Restoring The Social Contract

“If everyone just decided to opt out, to not pay their share, to simply protect everything they have, not only would things generally decay quite quickly but the foundational trust that any society is built upon would crumble as well.”

When we are born, we start off with new responsibilities, commitments, or duties. We are purely helpless and rely on other people to assist us in everything from feeding ourselves to being clothed or to even how to be cleanly. Oftentimes, we rely on our first teachers and friends, our parents, to care for us. Of course, not everyone has the luxury to have both or one parent to care and nurture for them, which is why we rely on adoption, local and state services, and even foster care to make sure those who are young, vulnerable, and in need of care are provided for.

If you did not have parents around to guide and nurture you, it is likely that at one point or another, to prevent you from being hungry and homeless, you relied upon services provided by a local, state, or national government. In exchange for such services provided for in part or by whole by taxpayer funding, you would receive support as a child or teenager to receive public schooling, get publicly funded health care or subsidized health insurance to make it more affordable, and even food if you are able to get breakfast or lunch at no or low cost due to circumstances beyond your control. These different services, especially to the young, the poor, the homeless, or even the elderly are part of what I like to call the ‘social contract.’

By participating in the ‘social contract’, you receive certain necessities to live such as food, shelter, housing, and ideally, health care in exchange for later contributing back to the society either financially through taxes and even voluntarily through charitable donations, volunteering, or being active in the political process. The key thing to remember is that the better the taxpayer money is spent and the more accountable it is in those areas, the better those services will end up being.

Going back to the case of an orphaned or abandoned child, since their parent(s) were not there for them when they needed that love and care the most, who else should step in but society itself? Would it be better to abandon such a child to the streets or to an uncertain future to likely starve, to miss school, to be homeless, and to fall into despair or rather should we as a society remember that it could have been us in that situation as a child or a newborn and to ensure that the child will have the same opportunity or chance to succeed despite being born into uncertain circumstances?

Children or teenagers don’t pay taxes but by investing in them, we invest into the collective future of our society. Even if we use private health care, private schools, private roads, etc., the worse off the general society gets, everyone will be negatively affected by it even if those who are well off seek to shield them from such a deformed society. After using such services rather than not having had them at all, I find that it is much more likely that that child will grow a contributing adult to the general society rather than if we had not collectively invested in him or her at all.

Many such issues in adulthood involving joblessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, higher likelihood of prison can be avoided if there are safeguards in place because a home without parents can lead to a slippery slope of lack of opportunities and an eventual grim future if society through our provided services funded by each of us does not help to fill in the gap.

Now, that does not mean that personal responsibility should not be accounted for, and each person should work hard to achieve their goals and pursue opportunities if they put the effort in. You can’t just be given these services and expect them to give you an easy life. You still must be able to finish your schooling, find work in your field, and become part of the large pot of contributions that keep our society running. If everyone just decided to opt out, to not pay their share, to simply protect everything they have, not only would things generally decay quite quickly but the foundational trust that any society is built upon would crumble as well.

Any well-run society in any country always has two fundamental pillars going for it: accountability and trust. If you only have one and not the other, the society will be on shaky ground and be deteriorating in the other area after a while. If you lose both, the society will generally collapse until it can be built again after re-establishing at least one of these two fundamental tenets after it has taken hold in the general population again. Advanced societies are inherently fragile because if you can’t be held accountability regarding why certain services are not given when you believe you are paying a lot into the society and feel like you’re not getting much back in return that you can see, feel, touch, or enjoy, then there is a big issue at hand.

If there is no accountability given on behalf of those who provide such services like health, housing, defense, basic services such as water, energy, or even food production, then people will become increasingly distrustful of each other and seek to provide those services themselves outside of the state or society or focus on only having private means of acquiring such services, which due to the profit motive, may leave part of the society out in the dust if they cannot afford the private services and there are no public ones available as a substitute.

As U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr. once said about the means of taxation, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” As much as people will complain about their taxes, if we don’t have them, how else would we provide for clean water, clean air, reliable energy, good schools, safe streets, plentiful hospitals, etc.? The key idea to keep in mind is that if we don’t see our taxes going to these areas that improve upon society or advance it further for the well-being of the population, then there is a lack of accountability there that should be rectified.

Waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer money is a serious offense and so is an inability to break down for the taxpayer where their money goes to fund local, state, and national services year after year. Collectively, there should be a role in taxpayers demanding accountability from those in power to know where are taxpayer money is going, how can we make it more responsive to societal needs, and are we reaching enough of the population to justify the level of taxes we incur?

While it is seriously unlikely, we ever get a full accounting of where our tax money goes individually, it would improve the trust and accountability tenets of society to know which percentage of our taxes are spent on health care, housing, safety, defense, education, etc. and if we have that general idea, I do believe there would be more transparency to change those percentages at least at a local, state, or even national level to be more befitting with the priorities of the general public.

