Saturday, February 20, 2016

When Is a Socialist Not a Socialist?

When Barack Obama was running for President, the Republican Right branded him a “Socialist.”  They have also branded Obamacare as “socialized medicine.”  These claims were so ridiculous that neither Obama nor anyone else ever took the time to set the American people straight on the meaning of these words and the lie they spoke as applied.  Thus for many, the terms stuck.

Now, because of Bernie Sander’s run for the nomination, and his self-identification as a Socialist or what he sometimes refers to as a Democratic Socialist, it is critically important for the American people (and Sanders!) to understand what these words mean before even starting to think about which candidate they prefer.

First, the meaning of Socialism:  “A system of society in which the major means of production are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.”  This definition is from Webster’s and is basically identical with other sources.  

Why government ownership?  The theory is that government is the desired owner because it represents all of the people rather than just a few and so decisions about production and distribution will be made in a way which better meets the needs of the broader society.  Capitalism, on the other hand, where the means of production are owned and controlled by private companies or individuals, makes its decisions on what is produced and how it is distributed based solely on what is in the best interests of the company and its owners/shareholders.

Neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders has ever called for industries, for the means of production, to be owned by or controlled by the government.  Therefore, neither of them are Socialists nor do they advocate Socialism.  

Yes, I know that Sanders identifies himself as a Socialist at times, but he’s not.  I have the feeling he just likes the sound of the word, that it confirms he’s for the people and against big money, and it sets him apart.

The term “Democratic Socialism” is still Socialism as defined above, but the system of government is democratic, that is, representative.  So again, neither Obama or Sanders are or advocate Democratic Socialism.

Well what is Sanders then?  Sanders, like the European countries he often refers to, is a Social Democrat.  I know the semantics may seem confusing, but the differences are important.  

“Social Democracy” refers to a political democracy in which a capitalist system of ownership and production is regulated by the state to make it more reflect the public good and the state helps those who need help with various forms of aid, such as public aid, Medicare, Social Security, etc.  Webster’s also defines it as a state that combines both capitalist and socialist practices. 

So guess what?  The United States is a social democracy, certainly since the Depression.  Only the most radical right-wing Republicans want a purely capitalist state where there is no government regulation (and also no government aid to industry) and no government help for those in need.

The difference between today’s mainstream Republicans (radical has become mainstream for them), Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders are really differences of degree, albeit great, along a continuum from little government social involvement … that is action to promote the public rather than private good … to significant government action to promote the public good.

Hillary wants more government action to help those in need, but does not want to disturb the capitalist model.  Sanders is willing to disturb the capitalist model where necessary to provide for the public good, for example, universal health insurance.  Likewise, Hillary is less willing to closely regulate the financial industry while Sanders wants rather strict regulation of that industry.  

The example of health insurance is perhaps the easiest way of clarifying the distinctions.  In the strictly capitalist model, health insurance is provided by private for-profit insurance companies and is bought by individuals or companies on behalf of employees.  The government is not involved at all.  There would be no such thing as Medicare or Medicaid.  

Even Radical Republicans don’t dare go that far.  They would prefer to remove the government from any programmatic involvement and rely on private insurers, but still provide funding through some type of voucher or income tax credit program.  Which would provide more profits for private insurers.

Bernie Sanders wants universal health care with the government being the single payer, easiest to understand as expanded Medicare for everyone.  This is the system that is in place in most European countries and Canada.  This could fairly be called socialized medical insurance, but the medical delivery system otherwise remains as is.  People can in most cases opt out of this system and choose private care if they so choose.

What Hillary wants is Obamacare.  This is a system that still uses private insurers and so it cannot be called socialized medical insurance because the insurance is not provided by the government.  But the government both regulates and provides subsidies so that those who cannot afford the insurance can still obtain it.  It’s better than what we had before, but it’s a clunky system and there are lots of shortcomings just from my own personal experience.

Bottom line.  The whole “Socialist” or “Democratic Socialist” harangue is a red herring.  
It would be helpful if Sanders started getting his terminology correct and made the point expressed in this post that most everyone regardless of political party is on the same continuum, just at different points of the spectrum.  We are a social democracy, even if not a very progressive one.

This does not lessen the differences between the parties or candidates.  But it does remove scare terminology from the debate and instead places the question clearly where it should be … how much help should the government provide its citizens, directly or indirectly?  Is health care a basic right that everyone should have?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Understanding Why America Is No Longer, and Perhaps Can Never Be, As Great As It Was

People either go on about how great America is, or they lament that America is not as great as it used to be.  In the first case, people typically ignore reality.  In the second case, they often ignore fundamental factors. 

When people say that America is great, they are either referring to the strength of our military (which is a fact), the size of our economy (which is a fact), or the things America stands for (which is also a fact, at least in theory).  

