“Skin in the Game” – a phrase that gets bandied about without much agreement as to what it may mean. According to Wikipedia, to have skin in the game is “to have incurred monetary risk by being involved in achieving a goal. ‘Skin’ is a synecdoche (figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole) for the person involved, and ‘game’ is the metaphor for the actions on whatever field of play is at reference. The aphorism is particularly common in business, finance, gambling, and is also used in politics.”
Investopedia .com refers to a situation in which “high-ranking insiders use their own money to buy stock in the company they are running…to ensure that corporations are managed by like-minded individuals who share a stake in the company. Executives can talk all they want, but the best vote of confidence is putting one’s own money on the line just like outside investors.” This probably takes us as close as we will come to the original meaning of the phrase.
It is what an investor like Warren Buffet looks for in companies in which he likes to invest. Although Buffett did not originate the phrase (as some contend) he prefers to invest in companies where executives invest their own funds in their firms. The late William Safire, columnist for the NY Times sought the origin of the phrase, dispelling the rumor that Buffett created it, but learning from another investment specialist that the expression is much used to “convey financial risk in any kind of venture, but you could stretch it to mean some kind of emotional investment.” The phrase has become somewhat popular in everyday language and has become increasingly popular in political speech. It has been heard more than once or twice in the Senate chamber, and even President Obama got into the act in an interview with George Stephanopoulos when the President-elect explained that a long-term fix for the economy would demand sacrifices from all Americans. He proclaimed, “Everyone’s going to have to give. Everybody’s going to have to have some skin in the game.”
It is incumbent upon us that we take this situation with a similar gravity to that we take of wealthy individuals and corporations who pay no taxes. Those who pay no federal tax at the bottom and perhaps middle of the income scale, but receive federal subsidies from our tax system need to be seen as having some ‘skin in the game.’ However, that does not mean that there is no difference between the two income classes. The rich who pay no taxes have already taken huge profits from the economic system. They have a tremendous obligation to give back some of that wealth (earned on others’ backs); the government subsidies they receive enable them to gather even more profit. Contrariwise, the working poor and some middle class families are not making profits, are not in a position to invest, and are not gaining huge additional wealth from their subsidies. They are, instead, merely surviving. So let us not contend that these circumstances equate with each other. They do not. HOWEVER, in terms of having skin in the game, there is something to be said for advocating for equal obligation but not necessarily for an equal expression of that obligation.
Why do we consider voting as an option instead of a duty or obligation? Why is paying something into the system not required of everyone? It doesn’t have to be cash money! Why is running for elective office so narrowly meant for professional politicians and those who can afford to do so? Why do we leave governing and politics to the bureaucrats and not involve ordinary citizen volunteers in those fields? Why is participation in certain events called patriotic, yet other activities and events are called socialistic or subversive? Why do we emphasize good citizenship as obeying laws and rules instead of making contributions and investing ourselves in others? In my next posting, I’m going to offer up some suggestions that might change some definitions of citizenship while broadly defining ‘skin in the game.’