For the Common Good

For the Common Good:
Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future

Herman E. Daly & John B. Cobb, Jr.

Amidst numerous relevant points--such as a useful critique of typical "Academic Disciplines" (especially Economics) and notice of how the current system essentially fails in regards to population control and environmental protection--For the Common Good is speckled with contradictions, faulty logic, and unnecessarily conservative ideas. Overall, the book sounds like it was written by a religious politician. (A few of the many examples they raise that I seriously question include: tax deductions for gifts to politicians, do xxxx because it is biblical, consulting theologians before making economic decisions, etc.) I would have preferred to have read a book which tackles similar problems from a different point of view. Namely, a view aimed at finding practical solutions based, in large part, on what has and hasn't worked in the past and what can work in the future.

The first two sections of the book are very repetitive and should have been condensed to much less than 100 pages. In their current state they take up more than 200. The authors beat the issue of "misplaced concreteness" to death. While this fallacy is certainly a problem, the authors spend far too much ink on it and frequently fall claim to its grasp in their own analysis.

Although in need of more conciseness, Chapter 6 on the nature of "Academic Discipline" is very good. The authors argue for more inter-disciplinary work rather than the typical tunnel vision that encumbers many, if not most, university disciplines. They are "not against disciplined thinking but against its canalization into departments and its idealization of methods that encourage excessive abstraction." (p. 124) Somewhat contradictorily, they later argue for the addition of yet more departments to try and solve the problem. An analysis of the current and possible methodologies is obviously the key as they note: "Selfconsciousness about method is a gain".

The long-winded Chapter 9 made little sense to me. In it Daly and Cobb argue for "communities in communities". Last time I checked I live in a neighborhood which is included in a larger district which is in a city which is in a county which is in a state which is in a country which is in many international organizations. The authors urge such a formation as if this isn't the current situation. They don't really explain how this will combat the problem "communities in communities" are supposed to solve--the environment. Communities will still seek to put their "garbage" in other communities even if a larger shared community exists. One need look no further than a daily newspaper to see this.

The contradictions in this book are seemingly endless. I'll present just a minor sampling here. In the Introduction we learn that market principles (rather than Socialistic policies) cut down on waste. Several times later in the book we read suggestions for implementation of an opposite course. Growth in GNP is criticized (and rightly so IMO) for not accurately reflecting an increase in the quality of life. For instance if GNP goes up by 10% people tend to think that we must be better off by 10%. But when this growth also increases population densities, pollution, and other adverse externalities we are not 10% better off. In fact, we may be worse off. Also, an increase in consumption does not necessarily mean a better standard of living. Later in the book (p. 224) a decrease in GNP is hypocritically used to "show" a decrease in the standard of living.

Chapter 11 on free trade is perhaps the worst chapter in the book. Not only is it filled with contradictions, but the authors come off as American Nationalists in a book that is supposed to be about the common good. They argue against higher wages for people of other countries if it means that anyone in the USA may be penalized. (Later on, however, we find out that Americans making over $90k should have a marginal tax rate of 100%.) At the same time they mourn the increasing gap between the wages of the rich and poor in America. Decreasing gaps in wages appears to only be good if it involves only citizens of the USA. Their solution is as confusing as their description of the problem. Companies and individuals should not be allowed free trade across country borders. Governments should do the trading. This is followed by the acknowledgment that the general public of Brazil has benefited little from the unproductive megaprojects of the government and highly subsidized enterprises of that country. So why the advocation of a plan similar to that which has failed in the past? (sarcasm alert) Pat Buchanan could have written a chapter that I would have had an easier time agreeing with.

A few of the assertions are without merit--or are at least without documented merit. On page 237, for example, we read that "the effusive welcoming of unlimited births is often the upper class welcoming the replenishment of the lower class, which supplies useful citizens who are willing to work hard for low wages". How 'often' does the upper class think this--let alone communicate such an opinion? The authors don't say.

The major recommendations the authors suggest are sometimes in direct conflict with each other. On the one hand they urge Americans to become protectionist nationalists. At the same time they want two opposing results to happen. They want environmental problems to be controlled internationally (p. 352) and amazingly enough, a mere two pages later, they envision the nation dissolving into a federation of states. I have no idea how all of these things could possibly occur simultaneously.

The most important item touched on is the population problem. They don't emphasize it enough, however, and while their proposals would be a good start, further steps must be taken--and soon. Arthur Clarke's suggestion in 2061 to tax parents for their offspring (after the first one and at rates increasing based on how many children the parents have) will "internalize" the cost of the population rapidly. All the consumption reductions on a personal or industry level will mean little in the long run if the population growth continues to outpace any possible cutbacks in the destruction of non-renewable resources.

Finally, Chapter 20, entitled "The Religious Vision", is likely to anger nearly all readers. Fundamentalists will find the authors' views far too liberal, and humanists will find their critique of atheism, scientific materialism, and secularism to be seriously flawed and downright dishonest. Daly and Cobb selectively quote people like E. O. Wilson to try and make his philosophy look silly. These distortions made me wonder if their analysis throughout the book of the work of others who I'm not familiar with are also unrepresentative. Their conclusion that naturalists can't have an ethical basis is without merit and completely ignores a great deal of humanistic philosophy.

Their apologetics made my head spin. "The world is as God knows it because God's knowledge is God's undistorted inclusion of all things." (p. 403) What?!? They continue with "God knows and values each sparrow and knows and values each human being as well." If such a personal God existed then this entire book is meaningless. The master of puppets is pulling the strings and us humans have little or no need to try and create a sustainable future.

The authors "believe that thought, foresight, and imagination can lead to a much less disruptive transition" as the growth of the economy and population bumps up against the physical limits of the ecosphere. I completely agree. I'm just not sure that the authors' suggestions for improvement will always (or even frequently) be the best course of action.

from the publisher on the Updated and Expanded Edition:
Winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order 1992

Named New Options Best Political Book

Economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb, Jr., demonstrate how conventional economics and a growth-oriented, industrial economy have led us to the brink of environmental disaster, and show the possibility of a different future.

"A brilliant book. No one who is concerned with solving the human predicament can afford to be without this book." -- Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Herman Daly, formerly of the World Bank, is professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. John B. Cobb, Jr., is professor of theology and philosophy at the Claremont Graduate School.

A review by Don Roper of the previous edition