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GRAY MATTERS: How Socialism Really Works

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.


There is at least one organization that won’t label President Obama a “marxist” or “socialist,” and it ought to know. I speak of the Democratic Socialists of America, a tiny group of less than 6,000 members that is rather benign and wholly within the American mainstream compared, say, to the extreme radicalism of the raucous anti-government Tea Parties.

The DSA was founded in 1982 by the late Michael Harrington who won fame in the Sixties for his book The Other America,” a passionate expose of rural and urban poverty that shocked the nation and brought about Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

Harrington’s DSA co-founder was Barbara Ehrenreich, a prolific journalist whose books, Nickeled and Dimed and Bait And Switch, chronicled the business practices that have victimized low-paid workers and consumers. Unlike the far right Republicans and Tea Baggers, Harrington and Ehrenreich were (and are) people of talent and accomplishment and, as far as I know, they have not sought the overthrow of the government or the destruction of a president.

In fact, if you visit their web site, you will see how close to the American ideals these socialists are. They call themselves the Democratic Left and they have nothing in common with the centralized communist regimes of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, North Korea and China.

It is true that Harrington embraced the theories of Karl Marx who held that unfettered capitalism would fail because the rich would get richer and the rest would be exploited by corporate excess. But those were also the views of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, both of whom were in favor of government intervention to tame capitalism.

True to our Democratic values, the DSA does not call not for government ownership of private business, but for tempering the excesses of the unregulated, free-wheeling market economies with Social Democratic reforms such as health care, social insurance and public education like those in most of Europe, Japan and other enlightened countries.

As the DSA web site says,

“In the short term we can’t eliminate private corporations, but we can bring them under greater democratic control. The government could use regulations and tax incentives to encourage companies to act in the public interest and outlaw destructive activities such as exporting jobs to low-wage countries and our environment.”

These could have been the goals of Republican presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, creator of our national parks, trust buster William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, who sponsored the Interstate Highway system, or Democrats like Harry Truman who confronted Soviet communism, or John Kennedy, who championed civil rights.

Only the very far right, which is what Republicans have become, could disagree with those sentiments. But they seem so ignorant of the consequences of their hard shell, laissez faire views that they would destroy in government what is in their own best interests. Their targets include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Education, public education itself (Thomas Jefferson’s idea), the civil rights laws, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

What’s next? The VA medical system? The Tennessee Valley Authority? Government owned military hospitals? The Post Office? Public highways? Public utilities? Surely many tea baggers use these services. Were millions of us un-American when we used the GI Bill?

My quarrel is not with these know-nothings who pop up now and again in American politics; they won’t succeed. My aim is to give lie to their fears and fear mongering of Democratic-based socialism. That happens to be as American as the pioneers who came west in communal wagon trains or the railroads, built with the help of government on public lands.

Even at its birth and in war, the government acts of 1787 and 1862, which opened the northwest territories, created land grant colleges and enabled farmers to stake their 40 acres. Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase was not specifically permitted by the Constitution, nor was the purchase of Alaska in 1867. Should we give them back?

When I wrote a few weeks ago that the VA health system, among other American enterprises, was socialist, most of my replies via the internet were positive and supportive. Many Americans, if truth be told to them, would welcome some democratic socialism - in health care and other public services like good roads and strong bridges and street lights, which are disappearing.

One of my readers, unsigned, wrote,

“The only thing better than Medicare or the VA is having both...I was on my way to the Minneapolis VA hospital for a 2PM MRI on a Sunday...when I had chest pains and shortness of breath. So I went to the VA emergency room...I had three doctors, three nurses and three technicians treat me before sending me on to my MRI (where the technician waited for me until 4PM.) Anyone who claims the government can’t do health care should walk a mile in my orthopaedic shoes.”

On the other hand, Marcelo M. writes,

“If anything, the VA system is the poster child as to why we shouldn’t have socialized Medicine...Mandates that require you buy health care violates the Constitution...”

(That is questionable, but the issue is before the courts.)

And Jerry L. says “medical care can’t be a free lunch,” and he suggests competition could hold down costs if patients and insurance companies can choose among doctors and hospitals.

But “kerewin21" asks,

“How does the VA system violate the Constitution? And he adds, “It’s really hard to make medicine into a truly competitive marketplace...Do you choose the doctor who costs half as much for your knee surgery? Do you call around to emergency rooms to find out who charges the least for a CT-scan?”

Americans who have not traveled abroad tend to belittle the experiences of Europeans like David Jordan, who is a British PhD, in geophysics and leader of a university research team. He was in business for many years and now lives in Germany’s social democracy.

“Politically,” he writes, “I’m a caring capitalist but my only affiliation is to Whatever Works. Ideologies give me the creeps.”

He’s a fan of Britain’s National Health Service even though the waiting room at a doctor’s office may include unwashed working stiffs. But he praised his emergency room treatment of a bad chest infection, and the NHS was there to help his wife give birth at home (his choice) to two children. “For free,” Jordan said. “It was wonderful. Can’t do that in the U.S....Isn’t socialism a bitch?”

The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, back in New York after a year in Germany, observed in a September 2 essay entitled, It’s Better Over There, that

“not once in my time in Berlin, which is a relatively poor city,” did she see “the kind of destitution we take for granted in the United States...The strong German safety net keeps people from plunging into the abyss.”

She cited a new book by Chicago labor lawyer and writer, Tom Geoghegan, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?.

As Pollitt writes, Geoghegan contrasts the Western European social democracies with laissez faire America which victimizes not only the poor, but the middle class, which has meager economic protection compared to their counterparts in Europe. He argues,

“contrary to U.S. popular opinion, life is better for almost everyone in a social democratic system like those in Western Europe, especially Germany. ”Even with high taxes that support the system and its benefits for workers, the unemployed, students and new mothers, Germany’s economy is in better shape than ours.”

