Let’s start with this: the progressive income tax is “socialist,” pure and simple. It allows the government to take more— far more, barring sleazy or outright illegal accounting practices—from the wealthy than it does the lower classes. That’s the baseline truth, the distilled fact about the matter. One can argue from there about its benefits or folly, but not about the equation itself:
Progressive Income Tax = Socialism.
Ben Carson said as much in a 2015 Republican presidential debate, and it was one of the few things he uttered throughout the campaign that actually made sense. (Although his full statement on the matter did devolve into a simplistic argument against progressive taxation):
“It’s all about America. You know, the people who say, ‘The guy who paid a billion dollars because he had 10, he’s still got $9 billion left? That’s not fair. We need to take more of his money!’ That’s called socialism. That doesn’t work so well. What made America into a great nation was the fact that we said, ‘That guy just put in $1 billion, let’s create an environment that’s even more conducive to his success, so that next year he can put in $2 billion.’”
Carson got some pushback on that assertion from one of the other candidates he was facing off against that night, who responded:
“We’ve had a graduated tax system for many years. It’s not a socialistic thing. What I’d like to do, and I’ll be putting it in a plan in about two weeks, is a major reduction in taxes, a major reduction for the middle class. The hedge fund guys won’t like me as much as they like me right now, but they’ll pay more. I know people making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no taxes, and I think it’s unfair.”
You likely had no trouble discerning who that candidate was: he went on to become president of the United States.
Larger point being: the absurdity of the recent rhetorical grenades wrapped in accusations of “SOCIALISM!” that a desperate Republican Party has been heaving across the political divide in the hope it will divert attention from the awfulness of the Trump presidency. (Which “the hedge fund guys” turned out to like quite well, thank you, given that the lion’s share of the “major reduction” in taxes wound up going to them after all in Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. Who would’ve thought?)
Notice the ham-handed, false binary: one embraces either ‘freedom’ or, on the other side, ‘socialism.’ As if the latter cannot exist in concert with the former.
These grenades always carry sinister tones of a Soviet- or East German-style police state: private enterprise illegal, all assets seized, everyone required to wear peasant shirts and work daily in the fields, after which they assemble to sing “The Internationale” at the communal dinner in a bare bones workers’ dining hall.
Bernie Sanders warned of the conflation of socialism with communist dictatorship after winning the election for mayor of Burlington as an independent in 1981, when he told the “Boston Globe”:
“I’ve stayed away from calling myself a socialist because I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps.”
Unfortunately, that’s just what it is now incumbent upon Sanders and other Democrats to do in countering Republican intimations that every social service program, every Head Start outlay, every minimum wage law, every challenge to corporate political influence, is just another step toward shipping all wealthy capitalists and heck, while we’re at it, semi-prosperous middle class people too, off to gulags in some godforsaken blizzard outback of the Dakotas.
Here’s Vice President Mike Pence on Friday, parroting the words of the boss he so adores:
“Today Democrats openly advocate an economic system that has impoverished millions of people across the world. Under the guise of Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, Democrats are embracing the same tired economic theories that have impoverished nations and stifled the liberties of millions. It was freedom, not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world, It was freedom, not socialism, that gave us the highest quality of life, the cleanest environment on earth, and improved the health and well-being of millions across the world.”
First, we must contend with the false claim of the U.S. having “the cleanest environment on earth.” In truth, it doesn’t even crack the Top 20 in the most recent international survey from 2017, in which, yes, socialist Scandinavian countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark) occupy three out of the top four slots.
Second, notice the ham-handed, false binary: one embraces either “freedom” or, on the other side, “socialism.” As if the latter cannot exist in concert with the former.
That will come as news to the seemingly free and cheerful masses in avowedly socialist Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway. As it will, in the end, to virtually every other industrialized country on earth that, unlike “the most prosperous economy in the world,” manages to provide the equivalent of the “Medicare-for-all” that Pence and his cohorts are peddling as some kind of ominous, freedom-denying, statist oppression.
These dire warnings that are supposed to pass for arguments against universal health coverage and a more robust safety net are intellectually bankrupt, and they should be called out consistently, at every turn.
“Socialism,” like most all words, is subject to multiple meanings and interpretations. For some, like the Republicans cited above, it is something close if not identical to a dictatorship that impinges on virtually all human freedoms, as we saw in the former Soviet Union and East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such Republicans would like voters to believe that socialism and communism are virtually interchangeable, with socialism a kind of “communism lite” that may not be as politically draconian and freedom-crushing as communism is, but inevitably will be.
That was actually Karl Marx’s vision, too—that socialist states would steadily gobble up more and more ownership of property and the means of production until a nation’s entire economy would eventually come under state control. Historical determinist and true believer that he was, though, Marx did not foresee Scandinavia, nor, for that matter, other capitalist countries like the good old U.S.A., which evolved, over time and with the help and sacrifice of countless reformers, into a more benign form of capitalism that incorporated various “socialist” protections against the complete abandonment of marginalized populations.
In other words: creeping socialism.
What Republicans railing against socialists today want us to think is that socialism is “anti-capitalism,” with socialists harboring a hatred for the wealth and freedom that capitalism supposedly conveys upon all its citizens who are willing to embrace an ethos of hard work.
But this is a caricature of all social democracies, whether European or of the type that Sanders proposes to solve the drastic income inequalities and seemingly intractable poverty that our relatively unfettered, tax-cutting capitalism has produced since the 1970s. That’s when Ronald Reagan made government, to borrow a phrase that his ideological successor Donald Trump uses to vilify the media, “the enemy of the people.”
