God, Cellphones, Quarterly Earnings and the Search for the Common Good

LONDON - FEBRUARY 18:  Reverend Jim Wallis (L), editor-in-chief of the 'Sojourners' Community', a Christian justice and peace
LONDON - FEBRUARY 18: Reverend Jim Wallis (L), editor-in-chief of the 'Sojourners' Community', a Christian justice and peace group based in Washington, DC, attends a media conference after meeting with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss a possible war against Iraq February 18, 2003 in London. Wallis led a delegation of American church leaders challenging Blair's moral case for war. (Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)

"Our life together can be better." That's the opening sentence of an important new book by Jim Wallis called On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good. Wallis, in addition to being CEO of the D.C.-based Christian ministry Sojourners, is one of our most compelling thinkers and writers -- not just on religion and spirituality but on American public life as well. He's also, I'm happy to say, a longtime and frequent contributor to HuffPost. And for those of you in the New York area, on Friday I'll be taking part in a conversation with him, moderated by our religion editor Paul Raushenbush, at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice from 7:00 - 8:30 p.m.

Wallis wrote On God's Side while taking a three-month sabbatical last year, in the midst of the 2012 election -- a break that allowed him to get a broader perspective on what was going on in American public life. "Sitting back and watching the deluge of insults and accusations that feeds our political system, I witnessed the worst of us as a nation," he wrote last week on HuffPost. "And I came to the conclusion that it's time to reframe our priorities."

According to Wallis, we have traded "the idea of public servants for the false idols of power and privilege." And "we have lost something as a nation when we can no longer look at one another as people, as Americans."

So he wrote the book to get at "the root of what I believe is the answer to our current state of unrest." And this is what he concluded:

It is not about right and left -- or merely about partisan politics -- but rather about the quality of our life together. It's about moving beyond the political ideologies that have both polarized and paralyzed us, by regaining a moral compass for both our public and personal lives -- by reclaiming an ancient yet urgently timely idea: the common good.

The book draws inspiration from Abraham Lincoln's famous line: "[M]y concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side..." Wallis calls this "probably the most important thing about religion ever said by an American president." For Wallis, the key to being on God's side is a focus on the common good. "That old but always new ethic simply says we must care for more than just ourselves, or just our own group," he writes. "We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another. It echoes a very basic tenet of Christian and other faiths -- love your neighbor as yourself -- still the most transformational ethic in history."

But, as Wallis saw vividly during his sabbatical, that doesn't seem to be the direction things are currently headed in our country. Instead of strengthening our commitment to equality, social justice, and our sense of unity as a nation, our public and political discourse is breaking us apart.

The question is, where is change going to come from? Much of Wallis' book focuses on the fact that it's unlikely to come from Washington.

"There is a war going on today in our nation's political discourse," he writes.

We've lost our civility, the ability to have public discussion that isn't harsh or dismissive but respectful and genuinely open to dialogue and disagreement. We've also lost our ability to really listen to one another. We've lost our capacity for political compromise, for actually finding solutions instead of just continually blaming each other for problems.

The problem is that it's hard to see Washington changing any time soon, or, at least, it's hard to see change coming from inside Washington. Our political life right now seems stagnant, stalemated -- like the trench-warfare battle lines of World War I. Small battles and skirmishes are won or lost -- and are covered with breathless import by the media -- but the scope of what passes for solutions grows ever smaller.

I'm definitely not suggesting we should give up on politics, or let our leaders off the hook, or disengage in any way -- and neither is Wallis. But right now the debate in Washington isn't just shrinking bit by bit, it's disappearing faster than the polar ice cap. Otto von Bismarck famously said, "Politics is the art of the possible" -- but in our politics, achieving the possible is seen not as art but as capitulation.

So when I interview Jim on Friday, I want to ask him about avenues for pursuing the common good outside of Washington. Just as the incentives in politics have veered toward fundraising, the incentives in business have come to be dominated by quarterly earnings and short-term growth. But even though both the public and private sectors are off course, it's more likely that the private sector -- which includes not just businesses but non-profits and individuals committed to making a difference -- will be able to course-correct more rapidly.

So what would it mean to pursue the common good in the business world? In 1890, Alfred Marshall, one of the founders of modern capitalism, coined the term "economic chivalry," and wrote that the "desire of men for approval of their own conscience and for the esteem of others is an economic force of the first order of importance." That's still as true today as it was then. But the question is, what is it that gives a person "the esteem of others" and thus the "approval of their own conscience?" We can't change our general need for the approval of others and ourselves, but what we approve of -- what we think of as success -- can change. In a word: incentives. If our collective definition of success is simply greater quarterly earnings at all costs, then that's the route to approval that people will pursue. But how can we widen the definition of success to include the notion of the common good?

One of the costs of that short-term pursuit of success defined simply as money and power is often our health and well-being. Right now, stress costs American businesses $300 billion a year. But thankfully more and more companies are realizing that not only are healthy profits and healthy employees not exclusive, they go hand in hand. According to the iOpener Institute, increasing happiness in the workplace can reduce the cost of sick leave by 19 percent and the cost of employee turnover by 46 percent, and increase productivity by 12 percent. This is why around one-quarter of all large U.S. businesses currently offer some sort of stress reduction program.

One way to encourage the other three-quarters would be to provide stronger incentives. For instance, during earnings calls, the all-important Wall Street analysts whom CEOs and directors are always trying to impress with ever bigger quarterly profits could ask about what the CEO is doing to ensure the health and well-being of his or her employees. It would give the analysts a better idea of the company's long-term financial health, as well.

One way to shift toward that longer-term perspective is by disconnecting from the noise and distraction of our ever-wired world. I'm interested in hearing Jim's perspective on the role of technology in the fraying of the common good.

In On God's Side, he writes: "...let's be honest, cellphones have become the 'significant other' for lots of people today. Many spend more time with them each day -- thumbing away on the keyboards or having long conversations from anywhere and everywhere -- than with any person in their lives."

So how do we rebuild the common good when we're disconnected to those closest to us, and, very often, even from ourselves? How do we take advantage of all the many obvious benefits of technology and social media while minimizing the increasingly obvious costs? While encouraging meaningful debate in Washington is certainly a great thing, the answers to these questions are also vital to the question of whether we can rebuild the common good.

If you're in New York on Friday, I hope you'll join us for the discussion. RSVP Here. If you're not, we'll post highlights from our conversation here on HuffPost.