Tag Archives: socialism

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.

The End Of Free Markets?

Last month, Time Magazine published an article asserting that the “free market” was effectively dead. The author then went on to speculate over what might replace.it. (For the record, I’m pretty skeptical of definitive pronouncements of this sort–as I used to tell my students, the real world is considerably more complicated than that.)

Time’s conclusion was evidently prompted by a recent meeting in the White House between President Biden and the CEOs of some of America’s largest companies, attended by the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (whose “presence was enough to rock the political landscape” according to the article.)

“Washington’s most powerful trade group is having a political identity crisis,” wrote Politico. Two weeks later, a group of 150 CEOs, unaffiliated with the Chamber, followed suit, throwing their weight behind Biden’s COVID relief bill, which sailed through Congress. They have been similarly supportive of the additional $2 trillion the administration has now proposed for infrastructure spending – but they unsurprisingly don’t want corporate tax rates to be the means for paying for it.

The article went on to say that corporate America’s support for public investment is not a new or temporary phenomenon–rather, it’s evidence of the “most profound realignment in American political economy in nearly forty years,” and it cites the rise of ethno-nationalism on the right and democratic socialism on the left as evidence of a widespread disillusionment with conventional economic wisdom.

For the record, the “conventional economic wisdom” being undermined has only been conventional for some 40 years.

The article traces the evolution of free market absolutism, and acknowledges that prior to the 1970s, most economists had advocated fairly robust government action—countercyclical fiscal spending, management of the currency, tactical protectionism—to create long-term prosperity. The emergence and influence of what the article calls “free market apostles” changed that, and led to what we now call Reaganomics–the notion that virtually any government regulation of the market is unhelpful, if not illegitimate. (This required some cherrypicking of Adam Smith, but hey…)

Interestingly, in what may be the most insightful portion of the article, it connected this shift to an anti-government “free market” philosophy to racial politics. The need for government to take a “hands off” approach coincided with federal efforts to ameliorate some of the most egregious economic effects of state-sanctioned racism.

In any event, while the article argues that public and expert opinion have swung against what it labels “free-market orthodoxy,” what is actually happening–at least among people who are concerned with such things– is a return to a much more nuanced understanding of market economics.

Virtually all rich countries today have mixed economies, in which certain services are “socialized”–i.e., provided communally by government–and others are left to a market subject to reasonable regulation. Americans love “either/or” politics–it’s either capitalism or socialism, freedom or tyranny. That makes for great sloganeering, but bad politics.

The issue isn’t free markets versus socialism. The actual issues confronting policymakers are much more nuanced, and fall into two broad categories: 1) which services ought to be provided by government, and which should be left to the market? and 2) what regulations are needed to ensure the proper operation of that market and which are counterproductive? Just how “free” should markets be?

People of good will will have different answers to those questions, and it would be nice if the ensuing arguments were evidence based–although I’m not holding my breath.

I do know that those evidence-based conversations are not encouraged by headlines suggesting that a new emphasis on anti-trust enforcement or other regulatory activity is tantamount to the end of the free market.

Atwater’s Explanation Still Applies

I believe it was Tallyrand who said “Man was given speech to disguise his thoughts, and words to disguise his eyes.” Had he been a contemporary American, he’d have been an enthusiastic Republican.

The late, legendary campaign consultant Lee Atwater once explained how Republicans won the vote of racists by manipulating language:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Nowadays, the economic linguistic game revolves around “socialism.” It took me a long time to realize that it’s the same game.

As an article in TNR noted,

to hear Republicans tell it, virtually everything government does is socialism; it is utterly foreign to the United States, and it cannot be implemented without imposing tyranny on the American people, along with poverty and deprivation such as we see today in Venezuela, where socialism allegedly destroyed the country.

It’s necessary to label and distort, to hide the real message, because many of the programs that trigger GOP hysteria over “socialism” are wildly popular: Medicare and Social Security come to mind. (Others are expected government services. As one friend noted on Facebook when it began to snow, “Look out for those socialist snowplows!”)

