Two hundred thirty-four years ago, our country’s founders concluded this country’s founding document by declaring: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” How odd that the document we call the Declaration of Independence concludes as a Declaration of Inter-Dependence.
Furthermore, that interdependence was not just some feel-good, wishy-washy sentiment. Rather, it demanded that we put all toward the general good – not just money, but everything we are and ever will be.
As Americans, we are their heirs. They pledged this country’s future as one built through the efforts of people who are willing to give their all to the common enterprise.
This wasn’t a one-shot doctrine.
In 1787, the US Constitution picked up where the Declaration of Independence left off. Its Preamble speaks of unity, justice, peace, mutual support and solidarity from generation to generation:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The language is especially adamant, because this country was desperately trying to recover from the failed experiment set out in the Articles of Confederation, which came into force in 1781. Those articles declared this country to be a go-it-alone country, in which each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence and enters into a firm league of friendship with each other to assist each other against attacks.
We seem to be living in a second Articles of Confederation era, a time of suspicion of one another in which we pledge nothing to one another. Rather, we leave everyone to go it alone. Everywhere we look, we see the evidence that we are making a foray into a way of being a country that has already been a failure.
Consider Social Security. Or consider it under its full name, “Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI).” It is not an individual investment scheme. Rather, it builds on a 200-year tradition of working for the common good. In the case of Social Security, 75 years ago, in 1935, we committed ourselves to support the welfare of the widow, the orphan, the sick, the poor, the aged – a tradition more than 2,500 year old. You can find versions in the Bible, only there, they are commandments from God, – not human commitments to one another.
If we were to take seriously the commitments we make as Americans, we must accept that, in everything we do, we are charged with taking up the challenge of meeting the standards of mutual commitment and interdependence our founders set for us. A “we are all in this together” commitment gives us the tools to solve what now seem like unsolvable problems.
Take Social Security, again. If we see it as private investments that will run out 30 or so years from now, then the problem is enormous and the best solution we can come up with is privatizing it and cutting the next generations loose with nothing.
In fact, in 30 years, if we change nothing in the meantime, Social Security can still pay 75 percent of promised benefits.
But it is easy to do more and keep our commitment to one another. When we look at the problem from a position of mutual responsibility, the solution is obvious. First, we assume that the very rich are as willing to pledge their fortunes as are the poor, so we change the law to tax all of us at the same percentage rate. Right now, employers and employees each pay Social Security taxes of 6.2 percent on earnings up to $106,800. This means that workers and employers each pay 6.2 percent on every dollar earned until a worker earns $106,801. From there on, no more Social Security taxes are owed and the percentage of tax paid declines. As a result, the tax rate for earnings of $213,602 is only 3.1 percent. The more the person earns, the lower the tax rate.
A society that has mutually pledged to one other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor sees the solution. Get rid of the cap and have everyone pay the same percentage. Fairness in this case means that we can keep our intergenerational pledge to one another.
The drafters of the US Constitution must have thought that promoting the general welfare was important, because it is mentioned twice – in the Preamble and in Article 1, Section 8 where it specifically gives Congress the power to collect taxes to provide for the general welfare: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”
There are so many ways that we can make this a more prosperous country if we, today, will only take on the commitment made on our behalf two centuries ago – and kept as a pledge through the ages.