Having been a Democratic Socialist for over 20 years now (member of the Democratic Socialists Of America) I've beheld just about every permutation of how it's been distorted by know nothings as well as academics and others who ought to know better. This is why I was generally pleased to read Barnard College poly sci professor Sheri Berman's piece in The Sunday Denver Post ('Five Myths About Socialism', p. 1B, March 31) to educate more citizens.
Prof. Berman did a creditable job overall separating facts from fiction ("myths") in her piece, but still left some misconceptions of her own. First let's look at the positives!
Under Myth 1 ('Socialism is a single coherent ideology') Berman correctly points out one of the Right's recurring errors is conflating all forms of socialism. As Prof. Berman notes
"Many attacks on socialism, as well as polls gauging its surprising popularity, take for granted that it’s a unified philosophy amenable to a crisp judgment. Yet socialism has multiple meanings and interpretations, which have to be disentangled before a discussion about its merits can begin. One distinction centers on whether socialism is a is a system that must supplant capitalism or one that can harness the market’s immense productive capacity for progressive ends."
Berman goes on:
"Although Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez embrace the term “democratic socialist,” the policies they advocate place them much closer to yet another socialist tradition: social democracy. Social democrats say it is possible and desirable to reform capitalism. This tradition dominated the post-World War II European left and influenced the American Democratic Party, most notably during the Progressive era and the New Deal, inspiring Social Security, unemployment insurance and the eight-hour workday. "
Which bears many similarities to Greg Ip's WSJ piece: 'Parsing the Lessons of True Socialism' -Feb. 7, p. A2 .
So it is good to have another sane and rational voice out there to skewer the endless nonsense.
Prof. Berman is just as able tearing into Myth 2, that "socialism and democracy are incompatible". As she writes:
"After the Russian Revolution, a commitment to democracy became a key distinction dividing socialists from communists. The Bolsheviks split off from the Socialist International in 1919 because socialists would not to commit to overthrowing capitalism by “all available means, including armed force.” And after World War II, socialist and social democratic parties became mainstays of democratic systems in Europe."
Which latter system has been referred to as "Rhine Capitalism". This indeed is what most of those branded "Reds" by the Right, including Bernie Sanders, and AOC, aspire to, as opposed to outright democratic socialism. To this end they have suggested using the tax commons to support such things as single payer health care, which the present system can't allow based as it is on Pareto capitalism, see e.g.
In truth, a primary litmus test for whether U.S. citizens are anywhere near actual democratic socialism would be their degree of happiness. We already know from The World Happiness Report ('Americans are becoming more miserable and data backs it up', Denver Post, p. 8A, March 24)the U.S. places at No. 17, down 6 places (probably coinciding with Trump's ascension). Meanwhile, the Scandinavian nations that top the happiness list all practice democratic socialism - a point about which even the great Oprah had to be educated. See e.g.
American marginal tax rates - certainly for the three middle income quintiles- would need to go up dramatically to even remotely compare with these nations - such as Denmark and Norway. No one sees that happening soon, certainly so long as a Republican dominated Senate seeks to cede more and more resources to the wealthiest - including the top 1 percent.
Myth No. 3: All socialists want to abolish markets and private property.
Berman again knocks this trope flat on its face, exposing "liberal" (actually Neoliberal) prof Cass Sunstein as another dolt, as when he writes that "once voters realize socialism means government ownership of 'the nation’s airlines, hospitals, restaurants and department stores they will sour on it." Again, he commits the typical fallacy used by many Neolibs of slippery slope. As Berman observes:
"Democratic socialists say that in principle they hope capitalism will disappear over the long run, but in the meantime they advocate piecemeal changes in the ownership and control of economic resources — bank nationalization, for instance. (Democratic socialists have never fully held power anywhere, so their programs remain largely theoretical.) And social democrats have focused on redistributing the fruits of markets and private enterprise rather than abolishing them.
Most of the policies advocated by politicians like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — including universal health care, free college education, and higher wealth and income taxes — are clearly achievable within a capitalist system.
This again would be Rhine capitalism which one would have thought Sunstein had heard of, but evidently not. This brings us to Berman's -
Myth No. 4 : When socialism is tried, it collapses.
Again, this claptrap emanates from the typical libertarian trolls at the American Enterprise Institute - one of the nation's main propaganda factories (with the exception of Norm Ornstein, who seems to have his head screwed on straight). Berman here cites recent twaddle written by Mark J. Perry, a professor of Economics at the University of Michigan- Flint. Well, we presume when he wrote that he didn't imbibe too much lead from Flint's water.
