Labels

A few days ago, Peggy left a profound comment about the cause of America’s currently unproductive public discourse. She wrote “The problem is actually in the labelling. Take the Democratic legislative priorities in Congress. If you just poll on the issues, urban and rural both approve of the voting rights bill, the infrastructure bill, and even the immigration (almost) reform bill. Only when you add the label Dem or GOP do they disagree.”

Let me share a recent illustration.

This week, our family is at the beach in South Carolina. We drive from Indianapolis (a long haul!!) and come in through Georgetown, SC. We typically stop on Front Street at Georgetown for lunch, and because we were meeting a cousin and we were a bit early, I shopped a bit. In one shop, I asked the owner what had happened to a similar store that was no longer there. She explained how the pandemic had hurt local retailing (which was already suffering), and we commiserated over the reluctance of people to be vaccinated.

Then she said something to the effect that “at least we aren’t Cuba–I hope Americans aren’t dumb enough to become socialists.” It was abundantly clear that she would not have been able to define “socialism” if her life had depended upon it.

And that’s our problem–right AND left. We throw labels around–often as epithets–because that relieves us of the need to actually know what we’re talking about. It explains the often-noted conundrum Peggy referenced between public opinion on particular issues and the same public’s rejection of those advocating for those issues: large majorities of Americans support Medicare, for example, but oppose “socialized” medicine.

As I have repeatedly noted, all functioning societies have mixed economies in which they “socialize” certain services and leave others to the private sector. We socialize–that is, communally provide–things like police and fire protection, public education (currently under attack), infrastructure (currently crumbling) and municipal services like garbage collection. We do so because we’ve concluded that the service is important and communal delivery is more cost-effective. National health care wouldn’t turn us into Cuba (nor, unfortunately, Denmark.)

Similarly, if you deconstruct the online diatribes I encounter against “Capitalism,” they mostly fail to distinguish between market economies and the corrupted corporatism that dominates in America these days.

As I have argued previously, labeling is not analysis. Worse, it gets in the way of thoughtful or productive discussion. The media’s default description of pretty much all public policies is “Left” or “Right.” That’s easy–and almost always misleading. In an era of tribalism and partisanship, the mere labeling of a proposal as either right or left eclipses any effort to ask the pertinent questions: does this make sense? Does this solve a real problem? Can we enforce it? Instead, the argument gets reduced to: “Who wins? Is this something those people support? If so, I don’t.”

With respect to those hysterical GOP accusations that Democrats are all “socialists,” I still quote a 2019 Paul Krugman column addressing the misuse of economic terminology:

The Democratic Party has clearly moved left in recent years, but none of the presidential candidates are anything close to being actual socialists — no, not even Bernie Sanders, whose embrace of the label is really more about branding (“I’m anti-establishment!”) than substance.

Nobody in these debates wants government ownership of the means of production, which is what socialism used to mean. Most of the candidates are, instead, what Europeans would call “social democrats”: advocates of a private-sector-driven economy, but with a stronger social safety net, enhanced bargaining power for workers and tighter regulation of corporate malfeasance. They want America to be more like Denmark, not more like Venezuela.

The foundational policy questions are: what is government for? What sorts of things do rational people believe government must–or should–do, and what sorts of things should a free country leave to the private sector? What sorts of rules should government establish to ensure that private economic activity is conducted fairly, and what sorts of regulatory activity is over-reaching? 

Labels are the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Evidently, a lot of Americans fall into that category.

18 thoughts on “Labels

  1. Having a background in economics can be a curse because we’ve been trained to speak in a obscure language of nuance and balance when it comes to the government’s role in the economy and the effects of its particular policies on society. In recent years, however, I’ve come to learn that this kind of discussion simply falls on deaf ears no matter the education level of the audience.

    So now I just come out and say I personally prefer a democratic socialist combination of economy and government over the crony-capitalist oligarchic combination that has been prevalent in our country for 240+ years and especially in the last 35-40. I find that it often leads to a more productive discussion with a lot of people than preaching from Paul Samuelson’s canonical Economics textbook.

    But sooner or later, abortion, guns, vaccines or religion derail the conversation and make it moot.