If GOP pundits and policymakers really wanted to discuss economics, rather than hide their actual motives, they would define their terms. They don’t, so allow me.

Socialism is generally what we call mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S. (Not as much higher as most think, actually)—Scandinavian countries are an example. The terminology tends to obscure the fact that most of those countries also maintain thriving private sector capitalist markets. 

Republicans misuse of the term also obscures the considerable amount of socialism enjoyed by wealthy Americans. A system that privatizes profits and socializes losses is hardly free-market capitalism. It’s socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the poor.

Socialism isn’t Communism. Communists believe that equality is defined by equal results. All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

Socialism isn’t Fascism. Some of our dimmer policymakers like to say that Nazi Germany was “Socialist” because fascism was sometimes called “national Socialism,” however the two are very different. In fascist systems, the nation is elevated—a fervent nationalism (MAGA?) is central to fascist philosophy. Although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to insist upon traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

The biggest problem with turning words into epithets, or using them to veil our real meaning isn’t just that it’s intellectually dishonest; it’s because labeling and dismissing avoids the conversations we ought to be having.

For one thing, the use of economic language to obscure real motives has left the U.S. with the most dysfunctional–and expensive– delivery of health care in the developed world.

The basic question in any economic system is: what should government do, and what should be left to the private sector? Another way to put that is: what services should be supplied communally? We “socialize” police and fire protection, provision of most physical infrastructure, and numerous other services–parks, garbage collection, schools, those snow plows–because it is fairer, more efficient and/or more cost-effective to do so. Those decisions don’t turn us into Venezuela.

When you deconstruct it, the GOP opposition to programs they label “socialism” is explained perfectly by  Atwater’s admission. White Republican Americans are unwilling to have their taxes benefit “those people.”

 

 

A Broken Record: Socialism and Capitalism

As I often tell my students, we Americans tend to be bipolar in our approach to the world. Events, policies and people are either all good or all bad, other nations are either “evil-doers” (in George W. Bush’s awkward formulation) or “good guys,” regulation is either killing jobs or protecting children.

Everything is either/or.

Unfortunately for our ability to communicate with each other,  life and reality aren’t so neatly divided.

The recurrent hysteria (on the Right) over “socialism” and the ferocious attacks (from the Left) on capitalism are part and parcel of that unrealistic (albeit comfortingly simple) dichotomy. In the messy real world, the pertinent questions are very different–even when the people making the arguments actually are able to define their terms, which they so often can’t.

Much of the current hostility to capitalism, for example, mistakes America’s current economic reality for capitalism. In some localities, it still may be, but nationally– thanks to money in politics, lobbying by powerful interests, outright corruption and a number of other unfortunate systemic fails– what we have is mostly corporatismor crony capitalism, not the idealized market system to which conservatives and ad agencies genuflect.

Genuine market competition has considerable merits: it encourages innovation and tends to keep consumer prices affordable. If I make a better mousetrap for a better price, my business grows, I hire more workers, and consumers catch more mice for the same money.

Similarly, “socialism” isn’t a dirty word, nor does it imply totalitarian communism. It is simply the communal delivery of services. We socialize police and fire protection, public schools, parks and highways and garbage collection, among other things, because it makes practical and economic sense to provide those things communally.

The question isn’t “should we have socialism or capitalism?” The question is: what sorts of things should a society provide communally–i.e., what services should be socialized–and what goods and services should be provided by the private market?

The question also isn’t: regulation versus no regulation. The question is: what regulations?

We want rules that ensure a level playing field–that prevent a manufacturer from dumping his waste in our rivers in order to keep his costs below those of his competitors, or that prevent a group of businesses from colluding to keep prices artificially high. We don’t want rules that are poorly conceived or unnecessarily onerous–but determining which rules are appropriate and which ones aren’t requires knowing something about the activities being regulated, and making informed judgments.

It requires the sort of expertise that Trump types sneer at as “elitist.”

Too many Americans want bumper-sticker solutions to complicated problems that don’t lend themselves to simplistic approaches. They want black-and-white answers to issues that require recognizing and working within several shades of gray. Too many of America’s loudest voices use terms they can’t define (or often, spell) and fling them as epithets rather than employing them to communicate.

