Tag Archives: defining our terms

Are We There Yet?

I often think about that old quote asserting that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Of course, there are obviously lots of things that are “new under the sun,” (these days, AI comes to mind) but the very human tendency to use words as labels or weapons, rather than as tools for communication, isn’t one of them. That probably began when the snake sold Adam and Eve on eating the apple.

The problem is, when we use words as  signals or epithets, rather than transmittals of descriptive content, it becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful conversation,  let alone political debate.

Today, terms like “fascist” and “woke” are used to label political opponents rather than to describe particular beliefs or behaviors .

Much like “woke,” (which apparently means “not members of my MAGA tribe”) “fascist” tends to cover a lot of political ground. Which leads me to that saying about nothing being new under the sun, at least when it comes to political discourse.

Back in the day, right-wingers scorned undefined “liberals,” turning the word into a negative accusation. As a consequence, those of a liberal political bent began to self-identify as “progressive.” And as long as I can remember, those on the political far right have reliably labeled any and all social programs as “socialism,” depriving that term of any descriptive use.  Etc.

When words lose their meaning, it becomes very difficult to assess where we are as a nation. Are we on the road to totalitarianism? Fascism?  Given the Supreme Court’s current fondness for returning questions of fundamental rights to the various (and very different) states, is it even possible to talk about a “we”?

What triggered me, and led to this disquisition, was an article warning that America was  dangerously close to fascism.  (My immediate take, for what it is worth, is that the farce that is our current Congress defies comparison to any coherent system.  It’s as though we elected the Keystone Kops.) Like so many articles of the sort, this one didn’t bother to define fascism–but how do we answer the question “are we there yet” unless we know where “there” is?

In my little book Talking Politics, I offered definitions of these very fraught terms.

As I noted, socialism may be the least precise of these political labels. It generally gets (mis)applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example. Those are more accurately called welfare states, or examples of democratic socialism, since genuinely socialist systems are those in which a fairly autocratic government owns the means of production. It is really important to draw that distinction. When Republicans scream about “socialism,” what they usually warn against is communism; socialism can be an “interim step” toward communism.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” 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 little 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).

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” and people who are unaware of history (and ignorant of political philosophy) sometimes get them mixed up, despite the fact that fascism differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism (MAGA??) is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (mythical) glorious past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Fascism generally involves a radical authoritarian nationalism, with fascists seeking to unify the nation through the elevation of the state over the individual, and to mobilize the national community through discipline, indoctrination, and physical training. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are the most notable examples of Fascist regimes.

Now that we’ve defined our terms (and noted some disquieting parallels), we can ask: where are we heading? And I sure hope  we’re not there yet.





Define “A Great Economy”

Our demented President continues to brag about the economy, claiming sole credit for producing good numbers, and (as usual) fabricating many of them.

That said, according to the metrics used by most economists and pundits, the economy is doing quite well.

Republicans running for the House and Senate are trying hard to emphasize that economic “good news,” and one of the more puzzling aspects of the midterm campaigns has been the lack of traction those efforts have generated. Usually, when the economy is humming along, that’s good news for the incumbents; this time, economic arguments don’t seem to be convincing many voters.

The “chattering classes” attribute this to a variety of factors– Trump’s extreme unpopularity, concerns about the negative effects of Trump’s tariffs and the escalating trade war with China. Those things clearly matter, but I have a different explanation: we are using the wrong metrics to measure economic performance . I’ve misplaced the link, but I copied the following paragraph from an MSN website that makes the same point.

A humming national aggregate economy does not necessarily translate into improved livelihoods for most workers. Since the recession, nominal wage growth has been anemic compared to past business cycle peaks. Health-care and education costs keep rising while job benefits disappear. Most households are still in rather precarious financial straits. And there’s still a large population of “shadow” unemployed the official unemployment rate isn’t catching.

According to official statistics, the net worth of the typical American household is still about 20 percent below where it was when Lehman Brothers’ failure triggered the financial crisis. It is true that the gross domestic product is now substantially higher than it was — but a majority of Americans have not seen their incomes improve. And as the above quote notes, the admittedly very good unemployment rate ignores people who have given up looking for work.

If a “good economy” is measured by stock market performance and corporate profitability, then yes, we currently have a good economy. If, however, it is measured both by aggregate indicators and the degree to which citizens share in the prosperity, our economic performance doesn’t look quite so good.

A recent analysis from the Brookings Institution addresses that disconnect. After conceding the positive indicators, the report notes that the labor market continues to struggle.

 Wage growth is still sluggish, with modest gains offset by inflation. Despite recent increases, the share of prime-age Americans in the labor force is still slightly below the pre-Recession level. Levels of unemployment vary widely across places and the population by key demographic characteristics.

The report was generated as part of Brookings annual update of the employment rate gap (which, as the authors explained, differs from the jobs gap), calculating each indicator  by race/ethnicity and level of education. The employment rate gap is the  difference between the demographically adjusted 2007 employment-to-population ratio and the same ratio at other points in time.

As the report concluded,

The Great Recession inflicted economic pain on many American families, but its burden was not equally distributed. Ultimately, the brunt of the Great Recession was borne by those without the protection of postsecondary education. College raises average lifetime earnings, and it also helps insulate workers from economic downturns, providing economic security in the times they need it most. Finally, racial disparities have been less severe in recovery than in the worst years of the Great Recession, though differences in employment rates persist. For the American labor market to be truly healthy, it needs to work for all people—not just some.

A truly “great” economy distributes its largesse widely. It is that often-referenced rising tide that lifts all boats.

When most of the benefits generated by economic productivity enrich only the top 1%–or even the top 10%–that economy is only “great” for the pigs who have monopolized access to the trough.