Tag Archives: socialism

I Love Tom Nichols…..

I recently signed up for Peacefield, a newsletter by Atlantic writer Tom Nichols. The name Peacefield is evidently a reference to something that escapes me–but Nichols is my kind of writer: he doesn’t mince words, and he respects language.

And words were the subject of this particular newsletter.

Nichols began by relating his debates with a fellow faculty member during his time as an academic. ( At the time, his colleague was far to the left of him.)

We’d run through a whole lexicon of political insults, but my favorite moment was a day when I exclaimed “Bolshevik!” and he barked “Hun!” and the two of us broke up in a prolonged fit of laughter….

We enjoyed these jousts, in part because we understood the words we were using and knew when we meant them and when we were kidding. We argued over who had the better policies, and over whose view of human nature and the right order of society should prevail. But I didn’t think he was a Communist and he didn’t think I was a Nazi.

Now we use these terms all day long and no one knows what they mean.

Nichols is frustrated by “how much of our public discourse is short-circuited by people who don’t understand basic terminology.”

I share that frustration. It is impossible to have a genuine, productive debate or discussion with someone who is using words that don’t mean what that person thinks they mean. Human communication is difficult even when the parties to a discussion both use language precisely; it’s impossible when one party simply uses terminology as an insulting–and  inaccurate– label.

In the linked article, Nichols gives “quick and dirty” definitions to terms that are often used indiscriminately–for example, Liberal Democracy.

What it is: A system of government that lets you read cranky articles about politics like the one you’re reading right now.

More specifically, democracies derive a ruling mandate from the free choices of citizens, who are equal before the law and who can freely express their preferences. Liberal democracies enshrine a respect for basic human rights (including the right of old cranks to speak their mind). Rights are, one might say, unalienable: The losers of elections do not have their rights stripped away. All citizens abide by constitutional and legal rules agreed upon in advance of elections and are willing to transfer power back and forth to each other peaceably.

What it isn’t: “The majority always rules.” Getting everything you want every time. Governing without negotiation or compromise. Winning every election. Never living with outcomes that disappoint you. Never running out of toilet paper or cat food.

Democracy, in sum, is not “things you happen to like.”

He goes through an entire political lexicon, defining what various terms mean, and especially what they don’t mean. For example, after  defining “Authoritarianism,” he explains what it isn’t.

Any rules you don’t like. Any laws you don’t like. Any election that you didn’t like. Anything that inconveniences or annoys you. Anything that limits you doing whatever you want, whenever you want, in any way that you want. Paying your taxes, obeying speed limits, or wearing a mask in a store are not “authoritarianism.”

He also offers a snarky explanation of libertarianism, and  particularly good definitions of Capitalism and Socialism. And he reminds us that precision in language matters– that everything you don’t like isn’t necessarily fascism or socialism.

The term I wish more people would think about—and this is why I wrote a book about it—is illiberal democracy, because that’s where we’re headed. This is what happens when everything about liberal democracy—tolerance, trust, secular government, the rule of law, political equality—gets hollowed out and all people remember is the word democracy.

And of course, once you dump all that other stuff, democracy means “absolute rule by 50.01 percent of the voters.”

As Nichols notes, this is what we’re seeing now in places like Turkey and Hungary. All that matters is winning elections.

The danger here is not that Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán or others are fascists. They’re not, and unlikely to be, since they lack the infrastructure, mass party, ideology, and absolute cult of personality that we saw in the 1930s. (Trump is far too stupid to be an effective fascist, but he definitely has a cult of personality. Still, the Trump Cult is small potatoes compared with what Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini built. Trump is more like a Mickey Mouse version of Juan Perón.)

The danger Nichols sees is the very real possibility that the extremists will destroy the guardrails of democracy–those democratic “norms” that seem to be eroding in real time.

And as he reminds us, the first step is debasing the language.

 

Now I Get It!

For several years now, I’ve been confused about the GOP’s constant warnings about  “socialism”–usually invoked to dismiss reasonable government efforts to address obvious problems and inefficiencies. Typically, the target of those accusations bears little or no resemblance to socialism.