We may disagree about the proper way to deliver certain services–whether we should “socialize” this or that economic or social activity or leave a particular service or function to a properly and deliberately regulated market. Those debates can be productive.

Labelling everything that offends us as “socialism” or “capitalism”–depending upon which intemperate and uninformed end of the political fringe you inhabit– gets us exactly nowhere. It may make the labeler feel superior and self-satisfied, but it doesn’t help solve our complicated problems, and it pisses off the folks at the other end of the ideological spectrum.

More About Economic Systems

A comment posted to yesterday’s blog noted that I had not defined capitalism. Fair point.

The following description is from my last book, Talking Politics? What You Need To Know Before Opening Your Mouth, in which I included the following descriptions/comparison of capitalism and socialism.

Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. It is characterized by free markets, where the prices of goods and services are determined by supply and demand, rather than set by government. Economists often define the ideal of free trade as a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to that transaction.

Understanding the importance of free trade to capitalism is important, because it defines the proper role of government in a capitalist system—as an “umpire” or referee, ensuring that everyone plays by the rules. For example, Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that monopolies distort markets; if one company can dominate a market, that company can dictate prices and other terms with the result that those transactions will no longer be truly voluntary. If Manufacturer A can avoid the cost of disposing of the waste produced by his factory, by dumping it into the nearest river, he will be able to compete unfairly with Manufacturer B, who is following the rules governing proper waste disposal. If Chicken Farmer A is able to control his costs and gain market share by failing to keep his coops clean and his chickens free of disease, unwary consumers will become ill. Most economists agree that in order for markets to operate properly, government must act as an “umpire,” assuring a level playing field.

This need for government is a response to what economists call “market failure.” There are three situations in which Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t work: when monopolies or corrupt practices replace competition; when so-called “externalities” like pollution harm people who aren’t party to the transaction (who are neither buyer nor seller); and when there are “information asymmetries,” that is, when buyers don’t have access to information they need to bargain in their own interest. Since markets don’t have built-in mechanisms for dealing with these situations, most economists argue that regulation is needed.

Economists and others often disagree about the need for particular regulations, but most do agree that an absence of all regulatory activity undermines capitalism. Unregulated markets can lead to a different system, sometimes called corporatism. In corporatist systems, government regulations favoring powerful corporate interests are the result of lobbying by corporate and monied special interests that stand to benefit from them. You might think of it as a football game where one side has paid the umpire to make calls favorable to that team.

Socialism is the collective provision of goods and services. The decision whether to pay for certain services collectively rather than leaving their production and consumption to the free market can be based upon a number of factors. First, there are some goods that free markets cannot or will not produce. Economists call them public goods, and define them as both “non-excludable” –meaning that individuals who haven’t paid for them cannot be effectively kept from using them—and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that use by one person does not reduce the availability of that good to others. Examples of public goods include fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems and street lighting. If we are to have these goods, they must be supplied by the whole society, usually through government, and paid for with tax dollars.

Not all goods and services that we provide collectively are public goods. Policymakers have often based decisions to socialize services on other considerations: we socialize police and fire protection because doing so is generally more efficient and cost-effective, and because most of us believe that limiting such services only to people who can afford to pay for them would be immoral. We socialize garbage collection in more densely populated urban areas in order to enhance the livability of our cities and to prevent disease transmission.

Getting the “mix” right between goods that we provide collectively and those we leave to the free market is important, because too much socialism hampers economic health. Just as unrestrained capitalism can become corporatism, socializing the provision of goods that the market can supply reduces innovation and incentives to produce. During the 20th Century, many countries experimented with efforts to socialize major areas of their economies, and even implement  socialism’s extreme, communism, with uniformly poor results. Not only did economic productivity suffer, so did political freedom. (When governments have too much control over the means of production and distribution, they can easily become authoritarian.)

Virtually all countries today have mixed economies. The challenge is getting the right balance between socialized and free market provision of goods and services.