a position of leverage to accomplish that,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford business professor whose many books include Power: Why Some People Have It — And Others Don’t. “If you want to make the world better, you’re in a stronger position to do that in a higher position rather than a lower one.”


Which brings us to a sober truth: Sometimes those who lean toward “us” in this struggle do so only after they have leaned toward “me” for many years — and only after they have enjoyed the great comfort that comes from great financial success. For years, even the nation’s leading philanthropic foundations have dismissed questions about the origin of their grant money, emphasizing instead the beneficiaries and saying, in effect, “Tainted money? ’Taint enough!” The view: The more money being used for social good, even if it is the product of social evils — of shady deals and crony capitalism, for example, or of the exploitation of workers and resources — the better.


“We used to have a debate about where money was coming from, and there were some people who were skittish if it came from oil and gas, or from someone who was a cutthroat businessman,” said Grant Oliphant, who as head of The Heinz Endowments distributes about $70 million in grants annually. “A lot of philanthropy was social-purpose money that came from people who believed the business of business was to make money.”


It's not enough just to push your engineering firm to recycle its paper or to force your investment firm to encourage contributions to the United Way. The effort must be personal.


Indeed, the source of the money involved in philanthropy eventually becomes obscured. Or, to look at it differently, philanthropy erases memory of the source and cleanses the reputation of the donor. “The gifts have kept many donors’ names alive, but without any reputation being attached to them,” said George T.M. Shackelford, senior deputy director at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, which, like so many artistic enterprises, depends on foundation grants and private corporations for its survival. “Think of all the great names of the 19th century that we revere because of their philanthropy. What do we know about their morality? Not much.”


Not much at all. Those with long memories or graduate degrees in history may know that the source of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the hundreds of Carnegie libraries still in service around the country is the man at the center of the 1892 labor struggle at the Homestead Steel Works, which resulted in a lockout, violence, the deaths of 12 people and a major defeat for workers. They may also know that the money that created the Ford Foundation can be traced to a man whose early views, later recanted, featured unvarnished anti-Semitism.


Today, the beneficiaries of the largesse of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford by and large don’t know and don’t care. The various Carnegie endowments are among the most far-sighted and generous institutions in the country. The Ford Foundation, with a $12.4 billion endowment, lives up to its claim of having a “legacy of social justice.”


Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, believes “me” and “us” are not irreconcilable. “There is a tension between the two — but they do not have to be oppositional,” he says. “One shouldn’t feel it’s not possible to do good in the world while making an attractive livelihood. . . . I just don’t believe the message to young people should be that if you are going to work in the private sector you should accept that you will be doing bad things for the environment and producing products without social benefit. You should look for ways to push your company to be more environmentally sustainable, and look for ways to push your company to be more socially progressive.”


The limits of giving 

Walker’s argument that me-based striving can have us-based results requires personal involvement, often on a mass scale.


“The question is how you motivate individuals enough, and enough individuals, to think in collective forms — to make the ‘me’ turn into ‘us,’” says Patrice Franko ’83 M.A., ’87 Ph.D., an economist who directs Colby College’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs. “Why should I recycle if I’m the only one who recycles? This applies to questions of health and education as well. If you simply stay with the ‘me,’ you wind up with failure.”


Even so, it’s not enough just to push your engineering firm to recycle its paper or to force your investment firm to encourage contributions to the United Way. The effort must be personal. “If you were very gifted and enjoy the complexity of investment banking, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Matthew J. Slaughter ’90, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the George W. Bush administration and now dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “The deeper moral question is what you do if you and your spouse find yourself having substantial financial success.”


Or if you are fortunate enough to be born into a prominent family, as Senator Robert Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat, was. Casey’s father was a revered governor of the state who provided his son with a formidable role model for service. The Jesuits the younger Casey encountered at College of the Holy Cross had a profound effect on him as well. “The basic philosophy was to be a person for others,” Casey said of his years on the Worcester, Massachusetts, campus. “One of the things they taught us — just by being around them — was the belief that you can’t just have faith for the long term and the afterlife. You had to engage in good works while you are in the real world.”


To capture real-world sentiment on Me-versus-Us, I asked John Dick, the CEO of the Pittsburgh-based CivicScience polling consultancy, to conduct a survey asking people whether in their lives they have focused more on professional advancement and financial gain or on bettering society. His results, weighted according to U.S. census figures for gender and age, showed that women were much more likely than men to be in the bettering-society camp, with Gen Xers leaning in that direction as well. Those with higher incomes were much more likely to favor financial gain, while those with graduate degrees were much more likely to say they leaned, as Dick puts it, “somewhat more on bettering society and humankind.”


Many people meld these alternatives gracefully. “The two go hand in hand,” says Carl Ruby of the Central Christian Church of Springfield, Ohio. “I’m the pastor of a church that does a lot of work in social justice issues, and that is incredibly fulfilling to me. I get personal reward from that work. It enriches me.”


Those involved in religious work often feel that way — and therein lies a much-ignored problem. “Sometimes people get so caught up in serving others that they don’t take care of themselves,” says Rabbi Erica Asch, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine, and the assistant director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby. “That happens more often than you might think.”


