November 2011
October 25, 2011

Iannuzzi: Our social contract must apply to all

Author: Richard C. Iannuzzi
Source: NYSUT United
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As I was preparing to write this column reflecting on a comment from a reader concerning the concept of "social contract" and what that implies, one of the best minds in the field of social and political commentary, Paul Krugman, wrote a masterful piece on the subject in his column in the New York Times.

A social contract is one of the foundations of the American political system: It is the understanding that government is created by the people to serve the needs of the people. It is rooted in the ideas of three major thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes argued that in a civil society, citizens come together to form a contract with one another for the common good.

Locke maintained that to provide order and live comfortably, citizens form a civil society together. And, Rousseau maintained that we come together in a society as we begin to need and depend on each other more and more.

In effect, people unite, forming a "social contract" with one another and designing a structure in which citizens rule and set rules by which they are governed.

Krugman applies this to the ideological argument put forth by the right wing: We are entering into class warfare. They argue that those who want the wealthiest Americans to carry a greater share of the tax burden are declaring war on the rich. Krugman countered by arguing that the real class warfare results not from asking more from the wealthiest, but from a tax structure that exempts the privileged few from the social contract that applies to everyone else. A social contract intrinsically implies both equal opportunity and equal responsibility.

Today, we are experiencing a social structure where the wealthiest 1 percent pays less in taxes than the 99 percent who make up the middle class and working families. I can rehash all the wealth disparity numbers that make our blood boil, but I prefer to present the sobering reality that results from that inequity. In our country today, more than 15 percent of Americans live in poverty - 46.2 million Americans. According to the Children's Defense Fund, that number includes nearly 42 percent of black children and 35 percent of Latino children. Indeed, while children make up 24 percent of our country's population, they compose 35 percent of those living in poverty.

For educators, education support specialists, health care specialists and public servants seeking to meet the needs of those we serve, the numbers are devastating. Poverty, homelessness and poor nutrition work against all that we attempt to achieve.

An unemployment rate exceeding 9 percent exists in many communities and states. That level of unemployment feeds the social ills that plague our schools, colleges, hospitals, health care facilities, not-for-profits and government agencies that were founded on the principle of a social contract designed to guarantee equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream.

The good people who Occupy Wall Street - not only in Zuccotti Park but in more than 1,000 sites around the world - have seized on the disparity in income between the top 1 percent and the other "99ers." They are right.

Whether we look nationally or in our own state, the tax divide between the wealthiest and the rest of society is unacceptable - not only because of the economic inequity it creates, but as Krugman argues, because of the existence of a government structure where the top 1 percent is exempted from the social contract that applies to everyone else.

Tax fairness is not simply about economics. It is also, and more importantly, about values. Values rooted not only in fairness, but in an equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream - and the social contract that commits us to meet our responsibility to each other.

Yes, the statistics suggest we've lost sight of the values that are the foundation of our great country. But that focus can be restored. Beyond a social contract I believe exists a social conscience and a social compass that will right our course toward reclaiming the dream.

"Tax fairness is not simply about economics. It is also, and more importantly, about values."

Richard C. Iannuzzi

Note: Your comments on this column or any issue you wish to share directly with me are welcomed. Email your thoughts to dialogue@ nysutmail.org.