Are there slices of American citizenry – tax payers, home owners, farmers, public school teachers – being held hostage by a social contract executed in the era of keeping the trains running on time? Considering the current need to make sure trains don’t derail and spill their toxic cargo into our water supply, it may be time to rethink our expectations of government and social responsibility. Not to ignore the existence of corruption back in the day of the robber baron, but there was a time when it was reasonable to expect a person’s word was their bond, and if they broke that bond, there were tangible consequences. Contrast that idea to current culture where a person’s word often isn’t worth a tweet.
As members of a society, we should be accountable for our actions. A public thrashing on social media is not the same as accountability. Neither is being a chronic victim or playing the blame game an appropriate substitute for personal responsibility. Here however, I am NOT talking about holding others accountable. I am talking about participating in society for the good of society. I am talking about responsible corporate citizenship. I am talking about engaged, effective civic leadership. I am also talking about the standard of conduct we should be able to expect from each other.
What is America’s social contract? I think it depends on who you ask. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty states American society is a refuge for tired and poor hungry masses of homeless, wretched refuse. Some might say that particular social contract does not make America the land of opportunity but instead, the land of prey for the opportunistic. As we see the homeless population increase, I think we can say mission accomplished.
Is this our collective shame or only the shame of those inclined to be ashamed of such things? I don’t know. What I do know is that in my city there are homes in foreclosure, sitting vacant less than one mile from houses being built on spec priced at half a million dollars a pop. How is this possible? Planning and zoning is asleep at the wheel. How is it possible that 10% of my city’s 50,000 residents live on one street? How is it possible that there is no public park within walking distance of that street? Still asleep. How is it possible that there is empty retail space a stone’s throw away from new construction of more commercial property? How is it possible we can turn a blind eye to red flags and then stand with our mouths gaping open when tragedy strikes? Strangely, when this happens we find ourselves sleeping with one eye open, if only for a little while.
What we have is a duct taped scrapbook of broken promises signed, sealed, and delivered to anyone who calls themselves an American whether or not they choose to practice good citizenship and a growing trend of tax payers wanting to keep more of what they earn from the fraud, waste, and abuse at the public trough. We are relying on a framework from a time period most Americans don’t know or care about. How we live, work, and communicate has changed significantly since Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homes, since westward expansion, since the underground railroad, since the horseless carriage became more than a passing fad, since indoor plumbing and electricity were included with the Sears and Roebuck construction kit, since the Civil Rights Movement, since Roe v. Wade, since the demise of the space program and the advent of smart phones. Yes, we have a long and rich history. So rich, in fact, we seem determined to keep repeating it.
In addition to math and science, students were once taught that our social contract includes things all members of a society must do – work hard, help others, duck and cover – and some things members of a society should not do – take what doesn’t belong to us, deceive others for gain or pleasure, make the war of our parents the war of our children. This sounds like a good place to begin, but there’s more to a social contract. There’s always more, because if there is anything society likes to do, it’s complicate things, and in the process we can forget what we are trying to accomplish. Some people remember the ever quoted, “Be fruitful and multiply.” In light of the some 7 billion people currently on the planet, rethinking that behavior might be worth a try.
How about: Have all the family you can personally afford to shelter, feed, clothe, and educate without mortgaging their future and wiping out every living organism on the planet in the process? Or how about: If a behavior occurs often enough to become a stereotype, it may be time to change the behavior.
In the year of the tax payer 2014, workers pay income taxes into the public coffers to maintain the systems upon which developed (and over-developed) society has become dependent. Businesses, large and small, from sea to polluted sea are agents of the federal government, required to withhold federal and state income taxes from its employees. If a business doesn’t want to withhold payroll taxes from its employees, it loses the license to do business or it outsources work to a developing country trying to make itself into a mini McMerica. Some workers live in states with no state income tax. Currently there are nine. Those states are Alaska, Texas, Nevada, Florida, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming. Workers in those states get to keep more of their earnings, and for those who only have to work one job to make a living, all the better.
Of course, anyone who consumes anything pays sales tax. Sales taxes are also collected by businesses and generally go toward supporting infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Public schools are also funded by property taxes. Home owners whose property value is high but who don’t have school-aged children may, in some cases, pay more than people who have children but don’t own a home. Tax structure is complex, and not the subject of this post. Property value is based on many factors. Some of which are out of the home owner’s control, such as commercial over-development that chokes out neighborhoods, road and highway expansion that generates unwanted noise and congestion creating pockets of housing where no one wants to live.
Funding for public education in some urban areas, some rural areas, bankrupt cities, and communities with untaxable drug and weapons sales is a dingy tied to a sinking ship. Retaining, much less recruiting, talented professionals to teach the hundreds of thousands of children who live in these areas all across America is a pipe dream, nearly impossible, a daunting task. Some believe investing in public education for all children everywhere is a security measure that prevents criminal activity and therefore it is in everyone’s best interest. Others say private schools produce better results. One thing is for certain, some creative thinking is needed to come up with remedies for our failing education system.
Society is people living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values. We are currently bound by a social contract which not everyone believes they are obligated to honor. As we face the future trying to form a more sustainable union of the ever increasing population of diverse cultures that is this Great American Melting Pot, perhaps it is time to consider a new New Deal. But let’s call it something else. Remember what happened with New Coke.