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Hard Times, Hard Choices

REFLECTIONS: Socialism

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections To borrow a famous phrase, “a spectre is haunting” America, the specter of socialism. No kidding.

Last October, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, known experts on specters, labeled Democratic candidate Barack Obama a “socialist” because he proposed increasing taxes on the rich to spread the wealth more equally. And Senator John McCain, who has spent his entire adult life in the pay of the federal government, joined them in denouncing Obama’s plans as “socialism.”

At the same time, when those capitalist bastions, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, were rescuing and taking over commercial and investment banks in the waning days of the most conservative presidency since Calvin Coolidge, even President Bush suggested that this sounded like the end of free enterprise. And some of his best friends on the right said the bailouts smacked of socialism.

In early February as the outgoing Republican administration’s hundreds of billions in bailouts of businesses and banks gave way to the trillions in bailouts and stimulus proposals of the new Democratic President, Newsweek’s provocative cover proclaimed, “We are All Socialists Now.”

Noting the cries of “socialism” from the ranks of right-wing Republican lawmakers (who had given unswerving support to Bush’s deficits and Big Brother government), the Newsweek editors wrote,

“There it was...the S word, a favorite among conservatives...But it seems strangely beside the point. The U.S. government has already – under a conservative Republican administration –effectively nationalized the banking and mortgage industries...Whether we want to admit it or not...the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state.”

By that they meant a social democracy, or a democracy (as in Britain, France and virtually everywhere else in the civilized world) with a measure of socialism, social ownership of public services.

Since then, with the introduction of Obama’s first budget, which calls for a tectonic shift in the nation’s priorities – from war fighting, do-nothing government and tax cuts for the wealthy to spending for public works, health care for all, jobs programs and education, liberals celebrate and call for nationalization and social democracy, while conservatives cry socialism as an epithet just short of communism. Thus a column in late February by conservative Washington Post pundit, Charles Krauthammer, was entitled, The Obamaist Manifesto. (Get it?).

On Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress, Krauthammer wrote, it

“...will be seen as historic – indeed as the foundational document of Obamaism. As it stands, it constitutes the boldest social democratic manifesto ever issued by a U.S. President.”

On the same date, as if taking a cue from Krauthammer, Congressional Quarterly reported from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, that Republican congressional leaders had come up with a strategy to oppose Obama’s budget priorities by “comparing them to those of socialist governments in Europe.”

House Republican leader John Boehner, one of the tannest members of Congress, considering he’s from Cincinnati, told the conference, “The stimulus, the omnibus budget, it’s all one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Obama was seeking to “basically Europeanize America.”

Mike Huckabee said of Obama’s plans, “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

And profitable prophet Tim LaHaye, told interviewer Rachel Maddow that Obama’s “socialism” was a precursor to “the rapture,” and the coming of the “antiChrist.”

That’s crazy, for sure, but it’s time to quit pussy-footing around the language and see what we’re talking about when throwing out words like “socialism.” For as I wrote here last October, there’s not a thing wrong with socialism. Some of our greatest minds were socialists, including Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and George Orwell. But Barack Obama is not a socialist, although I would not object if he was.

Socialism, according to Wikipedia,

“refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods...”

The key phrase - ”public or state ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods” - separates what is and what is not socialist.

Thus, the Newsweek story referred to Bush’s huge expenditure and expansion of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit as an example of a movement toward European style socialism. It was nothing of the sort, for the legislation took the program out of the hands of the government, Medicare, and gave it to drug and insurance companies that have enjoyed big profits.

Moreover, Medicare is not a socialist enterprise because it contracts with insurance companies as regional administrators and Medicare’s providers - doctors, labs, hospitals - are mostly private, unlike the British system of socialized medicine where providers work for the National Health Service.

Even if Obama adopted Medicare for All, which I doubt, it would fall short of being socialized medicine, because medical providers would be working for themselves, as they do now with Medicare. As it is, Obama still plans that insurance companies will play a large role in health care.

The U.S. does, however, harbor enclaves of socialism. In the successful VA health system and in the National Institutes of Health, where some of the best medicine is done, providers work for the federal government. The National Parks are socialist enterprises, despite Bush’s attempts at privatizing them. Many public power utilities, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the great dams of the west, most urban transit systems and some railroads are owned by all of us.

Government can’t do anything right? Tell that to 60 million people served by Social Security. Or maybe you’d rather see Citigroup or General Motors or Philip Morris entrusted with your well-being.

I do not understand why we should fear the social democracy of Europe. Many Americans, including members of Congress, enjoy traveling to Europe and taking advantage of their social democracies - cheap and fast transportation, universal health care and a healthy opposition to war. There is no such thing as an uninsured person in the European Union, and the Euro has become as strong as the dollar.

But I digress. The only group that does not fear or even see the specter of socialism, is the Democratic Socialists of America, which mourns that socialism has not taken hold in this country and has few prospects. Nevertheless, as Obama is learning, despite the American desire for change, any challenge of the status quo will run into stiff opposition from those who have been in charge for more than eight years.

As that original 1848 manifesto said (substitute socialism for communism): “Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as socialistic by its opponents in power?”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine speaks of the writing life in Tuesdays.]


