Career Calling

March 18, 2012

Sabbath, March 18, 2012

Filed under: Sabbath — claycerny @ 11:56 pm
Tags: , , ,

[On Sundays, this blog explores topics big and small in “Sabbath.”]

Work and the Social Contract

In 2002, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich published a book entitled I’ll Be Short.  In one sense, the book is a pun on the author’s height.  It also indicates the length, 121 pages.  However, the most interest sense of the title might be conciseness – to the point, which Reich captured in these words: 

“Not since World War II have Americans felt so unified.  We’re fighting a war on terrorism, and we’re fighting to the get the economy moving again. And we’re all in this together.  Except when it comes to paying the bill.”

It’s been 10 years since Reich wrote those words.  What’s changed?  Well, we’re not so united.  The poor and middle class are still paying the bill, if not directly in taxes, indirectly through lost wages, unemployment, and foreclosure.  The result has not been a revolution against those benefiting most from the system, but an unfocused anger that most often gets directed at government and the poor. 

Reich sees this as a failure of a social contract based on three principals:  1.  Employees will profit as the companies they work for.  2.  Working people should be paid enough to support a family.  3. Publicly supported education should offer opportunity to all.  Reich clearly states that this contract did not promise equality, but it did offer a fair chance for the poor and middle class to rise.  It was supported by a safety net that helped people in times of trouble.  In 2012, this social contract seems broken beyond repair. 

I don’t blame the politicians.  We the citizens elect our political leaders, and we get the democracy we deserve.  However, I do blame the thinkers and pundits who have pushed a libertarian vision that favors the individual over society and freedom over security.  Milton Friedman’s famous book is entitled Free to Choose.  For most Americans, our economy has come to resemble a casino:  Free to lose.

A social contract implies that we share a responsibility to do what is best for the country (vote, pay taxes, serve in the military) and the country will do what is best for the people.  The American Revolution was driven by a belief that the King and his friends were sucking the colonies dry.  We seem to be reaching a new crisis.  People have no faith in government.  They are also beginning to see that corporations and the rich are writing the rules to benefit themselves.  Recently, I wrote a post about a study that found that 93% of new wealth produced in 2010 went to the top 1%.  How can a society continue to claim it provides opportunity when so few benefit?

The social contract says we owe things to each other.  We share a commons that we need to protect as a resource that benefits all.  More and more, both Republicans and Democrats reject such ideas.  They kneel before a market that is dominated by big banks and corporations that receive large government contracts and even larger tax breaks. Many large corporations pay no federal taxes despite a 34% tax rate.  Many billionaires pay a lower percentage of income taxes than the middle class.

If we don’t find some way to put together a new social contract that benefits most Americans, not just the elite, our economy and democracy will crumble.  It’s a nice-sounding myth to imagine a world where individuals are self-sufficient.  However, it’s not true.  We rely on each other.  We share basic needs and human rights.  It’s important to remember the story of Cain.  We can deny being our brother’s keeper, but that is a lie, a lie told by murderers and criminals, the kind of people that don’t believe in society.

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