  2. “But sooner or later, abortion, guns, vaccines or religion derail the conversation and make it moot.”

    Patrick; that sentence pretty much describes why I vote straight Democratic in all elections now rather than my early years of being an Independent voter. I would add voter suppression to your list of derailments.

    A while back, someone on the blog called me on my anti-Catholic rants, asking if they were any different than anti-Semitism. I had to plead mea culpa on that; and it happened before the election and inauguration of our current Catholic President who is fighting to return humanism and our voting and civil rights to us, some of which go against his religion. It didn’t take long after his inauguration and beginning his fight that some were displeased with his decisions and began labeling him too far right…forgetting what he was faced with in the aftermath of Trump’s leavings and McConnell still ruling the Senate from his minority position. On that vaccine issue they negated the unknown number of lives saved by his straight-out attack on the Pandemic from day one.

    “Labels are the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Evidently, a lot of Americans fall into that category.”

    That includes those professing to be Democrats; I must plead another mea culpa being guilty of that myself at times. Not sure “we” are intellectually lazy; we are all overburdened at this time with, not only this country but the world appearing to be falling apart as we watch, helpless to end Mother Nature’s destruction and the returning Covid-19 Pandemic.

  3. Labels do have their place. One good example would be canned soup, another canned vegetables. I think we would all prefer not to have canned government.

  4. While the young woman at the shop may not have been able to define “socialist”, Mitch McConnell and others in the GQP certainly can (unsure about this latest crop of Trumpublicans in Congress). McConnell and his cohorts use the term socialist as a weapon, knowing full well that their voters will hear that word and turn against any policy to which that term is applied, even if said policy would improve their lives. I have relatives that fall into this category, one of whom is a pilot for a major airline. It saddens me, as these are people I love, but I have basically cut myself off from them. I know there is nothing I can say that will open their minds.

  5. Socialism is a form of economy, not government and it does not work. New Harmony, Indiana tried it in what was an agrarian society. While everyone should be born with AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY TO SUCCEED IN WHAT EVER ENDEAVOR THEY CHOOSE, we are not equal in what each can do. Some can play basketball far better than most, some can play the piano or sing far better than most or be a butcher, baker or candlestick maker. Now do we as a culture reward each endeavor equally?
    Denmark is a very strong capitalistic country with a representative democratic government that works hand in hand with the various corporations to maintain a mostly even SOCIAL STRUCTURE. Norway spends 2/3 of the profits from North Sea oil production for the public good-the government ‘owns’ 2/3 of the oil rigs/business in the North Sea. Reasoning that no private entity owns the North Sea. Norway has a limited monarchy but with a representative democratic government. Not a totalitarian, not oligarchy or any other governmental form. It works for Norway.

  6. I use the simple formula of “total government spending/GDP” as roughly the part of a mixed economy that is socialist. In the US now it about 42%. The rest is capitalist.

    All countries in the world today have mixed economies. The percentage of socialism of the total varies somewhat.

    I would think that number for us is not exceptional in the world.

  7. I suppose I have become jaded in my 84 years but, in the form of Labeling, the only thing I can compare Jeff Bezos’ space flight to is Donald Trump’s “trip” to North Korea with Kim Jong Un.

  8. Blindly voter for a label (whether D or R) is falling into the trap we are discussing today. So…

    – Would you vote for Ilhan Omar over Richard Lugar?
    – Would you vote for a “red dog GOPer” in a congressional district that will be GOP by gerrymandering over an incumbent Q-Anon follower?

  9. Peggy, that was funny!
    Lester, yes, I would vote for the “redo” over a delusional Q-Anon follower,” whilst holding my nose.
    “Labels are the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Evidently, a lot of Americans fall into that category.” Still, the label issue is so pertinent. Americans are considered to be the most widely entertained people, which, imho, is consistent with “intellectually lazy.” Too many of us would rather binge watch the Hallmark Channel than use our gray matter, for instance. “Christmas in July?” Give me a break!
    BTW, there is an excellent opinion piece, from the NYTimes, about loneliness, and dysfunction in America, and how it has played into the Q-Anon phenomenon.

  10. I would agree with Patrick: “But sooner or later, abortion, guns, vaccines or religion derail the conversation and make it moot.”