Comments

Merriam-Webster defines Socialism: so·cial·ism
Pronunciation: \ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm\
Function: noun
Date: 1837
1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

Ayn Rand defined Socialism: "Socialism is the doctrine that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that his life and his work do not belong to him, but belong to society, that the only justification of his existence is his service to society, and that society may dispose of him in any way it pleases for the sake of whatever it deems to be its own tribal, collective good."
- From The New Intellectual

The Nation magazine is running an interesting series on what progressive openings may exist in the present unhappy crisis. Here's a link to one.

Those that label and fear socialism should remember that the banking system is a prime example of capitalization run amok.

There are things that government can do better for the common good. Social Security, transportation, utilities are a few. Our representatives all enjoy socialized medicine but want to deny it to the common people.

A good government would be a combination of private industries and socialized industries with each plan being administered by the entity that could do it best. Our Republic would still be a Democracy run by the three branches of government.

KUDOS RONNIE
I'm glad you brought this up. 'til now the "S word" has been an unmentionable in polite society but "now is the time when all good men (and women) must come to the aid of their country"
We've got to come to grips with the fact that pure, unmititigated and unregulated Capitalism will drive this country to ultimate ruin. "Pure" Communism didn't work- (just ask the Russians and the Chinese) and our system needs to incorporate some elements of socialism for almost everybody's sake (except of course for the 2% who are enjoying their Beluga Caviar and Crystal vintage Champagne while the rest of us rubbing two nickels together, trying to make a quarter)
.
It looks like your post hasn't stimulated the usual volume of response but I don't supposed you're very surprised- I'm not.

Hey GrannyAnnie:

Ayn Rand is so 20th Century!

mythster (and others):

To be clear, today's column and all "Reflections" columns are written by the estimable Saul Friedman and not me.

I had HOPED the American public had sent a message to Washington that we were f'ing fed up with "business as usual".

It would seem that a lot of politicians (certainly not statesmen) were deaf and go blindly into the night postulating tired old mantras and still insisting the old emperor is clothed in splendor.

Hey, here's a novel idea - vote the bxxxxxd's OUT!

I have always been against term limits, knowing that the Constitution took ample precautions, but that premise was based on the idea that citizens were actually involved with the process.

While we're at it, let's do away with that ol' single party lever (what is it now - an electronic check mark?) that allows such laziness to persist.

Thank you, Saul, for another terrific post.

Ayn Rand is my hero Granny Annie

My children asked me a little about Socialism since its being talked about so much. I related it to their grades. I told them, its like if they worked extremely hard in class to make an "A". They wouldn't be allowed to keep it because the boy who slept in class all day got a "F" and we can't have things being "unfair" so we would lower their grade to a B- to bring up lazy boys grade to passing C.

"But" they said, "Pretty soon the A students won't want to work that hard anymore!"

Smart kids.

A social democracy holds no fears for me. Another round of unregulated capitalism will keep me at my desk until I die. Is it better to let the poor tax the rich or to have the rich plunder the poor?

Cowtown Pattie,

Smart kids, dumb analogy. Better analogy would involve students stealing points away from others to make an A. Kinda changes the scenario, doesn't it?

GreatDentini,

I think you have me confused with Candace.

Sorry, Candace, but that tired old parable should be put to pasture, IMHO.

If socialism will help rid of us religious zealots running the country, bring it on! I'll be glad to call myself a democratic socialist and I'm pretty sure we'd all be better off.

Apologies, Cowtown -- rookie error.

Indeed, the vapid, insipid folk tales of the conservatives ( and by conservatives, I include almost all of the Democrats and liberals who long ago abandoned economic ethics ) are so transparent now, it amazes me that they believe them still!

thanx

I think of socialism as making some educated choices about common good and separating out for public management those areas where a competitive marketplace is ineffective or inappropriate. I'm thinking how badly we need leadership to do something NOW about responding to global warming; there's not time to let the marketplace fix this. In California, during the Enron energy debacle, people instantly reduced energy usage by more than 10 percent. Let's have some leadership toward this right now, and everywhere. Imagine a 10 percent carbon emissions drop by Friday! Why not?

Well Candace, at least we stepped into this fray with opinions. I usually don't bother because the attack is imminent but all I did was make two quotes and did not offer an opinion on either. Still I was told how "so 20Th century" Ayn Rand is and you were also chastised for using a worn out analogy. But, while our hands were slapped you will notice no one made any points of contradiction. Yours was a good and true statement Candace and your kiddos are great!

So the big Sfor Socialism has replaced the big C for Communism and the big L for Liberal in putting down those who would dare to level the playing field in the world so that everyone someday might eat, be housed and clothed and, hopefully, in these times have universal health care.

The house of cards which is built by those who control the money, goods and services in the world has fallen once more but still we allow our leaders to bail out the profit making system, capitalism, which has crashed yet again.

Perhaps we had better disconnect ourselves from our Ipods and TV and computer screens and become real humans with empathy and understanding rather than automatons that are programmed by the megamedia corporations to believe in a system that has perennially been rigged against us.

Let's take back our country and the world and stop being pawns in the chess game of life.


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