If we see that millions of people do not have access to public or private health care, perhaps our societal priorities can change to accommodate for that in the general contract. If we believe that economically, our roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and public transit are not enough to compete in the 21st century, that should change the calculations. If our schools are crumbling, our teachers are underpaid, and the schoolchildren with parents or no parents are growing hungry there because there is no free lunch or breakfast accommodated for, that should change the calculations.

These are all good examples of how our general societal contract can be expanded and adapted to. Everybody, regardless of their social class or economic upbringing should have basic dignity afforded to them. I believe that social contract needs to be upheld especially if we are paying into it but not getting enough out of it in exchange. When health care, housing, food, and even school are considered luxuries rather than necessities, that contract is fraying and needs to be strengthened.

If our society becomes complacent and does not allow for such public services including health care and housing to care for all, either it will be privatized or it will vanish from being accounted for. We should begin to account for the societal contract where if you work hard, play by the rules, pay your share, and invest back into your community and country, you should get back what you put in especially if you need a leg up when you fall on hard times. Public necessities like education, health care, housing, and good public transit should not at all be considered luxuries.

We should believe it to be absolutely absurd to hear about people with two jobs not able to afford housing, two hard working parents not able to afford to send their children to publicly funded colleges and universities, or even going bankrupt because you have taken on too much medical debt. The societal contract we pay into and hope to receive back in return is fraying when that becomes not only common place in the society but accepted by the population. There should be push back in terms of accepting that kind of contract, which has to be either rewritten or redone entirely.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech on January 6th, 1941, titled the “Four Freedoms” speech. It addressed what should be what we would consider common sense for a social contract to be based on but during the era of Nazism, fascism, and totalitarianism on the march, it was a key historic event where he lined out what people around the world regardless of birthplace, creed, ethnicity, and background should be born with. They are the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Without addressing the whole of human needs from birth, Roosevelt argued that the general society in the United States and in countries around the globe would be worse off.

While FDR did not specifically mention health care, housing, education, or infrastructure in his speech, it can be inferred that economic security made up the ‘freedom from want’ part of the four freedoms. If we do not have a roof over our head, food in our belly, medicine, and care when we get sick, or school / work to give us opportunities to afford such needs as we age then general insecurity and the society itself will fray as a result.

Roosevelt understood that if the social contract does not include the four freedoms or the additional needs encompassed within these four freedoms of humanity, then our societies and the world at large will fall victim to another war, another depression, or general malaise and misery. FDR may have given this speech on the ‘Four Freedoms’ over eighty years ago but his words and his call to action remain as ever necessary in our society today. If there is a child without parents, we must be there to provide and care for his or her future, if a teenager can’t find work, we must provide that community college or technical education to give him an opportunity to succeed, and if that man or woman can’t find a way to get health care when they get sick and are in between jobs, we must step in to fill the void.

Simply put, the social contract is what we decide it is if we work together and find common ground on where it’s lacking based on what we pay into it and how we implement it to see the benefits of what comes out the other end. There is no doubt in my view that the four freedoms of FDR should be upheld and strengthened, especially around economic security or the ‘freedom from want’, which would eventually ensure that more and more of the general population would have the means to pursue their dreams, to be better able to succeed, thrive, and live their lives to the fullest extent.

A Day on The National Mall

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Washington, District of Columbia, United States

Drone Strikes in Warfare: Ethical or Unethical?

“However, numerous ethical concerns remain including the ever-present risk of collateral damage, the generational legacy of these strikes, and the legal ramifications behind selecting targets.”

In 21st century warfare, the rise of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) was not only a game-changer in terms of surveilling state enemies but also in killing them with no blowback to the aggressor. Increasingly, we are living in a world where the prevalence of technology such as UAVs is making it easier for the nation-state to fight a non-traditional war without having to put boots on the ground or pilots in the air. However, numerous ethical concerns remain including the ever-present risk of collateral damage, the generational legacy of these strikes, and the legal ramifications behind selecting targets.

It is my belief that drone strikes may be ethical in terms of limited usage against known terrorist or militia leaders but that they must also comply with international norms, which have to be agreed upon by all states who use drones for offensive military action. I believe that drone strikes should not be used as an offensive first resort unless capture of the enemy combatant is impossible or if the collateral damage of conducting a standard military operation is too high.

UAVs, or drones, can stay in the air from between eight to twelve hours continuously without needing to be refueled. They can maintain the element of surprise to strike targets without having their aerial location compromised. Being able to survey in detail a remote desert where enemy targets are gathered to a dense urban setting where leaders of a terrorist organization are meeting, the UAV is able to record at a high level of resolution what is going on anywhere in the world. For the state whether that is the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, the drones are able to go and see where the average soldier or airman can’t go without risking life or limb for the mission.                              