    The old cliche comes into play too: Liberal = Socialist = Communist = Stalin = Mao = Castro. When Bernie Sanders ran for President in 2016 and he laid out his platform, the GOP had no answer to his platform or the issues he raised, except he is a Socialist.

    Democratic Socialism has been vilified. The McMega-Media is all enthralled by the “Billionaires in Space”. This is the latest in conspicuous consumption, big yachts, multiple mansions are not enough.

  11. One of the best things assignments I ever came up was when I had my poli sci students identify a political position they felt strongly about. Then I had them argue the other side of that position.

    The assignment wasn’t to get people to change their minds about the issue they felt passionate about, but to sharpen their arguments for that position by gaining an understanding of why the people on the other side feel the way they do. By understanding the other side, you’re better able to argue your position.

    One thing I noticed right away was when it came to arguing the other side, the immediate reaction was to latch on to the labels and bumper sticker rhetoric that they had heard. It was hard to get them to get beyond that, to understand why people believed what they believed.

  12. While I am not surprised at those vilifying Bezos, Branson or Musk for their space efforts as personal achievements to reflect glory upon themselves, I have to remember that this country has been in thrall to the wealthy for decades if not centuries for all sorts of reflected glory decisions that have affected the lesser of us. Cotton, whaling, fishing, railroads, finance, insurance, mining, oil, agribusiness, big Pharma have all had a heavy hand in deciding what philanthropic and governmental endeavors are worthy of their support (and personal labeling). Many of those decisions do offer the rest of us something we all need to have a quality of life that exceeds mere survival. The fact of the matter is that THEY get to make the decisions about what those activities are and who benefits first, them or the common good.
    Most of us lesser beings are either willfully ignorant or benefit from the short term largess and don’t object to the entitlement and hubris involved because we are pretty sure any objections would be fruitless, especially when the power structure holds all the purse strings. We also understand that private wealth can and often does provide benefits beyond what governments can provide.
    While we may believe that the common good can and should have safety nets in place, regulation to curtail greed and malfeasance in businesses serving the public through direct or contractual means is necessary and educating the next generation to make good decisions about the means of governance is imperative, the wealthy are busy lobbying and buying elected officials, local, state and federal, to insure that their interests are served first and foremost. Those of us who recognize that social contracts for common needs and protections, shared by all and serving all as necessary and productive for everyone are demeaned and dismissed as socialist or worse, communists.
    It is certainly not the first time in our short history as a democratic republic that the conflicts between the haves and the have-nots have become open and hostile, divided along political, racial and/or religious lines. The difference is that information technology has exposed and accelerated how quickly we get messaged, propagandized and selectively informed. It is indeed a brave new world.

  13. Labels are often a result of all or nothing thinking. Labels are used to demonize candidates and often reflect our divisive, intolerant political systems. Labels also allow people to avoid looking at the weaknesses in their own policy proposals and candidates i.e.DT. People love to point their finger at their opponent. In doing so, they often have 3 fingers pointing at themselves. It’s easy to point out the dirt in someone else’s house. The hardest house to clean is one’s own. Narcissists prefer to focus on someone else’s dirt.

    This is why compromise is so important. Ideally, creating policies that are a synthesis of conservative and progressive ideas leads to policies that truly serve the greater good and diminish the weaknesses in conservative and progressive policies.

    Yes, we have socialist programs.If not for social security, I’d be living in poverty now. My Medicare has much better coverage than the Anthem BC/BS insurance my last employer paid for. It had a much larger deductible.

    The capitalist oligarchy is more concerned with profit and hoarding wealth than working for the greater good. This is why people are going bankrupt because of expensive health care. That is a violation of the “Do No Harm” oath of Hippocrates.

    It would seem that the Scandanavian countries have created a healthy balance between socialist programs that create a safety net and capitalism. I would guess their citizens are happier because they don’t have to worry about paying for their childrens’ college education nor the price of health care. They are less individualistic and more communal. I would guess they are less lonely than Americans. The negative side of this is really high taxation. Perhaps they have decided that people are more important than the stuff one can buy.