Then there is the Hoover Institution’s Paul R. Gregory who offered a primer on “Why Socialism Fails” in January 2018, again pulling nonsense from where the Sun doesn't shine. But as Berman points out:
"Communism certainly failed, but social democracy has arguably been the single most successful movement". Then noting the rise of "stable European democracies after World War II...because a stable social consensus married relatively free markets and private ownership with expanded welfare states, progressive taxation and other forms of gov't intervention in economics and society."
This generally has gone by the term "dirigisme" and was what JFK tried to use in his own tax policies - but lacked the majorities to implement. (See, 'Battling Wall Street - The Kennedy Presidency', 1994, Donald Gibson)
Myth 5- Socialism offers a ready-made solution to numerous current problems.
Berman writes :
"Socialism’s advocates today promote it as a near-panacea. It’s a possible “answer to the climate catastrophe,” writes a commentator in the Guardian. It “would remedy the systemic deprivation of people of color,” says Connie M. Razza, director of policy and research at the think tank Demos. "
But this is too extreme a generalization. In fact, most academics who espouse socialism - such as Yale professor Martin Hägglund and British economist John Gray, know that there is no socialist "panacea". At best, even democratic socialism can only ameliorate the worst excesses of Neoliberal capitalism.
For example, one practical contribution would be to force huge capitalist corporations (like P&G) to stop marketing waste products (disposable diapers, sanitary pads etc. ) to nations lacking the systems and the infrastructure to process and absorb them, i.e. without contaminating their water and landscape:
An incremental change for sure, but enormous in terms of sustaining quality of life for many countries. In the case of India, we now know such corporate consumer marketing has left India deluged with environmental waste containment disaster: canals clogged with detritus and toxic waste (see image above from WSJ, April 4, p. B3) and contaminated water supplies arising from "many women discarding used sanitary pads in rivers - or flushing them down toilets- contaminating water supplies or causing sewers to back up."
One might argue this isn't even a matter of socialism per se but rather putting the reins on capitalists and their marketing practices - or applying common sense regulations. See also:
These pragmatic socialists then advocate only limited practical avenues to address the issues noted by Berman. For example, also advocating nuclear power as a critical component to address the "climate catastrophe". As I already showed (Feb. 21 post, 'Applying Physics (and Some Math) To The Green New Deal') without nuclear power the energy numbers required for the green new deal to work simply don't add up. Simply ending fossil fuel consumption in 12 years and going 'all green' (solar, wind, geothermal etc.) with no nuclear will not attain the 94 EJ (exajoules) needed to run our advanced technological society. (The alternative for an all green nation would be a 20-fold reduction in population, mainly in large urban centers - and returning to a largely agrarian existence.)
"But many of today’s democratic socialists lack clear plans for what they want to put in capitalism’s place and how this new economic order would generate the growth, efficiency and innovation necessary to achieve redistribution and raise living standards. Nor is it clear that democratic socialists have realistic plans for dealing with other vexing social controversies, such as anxieties over immigration. Some argue that many current problems can be solved by new versions of policies that worked during the mid- to late 20th century, like a Green New Deal; more government spending on health care, education and infrastructure; and higher taxes. "
It is true that Democratic Socialists don't have all the answers, i.e. "clear plans" to solve immigration or infrastructure, but they are not required to have them. After all, we are really talking about social democracy priorities here, not a future socialist state! In other words, there will never be a real democratic socialist USA, or president. The existing capitalist trade, banking, investment and other structures are simply too embedded to allow that. What is needed then is not a total supplanting of existing structures but rather an adjunct means to marry market initiatives with societal equalizers, such as higher taxation - oh, and less military spending!
Berman once more in her Myth 5 response:
"Republicans insist that these initiatives would destroy growth and turn the United States into a tyrannical economic basket case like Venezuela. True, conservatives made similar claims in the past about major government initiatives like Social Security and Medicare. But it is surely legitimate to press advocates of increased government spending on how they would pay for these programs."
Here, one may turn to an economist by the name of Stephanie Kelton, now gaining a higher profile as the themes of social democracy and socialism have come to the fore in the era of monumental corporate greed.
Stephanie Kelton of stony Brook University showing how elements of Dem candidates proposals can be paid for via modern economic theory (MMT).
Kelton invokes modern monetary theory (MMT) as a much needed counterpoint to the orthodox Pareto -based economics of generally taught monetary theory. That latter, again, values the dollars of the wealthy more than the dollars of the poor or middle class. Because it does, the whole system - from tax cuts for the rich, to looser regulations on water quality and fracking - are geared to help the rich. Recall that by Pareto economics, as Martin Feldstein once argued, it's better to pay a patient not to get a colonoscopy (or other screening) than to do so and her paying thousands less than the procedure would cost (without any insurance).
