November 24th, 2010
02:44 PM ET

Letters to the President: #674 'The importance of playing fair'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: The president says we should never give up on the spirit of the American people. Fair enough.

Dear Mr. President,

I read your comments at that auto transmission plant in Indiana, and I have to say congratulations. Anything that helps put people back to work these days is a positive step in my book. Well, I guess I’m going a little too far; wholesale expansion of drug empires or kidnapping rings could presumably have some negative impact even if they did create jobs, but as long as we don’t head down that path, I say good on you.

I was, however, struck by your return to this theme that we will all have to suffer during our efforts to rebuild the entire economy and tame the deficit. I, for one, am a big believer in the power of shared sacrifice. When everyone faces a common problem, it seems only right and fair that everyone pitches in to pay for the solution.

But that is where it gets tricky. Because time and again, you keep arguing for a variable scale of suffering, in which some Americans give a little, some a lot, and some not at all. I’m not going to side with your Republican foes, nor am I going to tell you that you are right, because that is the very nature of the debate you DC political types are waging.

What I will say is that exceptions to any rule, in my experience, often create at least a perception of unfairness.

I read a collection of true stories once about people adrift on ships in days of old, with the rigging wrecked by storms. Invariably as the days wound on, and hunger made them weaker, the discussion turned to cannibalism, and more to the point, “Whom shall we have for dinner?” In many cases, the idea of a lottery was quickly raised. “Let’s all draw straws; shortest one goes in the oven.” Brutal, but fair enough. But then the exceptions would kick in. The crew would say, “We can’t be included, because if the ship can be fixed, you’ll need us to sail it.” The businessmen who were passengers would say, “I can’t be in the lottery, because if I’m gone my business will fail, and dozens of families will be doomed to poverty.” The mothers and fathers would pitch in, saying “Our children will be orphans if we are chosen. We must be excluded from the drawing.”

And time and again the result would come down to this: They would have a lottery all right, between the cabin boy and any foreigners. And even as the survivors sat down to their repast, they could console themselves by saying “at least we were fair.”

The perception of fairness, the sense that we all play by the same rules, I suspect, is a cornerstone of leading people to shared sacrifice. A study I read years ago found that people will tolerate long lines in a store rather happily, but only if they are convinced that no late arrival can cheat the lines by rushing forward to a newly opened register.

Whatever rules you come up with to govern your system of taxation and rewards, you must successfully make a case that it is fair. Because fairness is something we are taught about from the time we are children. We can recognize it easily. And we can see when it is missing, too.

Good luck with all that. Hey…Happy Thanksgiving Eve!


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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