Socialism

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The recent nomination of a democratic socialist in a NY congressional district has awakened the great red scare among some conservatives.

The standard conservative line regarding socialism is that there isn’t one successful socialist country and it is a stepping stone to communism.

But that begs the question.

There isn’t one successful libertarian country either, but that doesn’t stop many of those same conservatives from suggesting that an unfettered free market is the solution to all that ails us.

So let’s start with a simple definition of what socialism is and the fairly successful history of socialism in this country.

Here’s the definition of socialism from dictionary.com

A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

Just for the purposes of comparison, here the definition of democracy.

A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Notice the difference? Democracy is a system of government. Socialism is a political and economic theory.

A democracy can operate on socialist principles. There are many successful examples around the world. They generally provide a high level of services supported by a high level of individual and corporate taxes. In addition to taxation, industries are also highly regulated, workers generally have a place at the table when decisions are made, and public resources like air and water are protected. Fundamentally, the government is run by representatives, just like this country, who are elected by citizens who have decided that this is the way that they would like their government to operate, just like this country.

A dictatorship can also claim to operate on socialist principles, though that dictator would have to be benign. But just saying you are a socialist country, doesn’t make you one any more than just saying that you are a democracy, as Russia does, means that all elections are fair, opposition parties are free to campaign, and voters really have a choice.

Milwaukee was dominated by a Social-Democratic party for the first 60 years or so of the 20th century. The focus there was worker’s rights. They successfully eliminated child labor and ushered in the 40 hour work week. All this was accomplished in addition to all of the day to day operational needs of big city.

By definition, police and fire departments, our military, public schools, public libraries, and public infrastructure are all examples of communities getting together to provide a service that is owned collectively and regulated either locally or nationally.

Suggesting that socialism is bad for free markets also misunderstands both free markets and socialism.

We have seen over and over that free markets operate best in well-regulated environments. Those regulations and laws also provide a means of enforcement and a method where those who have been injured can seek redress. If you don’t pay your bills, someone can take you to court in order to get paid. If you fix prices or inhibit competition in order to illegally inflate your profit, the government can levy a penalty that could include repayment to those who were harmed. Google was fined $5B by the EU for that very reason. If you want to sell a drug, you have to prove to the FDA that the drug is effective and that all of the potential side effects are well known. If you want to start a bank, there are all kinds of rules to insure that your bank is going to be able to manage your deposits in a responsible way.

All of this regulation fits the definition of socialism. The community (voters) are agreeing to regulate the means of production/distribution/exchange for the benefit of the community.

So the REAL discussion should be HOW MUCH socialism is appropriate.

This is the same discussion that we should be having about libertarianism – HOW MUCH government is appropriate.

Serious questions have been raised that the United States is not really a democracy, at least if you look at the outcomes of legislation. A ground breaking study suggests that we are really an oligarchy where the rich and powerful, though a small minority of the total population, are the ones who benefit from virtually all of the legislation and rule-making done by our elected representatives. That study has since been questioned by a closer examination of the alignment between middle class and upper class interests. But clearly the poor are not well served in this democracy even though they represent 15% of the population.

There are good reasons to have a discussion about how healthcare is delivered in this country. The facts are that we continue to spend more money per person on healthcare than any other country in the world, but our outcomes are far worse than even the average among our industrialized peers.

There are good reasons to have a discussion about income inequality and economic mobility. The number one factor in this country that influences future success is your father. In other words, if you are the child of a poor father, the barriers to you becoming wealthy are significantly higher than if your father was wealthy, even if everything else in terms of talents, ambition, and determination are the same. The reasons are that poor kids simply don’t have access to the same levels of nutrition, healthcare, education, and investment that are available to wealthy kids. That’s not the case in the rest of the industrialized world. All children have access to healthcare. All children have access to high quality education. All children have access to good nutrition. The best and brightest have a much easier time rising to the top in other countries than they do here. That said, those who have received their education elsewhere are attracted to our country because of the advantages available for the well-off.

There are good reasons to talk about the influence that money has in our politics. Corporations and wealthy individuals have tilted the playing field to their advantage. The result is that taxpayers and small investors end up subsidizing CEO pay, for example, because of tax and trading rules that are in place. Other countries (e.g. Austrialia) have taken successful steps to rein-in corporate pay without damaging their economy.

There are good reasons to talk about the cost of higher education. Our current system is warping the future of kids with huge student loan debt when they graduate. Rather than start their own companies, they are forced to work for big companies that pay well for a decade or more so that they can pay off that debt. Other industrialized countries subsidize the cost of higher education which frees up those graduates to take more risk early in their careers than their peers in this country.

There are good reasons to talk about our spending priorities in this country. We spend way more money on defense and far less money on infrastructure, education, and social services than our industrialized peers.

Trump’s message to Make America Great Again was in part a promise to get government working again for those who felt government has ignored them.

The conversations that I’ve suggested that we need to have are motivated by the same interest. We need to get the government working better for those who aren’t getting healthcare benefits from their employers. We need to get the government working better to help working people who are not getting their fair share of the benefits of economic growth. We need to figure out how government can be made less responsive to the wealthy and more responsive to the majority of voters. We need to figure out what role government can play in making higher education more accessible to those who can’t currently afford it without going into debt.

None of these topics are specifically socialistic, but all of them can be organized under the larger banner of making government work better for the majority rather than the minority.

No one is suggesting that we dismantle our current representative democracy.

What is being suggested is that voters have a serious discussion about the way our government currently operates.

What is being suggested by some candidates who call themselves Democratic Socialists is that if they are elected, they will advocate for changes to the way government operates in some of the areas that I’ve listed. The ONLY way that these changes will occur is if a majority of voters agree that these changes make sense.

How different are these changes than the changes that outlawed child labor, the 40 hour work week, public schools, or public libraries?

IMHO, there is no difference.

So let’s try to have these needed conversations without the hysteria that the country is being overtaken by some evil force. It’s not, unless that evil force is the people who resist change and are willing to demonize even a discussion about change as a slippery slope into communism.

52 Responses to “Socialism”

  1. Keith says:

    Thanks for the response Jeff and glad to know you’re well. Traverse City is a great place. Does this move mean retirement?

  2. Jeff Beamsley says:

    Thanks for the response Jeff and glad to know you’re well. Traverse City is a great place. Does this move mean retirement?

    We’ve been vacationing in the TC area since 1989. We purchased a house on Lake Leelanau in 2008. We knocked down that house and built a new one three years ago. Our plan was always to relocate here, but we had to get the house up here done first. Then we had to work on getting our house ready to sell. Then we actually had to sell it and move. It has been a lot of work, but I’m happy that we finally made it to this point.

    I’ve developed a new rule of thumb as a result. For every ten years that you have lived in a house, you can figure that you’ve accumulated one dumpster full of junk. In our case 30 years was easily three dumpsters.

    We are still keeping an apartment in Monroe at least for now. Our plan is three weeks up here and one week down there. We’ll see how that goes.

    Most of my work is location independent. My wife just finished a contract with the City of Monroe, so this is convenient for her too.

    I imagine we will both retire at some point, but I enjoy what I do. So as long as people are willing to pay me to help them, I’m happy to be involved.

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