This much is undeniable: the U.S. created the most flourishing working class of clerical and blue collar workers in history during the 1950s, when the marginal tax rate on the super-wealthy was a decidedly socialistic 90%, unions were strong, and the newly enfranchised middle class was able to buy homes, autos, toys and two-week family vacations on one income.
And ever since the first Reagan tax cuts, the legacy of which was picked up by all the subsequent Republican administrations, the income disparity between the ownership/corporate class and worker class has grown to not only unconscionable, but even more importantly, unsustainable levels, in a kind of new gilded age that surely contains the seeds of its own destruction. (See here for a non-partisan review of these trends.)
To be clear: “democratic socialism” is not a self-canceling phrase. It comes in many different forms, with varying levels of state involvement in the economy. Private property is not verboten, and political freedoms are every bit as robust as those enjoyed in more avowedly capitalist countries. More so, actually, because of the reduced power that corporate money exerts upon the political process.
The communism that Trump, Pence and other Republicans want us to conflate with socialism is a very different animal—draconian, oppressive, authoritarian. It’s light years from the socialism espoused by Sanders and, to different degrees by those who will not themselves utter the “S word” but who share a concern for the shrinking middle class, the poor and oppressed.
Capitalism has been and without a doubt will continue to be a quite remarkable wealth generating economic system for a good long while yet, and neither Bernie Sanders nor any other member of our political class is looking to bury it.
They would, however, like to see its excesses tempered, its Hobbesian-Darwinian survival ethos revisioned. (“Capitalism with a human face,” in the memorable words of Czech writer, dissident, then statesman Václav Havel.)
They would like to ensure that governments and economies don’t summarily leave behind working people whose skill set is outdated or not highly remunerative.
Or those born at the wrong time or place, or to the wrong parents or genes.
Or those who are not gifted or driven or able enough of body and mind to keep up with others who amass fortunes and are then protected via a whole tax code full of wealth-building provisions and tax-cutting legislation from having to share it for the greater societal good.
According to 2017 Census Bureau estimates, 12.5% of the U.S. population, representing more than 39 million people, are living in poverty. One 2018 study put the homeless population living on the streets at 554,000.
Another 2015 study found that 10% of all working households live below the poverty line, which also, said the study authors, “means that a majority of poor Americans have jobs.”
That’s not even to mention our crumbling infrastructure, decayed schools, teachers needing second jobs, unaffordable rents and stratospheric home prices, and the once again rising rate of the uninsured, now at a four-year-high of 13.7% of the population after repeated, increasingly successful Republican attempts to weaken Obamacare in the name of…what, exactly: freedom?
This is as good as American capitalism can do?
We are settling for this?
These are the simple virtues and wages of healthy competition?
I know what the arguments are. “A lot of people are lazy. Don’t just give them a fish—teach them to fish! This is the land of opportunity in the home of the free. Anyone can make it with hard work.”
Implying: “Get off your lazy duffs!”
Brigham Young University Professor Scott Sanders, co-author of the study cited above on the working poor, had this to say about that:
“The toxic idea is if we clump all those people together and treat them as the same people, then we don’t solve the real problem that the majority of people in poverty are working, trying to improve their lives, and we treat them all as deadbeats.”
Deadbeats whom, if up-by-your-bootstraps politicians have anything to say about it, should not be rewarded with government “handouts” even as lower tax rates and other “incentives” are continually bestowed on those who least need the help.
Now, we all have known people who cheat the welfare system, fake disabilities, understate income, abuse the bankruptcy laws. (Gosh, those last three remind me of a certain president…)
Fraud exists, in every strata and time, and it will be ever thus.
But to be anti-government, anti-safety net and anti-welfare because some people abuse their benefits is akin to shutting down corporate America because some companies abuse the tax code. Why is it always the truly needy who have to suffer and face the most dire consequences for the sins of the few?
Yes, there are welfare queens! Now can we do whatever we can to catch them while still making sure that no child ever goes to bed hungry or alone while a parent works a second minimum wage job so there will be enough rent money at the end of the month?
It really should not be that hard.
And what even Sanders and various other proponents of democratic socialism are propounding is simply to foster more corporate accountability and get us back closer, though hardly all the way, to the higher tax rates on the wealthy that we saw at various prosperous times over the past half century. Most notable of those were the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations, both of which exhibited largely thriving economies and ended with budget surpluses.
Meanwhile, various aspects of a hybrid economy have lurched along, mixing the private enterprise that is the hallmark of capitalist economies with socialist elements such as the progressive income tax, Medicare, welfare and unemployment insurance, the 8-hour workday, banking regulations and deposit insurance, child labor laws, public school education and women’s and handicapped rights—all brought to us socialistically, courtesy of the heavy hand of government.
All of these now-standard features of American life were resisted mightily by conservatives who lived up to their label of wanting to “conserve” the status quo. Problem was their resistance was in the service of continued oppression rather than the enhanced opportunity conservatism cites as a guiding star.
Nothing wrong with conservatism when it wants to cleave to the best and most productive and equitable practices of the past.
But clearly, the American economy is not working for a huge swath of its people. Hasn’t for a long time. Attempting to conserve the unfair, inequitable and unsustainable is a recipe for decline. And hurling “socialism” as an epithet in order to foment fear and preserve the economy as is will only hasten the very decline its most ardent defenders are seeking to prevent.
Dreams of the workers’ revolution in all its glory and righteousness! Unfortunately, actual human behavior never quite catches up to the ideal…
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