    Peggy thanks for the laughs. I needed that today. Jeff Bezos flight into space is self serving. He shares very little of his wealth and is a perfect example of how ugly the capitalist oligarchy can be. Philanthropy seems to be something alien to him.

  14. After writing a letter to the editor on the benefits of critical thinking, I received a hand-scrawled reply saying, “You don’t know what you are talking about. We’re lucky we have smart people to do our thinking for us.” This is not a one-off opinion. Many people cement their role as part of a group by buying into and repeating the ideas that group approves. As the author Sheila referred to yesterday, Johnathan Rauch, points out, this occurs even when people know that are wrong because the value of belonging to a group, to them, outweighs the benefits of coming down on the side of reality.

    America as a nation won’t really work again until a clear majority of its citizens re-adopt the notion that evaluating solutions on their merit is superior to siding with fellow ideologues. Unfortunately, for the time being, reality based thinking seems to be a U-turn that is severely punishable – not by law, but by social media and politicians. It sometimes appears to me that the Republicans are winning even though they are a minority and are wrong about almost everything. Darn it! I used a label.

  15. We are all social democrats whether we know it or not (as in the case of Sheila’s friend in the Palmetto State), living in an admixture of socialism and capitalism in varying degrees, but some of us are more socially democratic than others (as in the fable where one pig is more equal than others). The only real argument is how much of either ism is to be added or subtracted from application to public issues for policy purposes.

    I, for instance, favor the Danish model for its social safety net and the German-Nordic model of requiring by law that corporate boards be open to a certain number of union workers of the particular corporation. There are other members of the corporate enterprise who in a democratic nirvana could be added to corporate boards, members such as representatives of the community in which the corporation is sited, environmentalists, consumers et al. Neither the corporate enterprise nor the economy in which corporations exist belongs exclusively to shareholders and Wall Street. It is our economy; corporations and crapshooters from Wall Street are, like the rest of us, mere participants subject to regulation of their activities.

    Pure socialism is a demonstrated failure, as pure capitalism would be but for public regulation of its tendency to greedy excess without reference to the common good, and as I write elsewhere, capitalism can work for all of us but not as currently practiced. Our Congress could learn much from a trip to Copenhagen.

  16. Labels can be used to simplify, to remove nuance. It’s sloganeering. The GOP is excellent at it. Trump is almost-unbelievably incompetent at almost everything, but self-promotion, and ferreting out slogans (or nicknames) that trigger are two areas in which he excels.

    The labels are more about obscuring detail and providing a handle for opposition. They allow one to already be decided on an issue without knowing anything about it.

    It’s like the ACA, or Obamacare. Described individually, the pieces of it were extremely popular, but as soon as it was “named”, the GOP supporters hated it. You can see similarities with the pieces that make up “gun control.” When focussing on the label, they can ignore what it really means. Fox and the GOP are terrible for this. They make the label define one side of a culture war.

    And the same is true of “socialism,” of course. America is already a socialist country, in much the same way Canada and a lot of Europe is, but somewhat more limited. One way America is way more socialist than those other countries is how you provide for the rich: tax breaks for the wealthy, lower tax on capital gains, lower corporate taxes, crackdowns on unions, subsidies for oil and gas companies, bailouts of companies with few strings attached despite terrible malfeasance, etc., etc.

    It honestly breaks my heart. My main philosophical stance is pretty simple. I want policies that benefit the most people, with focus on those with the least. The rich and powerful are going to be fine without help from me. I prefer to keep it simple, though, and deploy universal policies rather than ones gated by some type of expensive bureaucratic means-testing. That just means less to go to those that need it. If you want some sort of means-testing, employ it in your annual taxing, where you already have a process to pull money from the richer people into the government to be used for the common good of all.

  17. A late comment — but

    Thank you for picking up on that important point. I never knew that Kawanis was a Socialist organization until I was told about Christina Hale, “I wouldn’t vote for that Socialist”.

    Mitch – you’ve discovered my secret retreat – when the news makes me want to pull out any hair that remains in my head, I switch to the Hallmark Channel for purely mindless, and completely predictable fluff. It is like a tranquilizer, but definitely not addicting. I return to the real world after the appropriate dose has been watched for the situation. 8)>

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