David Brooks wants to rewrite the nation’s social contract. Not only that, the New York Times columnist and PBS personality wants the idea enshrined in a new “unwritten austerity constitution” that aims to get “state and federal budgets under control” a process that “will take decades” to complete and the foundation of which “has to be this principle: make everybody hurt.”
Brook’s February 21 column doesn’t give any indication of how much pain he himself is prepared to endure in the cause of fiscal responsibility but we can be certain it will not require taking out a subprime mortgage on his four-bedroom, 4,600-square-foot residence in upper middle class suburban Montgomery County, Maryland. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mention Brooks’ wealth – that he was born into or acquired – but I’m just intrigued these days by how much the people who have a lot have become the most insistent that those below them on the social ladder bear the brunt of paying for capitalism’s current crisis. But no one ever said Brooks doesn’t have a lot of nerve.
Brooks is critical of Wisconsin Governor Walker’s handling of the state’s budget crisis. He thinks Walker made a “strategic error” in raising the issue of collective bargaining at this point, and accuses Walker of inconsistency in trying to exempt police officers and firefighters from the state workers’ union, whose rights he seeks to undermine. “The process has to be balanced. It has to make everybody hurt,” he says.
“Even if you acknowledge the importance of unions in representing middle-class interests,” (which I assume he doesn’t) “there are strong arguments on Walker’s side,” he says. Walker’s critics, who “immediately flew into a rage, are “amusingly Orwellian,” writes Brooks. “They liken the crowd in Madison to the ones in Tunisia and claim to be fighting for democracy. Whatever you might say about Walker, he and the Republican majorities in Wisconsin were elected, and they are doing exactly what they told voters they would do.” Problem here is that that’s not true. They never told the voting public they intended to erase public workers’ collective bargaining rights. Talk about Orwellian. Never mind, such subtitles often elude the suburban oracle. He’s looking at the big picture. The current situation in the country, Brooks says, calls for “a rewrite of the social contract.”
A social contract is a big deal. In a more general sense it is an agreement between the government and the governed that sets forth the rights, duties and responsibilities of each. In a specific sense it can refer to the principles that emerged out of the Great Depression of the 1930s known as the New Deal and including such elements as the right to collective bargaining and Social Security. It’s clearly the latter that Brooks has in mind.
Brooks has had some nice things to say about Barack Obama in the past but the President has frustrated him. It all has to do with handling the problem of “entitlements,” like Medicare and Social Security. Instead of hanging back and hoping to cut a deal with the Republicans, he wants the President out front waving the banner of reform. “This is not like fixing Social Security in the early 1980s,” he writes. “The current debt problem is of an entirely different scale. It requires a rewrite of the social contract, a new way to think about how the government pays for social insurance.” (Never mind that the government doesn’t pay for social insurance; that’s called welfare.)
“So the mantle of leadership has passed to Capitol Hill,” writes Brooks. “While Obama asked for patience yet again, Eric Cantor announced that Republicans will put entitlements on the table. It may be politically risky, but it looks more like leadership to me.”
I’m not suggesting here that there is anything wrong with renegotiating the country’s social contract. In fact, the continually expanding economic and social inequality that has plagued us over the past three decades or so would indicate that we need a readjustment in the rules for dividing up the pie. But it need not, and must not, be premised on a 20-year-long austerity constitution which aims to “make everybody hurt.”
It’s time to take out our Naomi Klein (“The Shock Doctrine”) and give it a second read. The right-wing crusaders do not intend to – in the words of Rahm Emanuel – let “a serious crisis to go to waste.” If they have their way we will end up with Social Security privatized, Medicare turned into welfare, a two-tiered education system and the unemployed left to shift for themselves. Gone will be any semblance of the original U.S. social contract notion that government acts “to protect the general welfare.”
“Madison has been the scene of large demonstrations against the governor’s budget bill, which would deny collective-bargaining rights to public-sector workers,” economist Paul Krugman wrote last week. “Gov. Scott Walker claims that he needs to pass his bill to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. But his attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget.
“What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab – an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy. And the power grab goes beyond union-busting.”
“The truth is that we don’t live in Bangladesh or Malawi,” green jobs advocate and civil rights activist, Van Jones, wrote last week at the Huffington Post. “America is not a poor country. The public has just been hypnotized into believing that the richest and most creative nation on Earth has only two choices in this crisis: massive austerity (as championed by the Tea Party/Republicans) or SEMI-massive austerity (as meekly offered by too many DC Democrats). It is ridiculous.
“Fortunately, the people in Wisconsin know that. So they are fighting courageously. Their efforts could blossom into a compelling, national force for the good – offering a powerful alternative to those false choices.”
In the face of this, economist Robert Reich has some weighty advice, especially for progressive Democrats. “You can’t fight something with nothing.” he wrote on his blog February 23. “But as long as Democrats refuse to talk about the almost unprecedented buildup of income, wealth, and power at the top – and the refusal of the super-rich to pay their fair share of the nation’s bills – Republicans will convince people it’s all about government and unions.
“What’s happening in Wisconsin is a power grab – an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy.”
“The Republican message is bloated government is responsible for the lousy economy that most people continue to experience. Cut the bloat and jobs and wages will return,” wrote Reich. “Nothing could be further from the truth, but for some reason Obama and the Democrats aren’t responding with the truth. Their response is: We agree but you’re going too far. Government employees should give up some more wages and benefits but don’t take away their bargaining rights. Private-sector unionized workers should make more concessions but don’t bust the unions. Non-defense discretionary spending should be cut but don’t cut so much.”
“The truth that Obama and Democrats must tell is government spending has absolutely nothing to do with high unemployment, declining wages, falling home prices, and all the other horribles that continue to haunt most Americans,” wrote Reich. “Indeed, too little spending will prolong the horribles for years more because there’s not enough demand in the economy without it.
“The truth,” said Reich, “is that while the proximate cause of America’s economic plunge was Wall Street’s excesses leading up to the crash of 2008, its underlying cause – and the reason the economy continues to be lousy for most Americans – is so much income and wealth have been going to the very top that the vast majority no longer has the purchasing power to lift the economy out of its doldrums.”
“The truth is if the super-rich paid their fair share of taxes, government wouldn’t be broke. If Governor Scott Walker hadn’t handed out tax breaks to corporations and the well-off, Wisconsin wouldn’t be in a budget crisis. If Washington hadn’t extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, eviscerated the estate tax, and created loopholes for private-equity and hedge-fund managers, the federal budget wouldn’t look nearly as bad.
“And if America had higher marginal tax rates and more tax brackets at the top – for those raking in $1 million, $5 million, $15 million a year – the budget would look even better. We wouldn’t be firing teachers or slashing Medicaid or hurting the most vulnerable members of our society. We wouldn’t be in a tizzy over Social Security. We’d slow the rise in healthcare costs but we wouldn’t cut Medicare. We’d cut defense spending and lop off subsidies to giant agribusinesses but we wouldn’t view the government as our national nemesis.”
“The final truth is as income and wealth have risen to the top, so has political power,” Reich continued. “The reason all of this is proving so difficult to get across is the super-rich, such as the Koch brothers, have been using their billions to corrupt politics, hoodwink the public, and enlarge and entrench their outsized fortunes. They’re bankrolling Republicans who are mounting showdowns and threatening shutdowns, and who want the public to believe government spending is the problem.
They are behind the Republican shakedown.”
“These are the truths that Democrats must start telling, and soon. Otherwise the Republican shakedown may well succeed.”
Will they? I’m not holding my breath. But they might. If they feel enough heat.
The Black Commentator