Thanks to a recent column by one of my two favorite Nobel-winning economists, Paul Krugman (the other is Joseph Stiglitz), I now understand. 

It isn’t that Republicans don’t know what socialism is, although most clearly don’t. They  define any social co-operation as socialism.

Krugman’s column connected the dots between several seemingly disparate policy areas: gun rights, COVID vaccine denial and Bitcoin, and explained how Republican policies–really, Republican antipathy to anything that might be considered an actual policy–can all be explained by the party’s rejection of Hobbes’ famous proclamation about the necessity of society, and the very negative consequences of living in a “state of nature.” (Life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.”)

Krugman began by reminding readers of the failure of Texas’ electrical grid during the deep freeze last winter. Governor Abbott’s bizarre response wasn’t to strengthen the grid by requiring energy companies to winterize; it was to encourage Texan Bitcoin mining.

This would supposedly reduce the risk of outages because Bitcoin’s huge electricity consumption would eventually expand the state’s generation capacity.

Yes, that’s as crazy as it sounds. But it fits a pattern.

Then there’s the Florida legislature under Governor DeSantis–intent on blocking any measure that might limit the spread of COVID.

They have, however, gone all in on antibody treatments that are far more expensive than vaccines, with DeSantis demanding that the Food and Drug Administration allow use of antibodies that, the F.D.A. has found, don’t work against Omicron.

Krugman then reminds us (as if we needed reminding!) that, although America leads the world in massacres of school children, Republicans absolutely refuse to enact widely-supported, common-sense measures like restrictions on gun sales, required background checks or bans on privately owned assault weapons. Instead, they want to expand access to guns and, in many states, “protect” students by arming schoolteachers.

What do these examples have in common? As Thomas Hobbes could have told you, human beings can only flourish, can only avoid a state of nature in which lives are “nasty, brutish and short,” if they participate in a “commonwealth” — a society in which government takes on much of the responsibility for making life secure. Thus, we have law enforcement precisely so individuals don’t have to go around armed to protect themselves against other people’s violence.

Public health policy, if you think about it, reflects the same principle. Individuals can and should take responsibility for their own health, when they can; but the nature of infectious disease means that there is an essential role for collective action, whether it is public investment in clean water supplies or, yes, mask and vaccine mandates during a pandemic.

And you don’t have to be a socialist to recognize the need for regulation to maintain the reliability of essential aspects of the economy like electricity supply and the monetary system.

Reading this led me to an “aha” moment. The reason the GOP misuses the word “socialism” is that they have confused this essential social co-operation with the top-down central planning conducted by hardline socialist states. (Democratic socialism of the sort practiced in Scandinavian countries is apparently beyond their capacity to recognize or imagine.)

Krugman says that the modern American right is antisocial —not anti-socialist.  It summarily rejects any policy that relies on social cooperation. The policies he has enumerated, and a number of others, would return us to Hobbes’s dystopian state of nature.

We won’t try to keep guns out of the hands of potential mass murderers; instead, we’ll rely on teacher-vigilantes to gun them down once the shooting has already started. We won’t try to limit the spread of infectious diseases; instead, we’ll tell people to take drugs that are expensive, ineffective or both after they’ve already gotten sick.

Even the party’s weird embrace of Bitcoin falls into this category. As Krugman notes, a number of Republicans have become fanatics about cryptocurrency. He quotes one  Senate candidate who proclaims himself to be “pro-God, pro-family, pro-Bitcoin.” Krugman notes that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin

play into a fantasy of self-sufficient individualism, of protecting your family with your personal AR-15, treating your Covid with an anti-parasite drug or urine and managing your financial affairs with privately created money, untainted by institutions like governments or banks.

In the end, none of this will work. Government exists for a reason. But the right’s constant attacks on essential government functions will take a toll, making all of our lives nastier, more brutish and shorter.

We need to move America’s Overton Window back from the brink….

 

 

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.”