However, while we unquestionably have a strong military it does not serve its purpose of protecting American interests because our enemies are not cowed by our might nor do we have the political willingness or financial ability to send our military everywhere it is needed to protect our interests.  Thus we are not really as strong as our size and might would make it appear.  American strength is somewhat of a facade.

Our economy is also the largest in the world, even though the Chinese have been rapidly catching up with us.   We also have the most stable and strongest domestic economy in the world.  But our corporations, and as a result our financial well-being, have become so interconnected with the stability of the rest of the world economy that our economy is not as strong/stable as it was.  

Further, because of stagnant wages and loss of middle-class jobs, financial inequality in America has soared and become damaging and our middle class, which was the bedrock of our consumer economy, has been eviscerated.  The American people are hurting even as its corporations are prospering.  Then there’s the fact that the rest of the world, in particular China, holds most of the debt that we have incurred spending more than we take in, especially as a result of the disastrous Bush II tax cuts and the Iraq war.

As to American exceptionalism being a function of our ideals, as I’ve noted in prior posts, this exceptionalism is mostly a myth (see “American Exceptionalism - A Myth Exposed”).  America has never lived up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence or the 14th Amendment.

On the other hand, when people speak of America not being as great as it was, they often speak of America not being respected because our military needs to be stronger.  But the lack of respect has little to do with the strength of our military.  It is more because America has not for many years had the moral authority that it once had, even if it was based on an illusion.  Also, as noted above, our guerrilla enemies are not scared of our military prowess.

When they speak of our economy being weaker, they do focus on the issues I raised above, but the underlying context is not addressed.  The economy is not as great as it was because the world has changed and America has changed.  

The world has changed because 3rd world countries are no longer just producers of raw material (with the glaring exception of most of Africa).  And so they produce products that would pose competitive problems for U.S. production even without the free market trade agreements that have proliferated at the behest of both economists and corporations.  Unless the U.S. would enact high protective trade barriers to keep many foreign products out of the U.S.  But that would create a different problem … the combination of not having inexpensive foreign-produced items to purchase and a reasonable growth in U.S. workers’ wages would lead to high inflation rates that would damage our economy.  (Also, the inevitable trade war fight that would ensue would harm our exports.)

But America has changed in significant ways as well.  During the first stage of explosive growth in our economy, much of the country was still unsettled frontier leaving room for  a huge expansion of economic activity accompanied by huge increases in population through immigration from all parts of the world.  During the second stage, from the turn of the 20th century into the initial post-WWII period, America was unequaled because the rest of the world’s developed economies were minuscule by comparison and China and most of the non-European world were undeveloped, not even developing.

None of that is true today.  And so, because of all of these factors, the way often cited for the American economy to regain its strength is through American creativity or innovation.  And many think we’ve done just that.  

But while we have seen lots of American technological innovation in the last few decades, it has only fueled American corporate profits, not worker wealth, since the products are all produced overseas, and so the economy has not really been strengthened.  Only if those jobs were brought back would it make a real difference.  

As for creativity, since the creation of the computer chip, there really hasn’t been much creativity, just innovation.  Even nanotechnology is innovation, not creativity.  But regardless, unless creativity resulted in good, middle-class jobs for U.S. workers, it would not help strengthen our economy.

But this discussion begs the question, “Does America have to be great?”  Economically, given the size of our population and the standard of living that we were used to 40 years ago and would like to reacquire, that answer is unfortunately, yes.

Thus, bottom line, figuring out how to bring American jobs back or create new ones without creating other major economic disruptions such as high inflation is a task that corporations and workers/unions need to sit down at the table to discuss, probably at the behest of government.  One point seems clear.  To significantly increase the number of American middle-class jobs, wages will have to be lower than they once were, but that would still result in a benefit for both workers and the economy.

The only other way that America will either be or viewed as the great nation it once was economically is if much of the rest of the world implodes and the U.S. finds a way of disconnecting itself from that calamity.  I think recent history shows that it would be prudent to prepare for that eventuality.

Militarily, America certainly needs to be strong.  But what that means in the context of current or projected international conflicts has been a subject of some debate.  Many argue that we need a leaner and more flexible military rather than an updated version of the current dinosaur.

As for being great from a moral authority perspective, while there is no need to be great, it certainly would be very beneficial from many perspectives for the U.S. to regain its moral authority.  President Obama certainly tried to move in that direction in the beginning of his first term.    But to regain that authority, much would have to change both within this country as well as how it engages the rest of the world. 

If the advice I have given in many of my posts on this site were followed, it would go a long way to regaining our moral authority.  But that, unfortunately, is highly unlikely because to bring about that change means changing who holds power in Washington … ending the control that corporate America and the wealthy have over our policies.  Although Bernie Sanders talks of such a revolution, achieving it is another matter … and he is the only candidate talking about it.

As has been the case in many of my posts, the final analysis is that we survive in an outdated, broken system and cannot be what we need to be in the future without major changes in our political, social, and economic structure.