Rewriting the Social Contract and Making Everybody Hurt
By Carl Bloice
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board
March 3, 2011
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
Brook's February 21column 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 a 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," write 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 of 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 Barak
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice
is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National
Coordinating Committee of the Committees of
Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly
worked for a healthcare union.
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