Also missing in Europe’s social democracies is the kind of irrational hostility towards government that has led Republicans to advocate deep cuts in taxes and government services. There are consequences: In wealthy San Diego, a two-year-old boy, Bentley Do, choked to death on a gum ball last July when help was delayed for a precious nine minutes because budget cuts had closed the nearest firehouse.

The next day, Bentley’s Vietnamese mother, six months pregnant, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and collapsed from exhaustion and grief. I saw mention of the tragedy only in the New York Times, which reported that San Diego is still reluctant to consider a tax increase to restore public services.

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net

Comments

Another thing that I've heard happens in Germany is time off. They manage to have several weeks of vacation every year. Here, our laissez-faire capitalism has caused us to work long hours for the same pay we used to get for more reasonable hours. Pretty much everyone I know who makes a salary, rather than wages, works a lot of overtime as a matter of course, and companies are ever vigilant to make sure wage earners aren't stealing a moment here or there. Teachers get 23 minutes for lunch, in some cases. 23 minutes! But, when businesses can fire at will, workers will do their best, even though we seem to be devolving back to the industrial revolution in terms of work ethic. I have a friend who works for a fast food chain. She was recently robbed at gunpoint. The robbery was deemed to be her own fault, because she took the garbage out at the wrong time, per company rules, and was fired over the incident. In a civilized society, that wouldn't happen.

Having had a week where catching a breath never mind catching TGB seemed impossible - I'm now sitting up in bed at 11.00pm catching up from Australia - it is so enlightening to read Saul Friedman - helps me get a handle on USA political scene - so many similarities to our own in that we seem to have a plethora of utterly ignorant Liberals - where do these people come from? However we have been more fortunate in many ways re medical care and social welfare - even if the usual nutters are always trying to find ways to cut these services - however Ronni -I did have a laugh at your expense - I'm sure it wasn't intended but because I was reading backward through Twitching Through the News and Fed up with Elders - I then came to Dr Butler's wise advice on Setting Stress Aside!!!!!! Nuff said? Thank you for the columns and the smiles - Jeanette

I constantly ponder what makes people shoot themselves in their foot. I wonder if there is a simple way to illustrate to the ignorant Tea Party idiots the end results if they achieve their goals.

The Tea Party is hell bent on destroying our country and they don't even know it. Unfortunately, they would take the rest of us down to a primitive society with them.

If the ranters get lower taxes (or no taxes)and no regulation on industry our standard of living would plummet like a rock. There would be no testing of our food and water, the infrastructure would crumble, private schools that no one can afford would replace public education, health insurance would be unaffordable, fire houses would close, etc., etc. The ignorant that brought this about would discover that this is a really terrible country to live in.

Ironically, the big corporations and the wealthy would control everything and would be able to run roughshod over the rest of us. In the end, they would suffer, too, because the populace would have no money to buy their goods and they would be unable to move their merchandise. The people would have no money to invest, so Wall Street would eventually feel the pain.

Lawlessness would flourish because when men are desperate they take desperate measures.

The scenario is so ugly I cannot fathom why the protesters who want to eliminate most government services cannot see what they are doing. It is depressing.

Thank you, Saul, for another reasoned piece. As a young adult in the 60's-70's the rhetoric from the right seems familiar to me but what is missing is the balance from the left. We've been pulled so far that up is down and right is left. I feel that I've fallen through the rabbit hole sometimes!

You are considerably more sanguine about the t partiers than I am, Saul. They worry me because the Democrats in the Congress and the White House are so easily swayed by right wing rhetoric. The DLC neo-liberals are already so far right of center they make old-time moderate Republicans (even Richard Nixon) look like leftists.

By the way, I hope that you and/or David Jordon misspoke when you said it was _his_ decision whether his wife had their baby at home. Surely you meant it was _her_ decision?:(

You gotta love this blog and the points of views presented.

Darlene and Peg, you're SO right on! Tea Party types are inhabiting an alternate universe or are terribly short-sighted--or both. If they succeed in tearing apart the more or less balanced system that has served this country reasonably well for many of the past 100 years, we will all end up in a very bad place. Progressives seem almost paralyzed. We need to find our voice and shout from the rooftops what Darlene states so well--the consequences to the country if the Tea Partyers take control.

Note to Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell: you need to understand that the country the Tea Party wants to take back didn't much like ambitious women. You're too young to remember when the country was ruled by white men. It was the rare woman (or minority) who ran for public office; even fewer were elected. I suggest that you consider very carefully what you're wishing and working for. You might just get it--but it won't be what you envision!

So, how to explain the bulk of Tea Party supporters who are over 65? Maybe an I've-got-mine mindset, fear, anger, racism, Rush and Glenn's rantings, misplaced nostalgia for what never was? All of the above? Over-65 TP'ers must be overlooking the public schools they attended, college on the GI Bill, low-interest loans on homes they could afford, new infrastructure that worked, monthly SS checks, Medicare. These are all things that government does and we all pay for because we belong to a larger community--the United States of America!

I woke up this morning thinking about people in Russia, Germany, Italy, Portugal France, China and Japan and other countries where citizens have good reason to be concerned about increase in the power of their governments. Maybe that makes some kind of sense but what reason do the people of this country have to fear our government?

They're afraid because the people who could benefit from a loose do-nothing government are telling them they should be.
It is exactly like FDR said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" So it's time to worry now.

I can't add anything to what's been said so rightly already but the question is this: What are these idiots going to do when they find out that Sarah, Glen, et al have sold them down the river?

Thank you, Saul, for calling attention to Democratic Socialists of America. I never join anything, but I just joined the DSA as part of my opposition to the Tea Party's agenda. Maybe more of your readers should join. Now's the time.

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