Prof. Kelton argues: "the government doesn't need to worry so much about how much it borrows to pay for spending programs... The constraint, according to MMT isn't the deficit but whether the borrowing and spending spurs inflation and disrupts economic activity." (WSJ, 'Theory Behind Democratic Proposals Gets A Public Face', April 1, p. A3)
In a real way, this is absolutely true. The U.S. government has borrowed from Social Security for decades now, totaling up $3.4 trillion in debt to the program - but you don't see any hand wringing about it. The money mongers - like Feldstein and cohort- simply dismiss the borrowed funds as "special bonds" that don't need to be repaid. It's just the government borrowing from itself, no biggie! Basically, according to the MMT, the same thing can be done in other areas - like implementing Medicare for all or even a public option.
Well, Robert Pollin - a Professor of Economics at the Univ. of Massachusetts-Amherst - kind of adopts this model on how Medicare for all might be paid for ('The Case for Medicare for All', WSJ, March 27, p. A17), writing:
"Taking cost reductions and expanded coverage into account, we estimate that Medicare for All could operate with an overall budget of $2.93 trillion - nearly 10 percent less than current spending. To finance this, the government begins with $1.9 trillion already in hand - nearly 60 percent of the total needed - that already pays for Medicare, Medicaid and smaller public programs. The government would therefore need to take about $1 trillion out of what businesses and families now pay to private insurers."
His last aspect is controversial but he has the solution: "We propose that all businesses that currently purchase health insurance be mandated to pay 92 % of what they now spend into Medicare for All - saving 8 % of their health care expenditures."
I suspect this is eminently doable but requires political as well as social will.
It is also common sense to cut down on the absurd current level of defense spending - mainly for new (e.g. "hypersonic") rockets , jets or new nuclear bombs. Any money that is allocated to the DoD ought to go to improving base housing for military families. (Many now faced with living in moldy homes after Hurricane Florence hit S.C.)
Alas, the nasty meme that access to the VA medical care - with long lines, long waits- is socialism and is a "model" for all that can go wrong has also made the scene. ('If You Like Socialism, You'll Love the VA' WSJ, April 2, p. A13, by Karl Zinsmeister). As the author puts it:
"Draw a military paycheck for a few years, and you're entitled to cradle to grave support for you and your family members. Health care at any of 1,300 sites, housing guarantees, up to 100 % of college costs."
But he gets two things wrong: first, those benefits have been built into the basis for our current volunteer military. If you don't like their scale then you need to go back to the good ol' days of the draft. Second, the volume of benefits to millions more has been direct result of U.S. military overstretch, putting too many troops in too many locations and for too many small scale skirmishes or even occupations. When you therefore make a deal with volunteers, get them into 'x' wars or occupations, you can't now bitch and whine they are sucking up too much money. But again, if there is bitching then it is clear higher taxes are needed. Either that or fewer wars, leading to the need for fewer troops. Hence, then you will have fewer VA and other benefits to dole out.
"What distinguished the postwar era was the combination of rising growth and equality. If socialists want to convince Americans, Europeans and others that they have the best solutions to contemporary problems, they need to show that their policies can generate substantial wealth and resources as well as, simultaneously, a more equitable distribution."
But she forgets that much of the rising growth came because of deficit spending! Indeed, following World War II - as Prof. Donald Gibson notes ('Battling Wall Street: The Kennedy Presidency', Sheridan Square Books, 1994), the federal policy was one of deficits. To quote Prof. Gibson (p. 84):
"The War was paid for primarily through borrowing and deficit spending on an unheard of scale."
As Gibson also observes, during the eight years after WWII -when deficit spending stopped- the main consequence was "stagnation and three recessions". This dovetails precisely with Prof. Kelton's MMT. Further, after JFK became president and returned to deficit spending:
"The U.S. economy returned to and even exceeded the rapid growth displayed during the pre-stagnation period" (of World War II)"
In other words, contrary to the orthodox monetarists' gospel, not only did Kennedy's policies raise economic growth, but they did so at a rate comparable to WWII deficit spending! This historical perspective shows me that MMT cannot be summarily dismissed, even by the likes of a Paul Krugman.
Anyway, Prof. Berman did a creditable job writing on a difficult topic for which we need more academic insights. For that effort I award her a gentle lady's C+.