Thursday, September 6, 2018

Let's Talk About Socialism, Because Everyone Else Is

I suppose we should talk about socialism. Everyone else seems to be these days- but here's the kicker that's sort of starting to annoy me. All these people running around talking about the glories of socialism and how socialist they are and how we should all be socialist? I'm not sure they really understand what the hell socialism actually is. (And for that matter, not having lived in a socialist country for the majority of my life, I'm not quite sure what it is either, but I'm willing to take a whack at it.)

So, let's start with a definition. This is what the Googles delivers:
socialism
1. 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.
2. policy or practice based on the political and economic theory of socialism
3. (in Marxist theory) a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism.
Well, there's a lot to unpack with this definition, but for the sake of argument, let's limit our scope somewhat and throw out number 2. It's probably the most abstract definition of the bunch, anyway. This leaves us with #1 and #3. The problem is that when people right now are talking about 'socialism' neither of those two definitions really fit either.

So, if we're going to unpack this a little more I think we've got to throw another definition into the mix: social democracy. Wikipedia leads off that entry with this:
"a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and capitalist economy."
THIS is far closer to the mark of what a lot of Progressives are talking about these days. A lot of Conservatives when they talk about the evil boogeyperson of socialism always go to Venezuela. The pathway that a lot of Progressives talk about when they talk about socialism is closer (at least in theory) to Denmark. The hitch is this, from the second 'graph from the Wikipedia entry:
"Social democracy originated as a political ideology that advocated an evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism using established political processes in contrast to the revolutionary approach to transition associated with orthodox Marxism."
In other words, the destination may be Denmark initially, but the idea is to transition (at least on paper) to a fully socialist system. Hence, the Conservative paranoia about the evil boogeyperson of socialism and Venezuela. (As we can see here, trying to compare Denmark to Venezuela didn't go so well for a Fox News anchor lately- and it was a slipshod comparison that collapsed like a flan in an oven when you pushed on it even slightly.)

I have several things about this whole 'ooooooooh, scaaaary socialism' versus 'socialism, hurray!' thing that's going on.

First: why do we have to be constantly stuck in the 19th century? I mean, our government and (somewhat) our educational system are rooted in the 19th century. Why do we have to default back to a binary that's as old and sclerotic as people from that century at this point? The answer isn't going to be: "If not A, then B" all the damn time. Why can't we come up with something new? I would argue that there's a mountain of data out there for the shortcomings of socialism and it's becoming increasingly obvious that whatever the hell we've got going on in this country, it's not really laissez-faire capitalism. It's more like 'let us pass a tax break to help you with that and oh, we'll get rid of some pesky regulations while we're at it,' which is very much governmental interference in the market. (I type this sitting in an ag state awash in what now? Oh that's right: farm subsidies.)

Second: I have real doubts that moving to a socialist model on a Federal level is going to work. One of the reasons that social democracy worked so well in Europe for as long as it did is that the populations were relatively small and homogeneous and the strains on a lot of European welfare states at the moment are probably incredibly complex in many ways, but to me, the changing nature of that population combined with declining birth rates have to be a factor in the strains that are being put on those societies. That's one thing.

The other thing is money. Money is the great super glue of American life today. We spend $3 trillion on health care today- which seems ludicrous to a lot of people, which is why they're pushing for a socialized, single payer model (for reasons both ideological and fairly sensible- $3 trillion is a hell of a lot of money and a lot of people would argue that they're not getting all that much out of it.) But here's the kicker. In 2016, the Health Insurance industry made an estimated $13.1 billion. That's a health insurance industry with jobs and salaries many of which would go bye-bye if we went to single payer. That's what makes a lot of these major radical changes so unlikely to me... there's industries with a not inconsiderable amount of money that will be invested in maintaining the status quo and I don't care how many laws you pass or taxes you raise. At the end of the day, $13.1 billion is a huge investment in the status quo. Until you provide incentives to change that, ain't nothing gonna change.

Third: I think we're both closer and further away than we think to 'socialism.' In many ways a lot of the structure of the welfare state that we take for granted has been in place for decades now, thanks to the New Deal. Radical transformations seem somewhat unlikely, given our current politics, but a renewal of the New Deal or even a New New Deal of some kind (though I wouldn't brand it as such) could well be feasible to sell to the American people. Medical bankruptcy shouldn't be a thing. People shouldn't worry about securing access to world class medical care. Also, the price of health insurance for individuals should be cheaper. There should be more distance and carefully constructed boundaries between business and government. There should be more regulation of business from government- not necessarily a bureaucratic avalanche of red tape, but effective regulation. Anti-corruption and draining the swamp may have been a rallying cry for President Trump, but anti-corruption efforts are fast becoming a serious policy plank for the Progressive left- and they're not unreasonable things either. Senator Warren's plans for the economy may well make economists and policy wonks shudder, but she's not that far off the mark when it comes to the corruption stuff.

In short, I'm leery of all this ideological talk. I prefer concrete policy proposals that lead to real solutions to problems. Too often, our political system prefers to keep problems around because they can soak them up for votes instead of actually solving them. If I come down on the side of anything, it's probably pragmatic utilitarianism. Take what's possible to do and use it to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people and actually do something and I'll be right behind it.

In short, the people screaming about socialism and what it all means seem to be more wedded to their pet ideology that concrete results. I'm vastly more interested in the latter than the former.

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