Many share Asch’s concerns. “I rarely think of serving myself,” explains Father Michael Rozier, S.J., the founding director of the undergraduate major program in community health at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice. “But people in our kind of work need to think of ourselves from time to time. I need, for example, to be sure I don’t overwork, that I make time for reflection, time for my own activities and hobbies. Folks in serving professions like religious leaders often get sucked into a trap because there’s always another need out there.”


Who really benefits? 

One important civic aspect of Me-versus-Us takes form in the perennial issues surrounding government regulation. Many private companies, playing the “me” role, want freedom from regulation to maximize their profits, sometimes at the cost of environmental peril or of employee abuse. Government regulators, playing the “us” role, see their work as safeguarding the environment as well as the health and safety of workers, all in the service of the public good and often at the cost of company profits.


But the tensions here go deeper, delving into the realm of competing goods. “If the question is how should regulators balance corporate profits and the social good, you are missing the point,” explains Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who was administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Barack Obama administration. “The effort should be to find a balance between the social good of regulation and higher prices for consumers, fewer jobs for workers, and smaller profits for business.”


And yet not everyone agrees that regulations protect the common good while constraining individual, or corporate, behavior — or that the “me” and “us” roles are as clear as they may appear on the surface.


“Often special interests push for regulation under the guise of serving the public interest,” says Susan Dudley, who held the same regulatory position as Sunstein but under George W. Bush, and who now is the director of the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University. “Energy regulation tends to be regressive,” harder on those who earn less, “because lower-income people suffer more from higher prices in heating their homes,” she says. “And so while it may look as though regulation is serving the public good, it’s not always that clear.”


Here’s an example: Appliance efficiency standards are often driven as much by the companies that make the appliances in the name of competition as they are by consumer groups in the name of regulation. Yet those who, for instance, make the costlier appliances may want stricter regulations. The government might, as a result, ban cheaper machines that are not as energy efficient. The result could very well mean more company profits because of more government regulations — and a product less accessible to some consumers.


Where your treasure is

College students — at least as senior year begins — get mixed messages on Me-versus-Us.


“I see students going through the struggle, between going into fields in which making a difference is the emphasis and doing something that makes money,” says Paula Johnson, the president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “There’s a tension between contributing to the world in a way that is selfless, versus more self-centered fields and making money. We as a college send messages that aren’t so subliminal: If we have an outstanding economics student, we give her the message that she should do something really idealistic instead of going to work at Goldman Sachs.”


But what of big investment firms, large banks and other American businesses? Didn’t they give away millions? Billions, actually — nearly $21 billion last year, an 8 percent increase from 2016.


That is in part why this debate requires deep contemplation. Douglas Smith, a former McKinsey & Company partner who wrote a book called On Value and Values: Thinking Differently about We in an Age of Me, began to notice that when his consultant colleagues used the singular word “value,” meaning measurable in dollars, and the plural word “values,” to describe the things we care about most, they were talking about entirely different things. “The word ‘value’ was not included in the word ‘values,’” he said. “Not only was it a different word, ‘value’ was the trump card, the king of the hill. ‘Values’ were subordinated to ‘value.’ But it can’t be that way for us to be sustainable.”


In the end we must bow to realism and acknowledge what former Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell said in his conversation with me: “People are more interested in protecting themselves than in doing the right thing.” And yet, in recognizing that many are motivated by “me,” we still must hope that the ethos of “us” does more than survive. Amid the getting and spending, we need widespread appreciation for what Paula McClain, dean of the Graduate School at Duke University, means when she says, “I am here for others, and if I live that, I enrich my own life.”


That is how “me” is transformed into “us,” which in turn enhances “me” — a cycle that enriches us all.


That noble dream 

The writer Maya Angelou recognized that giving liberates the giver, an insight that can be taught in the home or preached from the pulpit, but can only be experienced in the act of giving itself.


“The highest fulfillment that someone can have — the highest form of human fulfillment — is in giving oneself to something larger than oneself,” says Notre Dame philosopher Paul Weithman ’81, who explains how Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas both argued that humans are naturally social creatures. “There is a strong Catholic teaching that the good of some other people is so bound up with my own that I cannot flourish completely unless they do.”


That concept may not be falling on deaf ears. The U.S. is the most philanthropic nation on earth, contributing the world’s highest percentage of gross domestic product to charitable organizations, according to a Charities Aid Foundation study. American individuals and families donated $286.7 billion to charity in 2017. And nine out of 10 Americans in high-net-worth households gave to charity, contributing on average $25,509, a study of 2015 contributions conducted by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found.


“Prosperity is a strong accelerant for philanthropy, presuming the instincts to give back are there in the first place,” says John Brennan, the former head of the Vanguard Group and the chair of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees. “Our Lady’s University has been a great beneficiary of the Notre Dame family’s continual willingness to share their prosperity with us, for the benefit of our students and faculty.”


Maybe the lessons of this Me-versus-Us struggle can be summarized and the debate resolved in a mere seven words. A century ago the Pittsburgh Public Schools opened its new Schenley High School — in a building recently converted into luxury apartments. The school’s motto read simply: “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.” Of all the questions this essay has posed, perhaps this is the most poignant: Was it a coincidence — Divine intervention? A happy accident? — that the principal who invoked that motto in 1916 bore the name of James Noble Rule?


David Shribman is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.