The Social Dimension of the Debt Ceiling Crisis

We can live in a society in which there is a social contract and a sense of sacrifice for the common good, or we can live in a society in which radical individualism has replaced the social contract.
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By now millions of Americans are probably sick of the bickering debate that the debt ceiling crisis has triggered. Should we raise taxes or cut spending? Should we end entitlements like Medicare or Social Security or ensure their survival? Should we support public education or scale it down? Should we repair our crumbling infrastructure, or live within our lowly taxed means? Clearly, these monumental issues need more debate than an unthinking exchange of political talking points.

Given the political "stalemate," most people are probably worried about what is going to happen. How will a federal government default impact our lives? There is no shortage of disturbing scenarios -- skyrocketing interest rates on home mortgages, car loans and credit cards, a plunging stock market, a state government credit crunch, a much weaker dollar, which would no longer be the world's reserve currency. Even if default is somehow avoided, the proposed draconian cuts to the federal budget will have a radical effect on how we live. There will probably be a cascade of effects: job losses, which means that people would have fewer dollars to spend, which means that they would buy fewer and fewer goods, which means that the economy would contract, which means that even more people would lose their jobs, which means that it is likely that our economic misery would spread and deepen, which means that the opportunities that we can offer our children and grandchildren would be limited.

But these economic scenarios only scratch the surface of what's at stake. Beyond the barrage of mindless political talking points, we are faced with a stark choice. We can live in a society in which there is a social contract and a sense of sacrifice for the common good, or we can live in a society in which radical individualism, the life blood of the libertarianism, has replaced the social contract with a set of values that have little or no connection to a sense of social obligation to the common good. Democrats and President Obama propose shared sacrifice to uphold the social contract. Republicans and the Tea Party propose an individual contract with no fully shared sacrifice.

Here's the rub. If we go back to origins of society there are three elements that need to be in place for a society to be viable: some kind of family (or social) organization, the capacity to share resources, and the division of labor. If some kind of family is present -- nuclear, extended, or some other configuration -- you have the foundation of a household economy, which, over the generations, expands. In family organizations resources have to be shared because the very young and the very old cannot fend for themselves. Such sharing underscores the division of labor: able-bodied adults work to feed their children and care for the elderly. Stripped of all elaboration, these are the central elements or social living, the very foundation of society.

It goes without saying that in viable societies members, who are a part of a relatively stable social organization, make sacrifices so that precious resources are shared. In this way society supports the young, the poor and the old. In our society that means that if we are to grow and prosper, we need to sacrifice our time, energy and resources (by working and paying taxes), look after the young (by supporting public education and youth outreach), support the poor (through Medicaid, among other programs) and take care of the elderly (through Medicare and Social Security). These sets of obligations constitute the social contract of our society. If the social contract is broken, a society descends into the social chaos of "fending for yourself" in a complex world.

I've lived in societies in which the social contract has been broken and it is not a pretty thing to behold. In 1984 in the Republic of Niger in West Africa there was a drought and famine. The local people called it the "Fend for Yourself Drought." During that time when drought and corruption in government made food perilously scarce, thousands of innocent men, women and children, mostly the very old and the very young died needless deaths -- a tragic result of a broken social contract.

In the debt ceiling crisis we face a famine of our own. Will the social contract be upheld or will we break it and sink into a fetid pool of social decline? President Obama is at the crossroads. During the Osama bin Laden operation he demonstrated gutsy resolve. Let's hope he demonstrates it again by invoking the 14th amendment to the Constitution and bringing to a close this mindlessly contrived debt crisis. In so doing, he would reinforce the social contract and ensure our social growth and prosperity for many generations to come.

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