Being able to strike enemy combatants in states, which are known terrorist havens, allows the U.S. and its allies to conduct kill operations without risking their own soldiers, airmen in countries where their physical presence would incite the local population. For some examples, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan are weak or failing states who have been host to terrorist organizations including al-Qaeda. Due to political constraints, The U.S. military is unable to eliminate the threat that these non-state actors pose through special forces raids, which is one reason why the U.S. has increasingly used drone strikes instead.

Drone use is perceived as less expensive, more effective, and less politically risky to political leaders who wish to forgo a risky raid or a bombing campaign by investing in targeted drones strikes instead to eliminate threats. For example, a U.S. Air Force airman can manually control a drone from over 7000 miles away in Nevada to strike a terrorist target in Northwest Pakistan just by pressing a few buttons.

Instead of having that same pilot fly his F-16 over Pakistan and risk being shot down or captured, the U.S. government and military are willing to use the UAVs for reasons of cost, effectiveness, and overall utility. The collateral damage of an F-16 versus an armed UAV should also be considered since an F-16 strike, especially in an urban area, is likely to cause a greater number of civilian casualties. Drone pilots can also help U.S. troops, for example, in being aware of enemy movements near them and guarding their positions, so as to prevent them from any surprises that could endanger their lives while operating in enemy territory.

Drone strikes may carry less collateral damage to civilian lives, but there will always be the chance for the loss of innocent life and families being destroyed. Whether that’s an errant missile crashing into a wedding party or a group of children running by a targeted building within seconds of a missile being launched and getting caught in the crossfire, death from the skies will not only affect terrorists but women and children too. Because drone strikes are less costly to governments and militaries, the rules of engagement can be abused to focus too often on low-level targets, who pose some threat but who could still be captured for intelligence purposes. A lack of international norms and standards regarding drone warfare leads to serious consequences in terms of possible abuse by governments who overuse it on secondary targets.

Airmen and women, who conducted drone strikes have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because they get to know their targets, see how they live, and struggle with having the power of death over them. High-resolution surveillance makes the act of killing personal despite the fact that these servicemen are thousands of miles away. When a drone strike goes wrong and innocent civilians are killed, it leaves a long-lasting psychological effect on the military personnel involved.

They may not see their victims when they are flying an F-16, but they are aware of what collateral damage is when they see the dead bodies of women, children being shown on the high definition screen. Military service members do not last long as drone pilots due to the immense mental strain placed on them especially when they did not sign-up for conducting warfare with a joystick. Alcoholism, depression, and family problems have occurred due to pilots being asked to conduct drone strikes in the name of national security.

Unfortunately, drone warfare may kill current enemies only to create more of them in the future. A son or daughter who see their father or mother killed by an American drone strike will not forget that in the future. Also, it is certain that relations with weak or failed states is not helped through drone strikes but rather harmed by these operations. Anti-American sentiment will not decrease but intensify due to drone strikes, and the constant buzzing noise of these aircraft causes fear among those communities. The presence of drones may act as a recruiting tool for terrorists and turn the local population against the offensive power.

Lastly, escalation is a grave concern that the use of drone warfare carries with it. With the spread of the technology and the ability for greater access in the future for state and non-state actors to purchase drones of varying sizes and capabilities, the U.S. and its allies may be at risk of being attacked. Whether it is China, Russia, or Iran, these states may use their drones to attack U.S. or allied forces. Greater risk of conflict between powers due to the evolution of drone warfare shouldn’t be underestimated. Terrorists could buy smaller yet lethal drones to attack both civilian, military targets to retaliate against states without putting their lives at risk. In five to ten years, lone-wolf terrorists may want to use small drones to attack vulnerable targets such as airports, bridges, the electric grid, and other infrastructure.

Drone strikes will remain part of 21st century warfare but international norms regarding their usage have not been written. Similar to nuclear and chemical weapons agreements, drone warfare should be regulated. Questions such as who should be targeted by drone strikes, what are the short and long-term consequences of this warfare? must be answered by our leaders. Preventing the unlimited usage of drone strikes and its proliferation should be top priorities to prevent the worst effects of this technology from becoming real. The ethics of drones are still being debated but states have a collective responsibility to minimize collateral damage by creating the legal frameworks necessary to enforce the rules of this new form of warfare. 

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely my own and do not reflect the views or opinions of any outside organization, company, or government.

Sunrise In The Clouds

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Up In The Clouds

Greed Is Not Good

“My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.”

The ethos of an era or a generation usually spans about 40-50 years. I think we are living in a time of great upheaval obviously due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to the economic and social disruptions that occur as a result. What was thought to be as acceptable before the pandemic will likely draw condemnation and pushback after the pandemic. My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.

