What we should be talking about when we talk about the debt ceiling is the proper role and size of government. Instead, we are asking whether the government spends too much on programs that alleviate the pain that is the result of government policies in the first place. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and food stamps are all good programs, but all are meant to deal with the consequences of the income inequality that the government makes possible by the laws it passes. Income security programs make up 65 percent of all government expenses, and from this we are asked to conclude that the government is mainly in the business of serving and taking care of common people. But the most profound actions that the government takes, passing laws that make the rich rich, ostensibly cost no money and, because we play along, enforcing them supposedly has no cost.
Any agreement by Congress to cut the income security programs while leaving the main beneficiaries from our government—the rich—untouched, would be unconscionable. If Congress does not reach an agreement, and the deficit remains unfunded, this will give the president an unprecedented opportunity to expose who the government really serves, because it will be up to him alone, no agreement from Congress would be necessary to decide where to cut. Let him first withhold money from the enforcement and the support of laws that enrich the rich. This would lead to higher wages for workers and lower prices for consumers, and it would therefore be a good quid pro quo for the cuts he wants to make in income security programs.
What are the laws that enrich the rich? They change with the times. When the first English settlers came to America, the king declared a law that gave him all the land of the colonies. He proceeded to give huge tracts of this land—William Penn was given all of Pennsylvania—to the well-connected. They became landowners, and the rest of us became their tenants, paying them rent for the right to live on “their” land. Things did not improve when the United States was first formed, because the Founding Fathers passed a constitution that, in Article 1, prohibited the income tax. That single article assured that instead of paying for public projects by taxing the rich, the government would have to pass public land to the rich as a form of payment for these projects; the “land grants” to the owners of the railroads are the most important example. (The Homestead Act gave common citizens the right to own government land, but this law was not passed until 1862.)