I’m not sure exactly what that new ethos will become but I do fervently hope that it will push back on the notion of greed being good at all but rather a detriment to the wider society. This new ethos in the 2020s and beyond will hopefully not prioritize the pursuit of money and fame above all else but rather the pursuit of kindness, caring for others, and leaving the world better than we found it.

While Gordon Gekko is just a fictional villain and the movie ‘Wall Street’ fictional in nature, there are examples throughout our society where people actually believe the ethos of ‘greed is good’ and actively pursue it in different ways without understanding or caring about the repercussions.

I’ll give a few examples that are not from 1987 or even earlier in the 1980s but from 2020: A college admissions scandal which involved bribery so the children of well-to-do families could get into prestigious colleges without earning their admissions, Multiple U.S. Senators caught red-handed doing insider trading to profit off of a pandemic and then not admitting their wrong doing, and large firms receiving loans they likely don’t need while they use that money for stock buybacks rather than investing in the solvency of their workers during the height of this unemployment crisis.

These are just three examples of this hopefully dying ethos of ‘greed is good’ but the problem still is that these kinds of practices, while they are being condemned, they are not being cracked down hard enough and the laws have not been changed enough to prevent future misdeeds. When you have an economy that protects high income inequality, lopsided CEO-to-worker compensation ratios, and a consistent hesitancy to guarantee collective bargaining rates for employees and an ability to raise wages to livable levels, that shows that ‘greed is good’ is still a predominant ideology that is hurting the average person.

The stock market may hit all-time highs but that is good news only for those who actually own stocks and that number is only over half of Americans whereas the gains of the stock market are only truly felt by the Top 10% of income earners. The previous financial crisis of 2007-2009 showed the world how ‘greed is good’ can cause companies to go bankrupt, houses to be foreclosed, and businesses to be shuttered, while no CEO who was responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis actually went to jail. The bonuses continued to flow, and the banking system maintained its solvency, but unemployment and inequality grew for the next few years with both now increasing in 2020 even while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 30k for the first time.

I should state clearly that I am not against people going into business, try to make money for themselves to feed themselves and their families, and enjoying the fruits of their labor. However, when people are caught being greedy and harming others in the process as which continues to happen, there need to be harsh consequences and changes to the law. As Theodore Roosevelt knew as President, corporate oligopolies need to be reined in, broken up, and held accountable. Gilded ages may be good for the few, but they lead to disaster for the many. In this pandemic, many billionaires have seen their net worth skyrocket and their stock prices increase but at the same time, you have millions of people jobless, homeless, and in food lines often for the first time in their lives.

The ethos of a culture has to push back against this kind of greed and ignorance. It starts with condemning the actions of those who don’t play by the rules, won’t change the rules to be fairer, and who go out of their way to make life difficult and unfair for others trying to succeed. It also means calling out those people who refuse to pay taxes, use offshore tax laws to park their money elsewhere, and whose companies don’t pay a time in actual taxes while other parts of society suffer. Not only should these practices be condemned but they should be made illegal as well.

Social trust, belief in the goodness of others, and the willingness to do what’s right suffers when greed is pursued #1 above all else. The past thirty years have shown this to be true as the increased financialization of the economy as a whole, loose regulations, increased corporate influence and money in government have all atrophied our system to where we are dealing with serious labor, environmental, and employment concerns.

Not everybody who has earned a lot of money is greedy, but they have a role in helping to make the system fairer by abiding by the rules and respecting the fact that they do have a role in allowing others to have their chance to be successful. You can’t climb up the ladder and then pull it out from under you when you get there. Others who are not greedy but do well for themselves have to remember that they have a responsibility to hold those in power and those who have immense wealth in check to be consistently vigilant that they are not flouting the rules or if the rules don’t exist yet, perhaps they should be incorporated to combat unrestrained greed.

There will always be some kind of inequality and differences in outcomes in a capitalist system but there are clear signs to tell when that inequality has gotten out of control, when greed has become too prominent, and when justice or basic fairness has taken a back seat. Greed is not good, and it should be one of the guiding ethos of the next generation. Being a success, working hard for that success, and spreading that success around so others have a good shot at it is a much better philosophy to embody. What’s good for you is not always good for others. It is important that those with immense wealth or power understand that they too live in a society and there are certain duties and obligations that we have to one another.

Knowing when enough is enough, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and knowing when things have gone sideways and need to be fixed, those are all key components on pushing back against the ‘greed is good’ ethos, which has had its prominence over the past four decades. Greed can harm others, do tremendous damage, and atrophy the bonds of trust in our society. It is important that we never forget these facts and to fight against it as much as we can in our lives, both personally and professionally.  

Sunset in Ithaca

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Ithaca, New York

Cayuga Lake

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cayuga Lake; Finger Lakes; Ithaca, New York

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