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Socialism is a Dirty Word

(About a 10 minute read)

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” — Anonymous, but often ascribed to Mark Twain.

 

At the least, most of us harbor a few ideas that we mostly, or even entirely, owe our understanding of to the popular media. That’s to say, we have not studied the ideas much beyond what we hear of them from media sources.

A good case in point is the concept of “socialism”.  Very few Americans, I’ll wager, have ever had the benefit of actually studying what socialism is — and isn’t.  I would base my wager on having spent nearly a lifetime listening to descriptions of it that simply don’t match up with the reality of it.

Continue reading “Socialism is a Dirty Word”

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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

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Draft Bernie Sanders for President 2012?

I stole the above chart from Kay’s blog.  The thought of Bernie Sanders challenging Barack Obama for the presidency made me curious about the answers to a number of questions.

For instance: I can easily believe Obama is to the right of most Americans these days, but is Sanders still to the left of most Americans?  Or has he moved right like all the other politicians?  And, if so, is he now in the middle?

Wouldn’t it be funny if Bernie Sanders is closer to mainstream public opinion in this country than either Barack Obama or the Republican members of our National Corporate Party?

I don’t suppose Sanders has a chance, but that’s not the same as saying Sanders would make a bad president.  If you feel like encouraging the old guy, you can sign the “Draft Bernie Petition” here.

_____________________________

UPDATED:  Post corrected to reflect the fact Sanders is not in the same party as Obama.

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Does It Ever Change?

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Albert Einstein, Why Socialism, May 1949

Actually, perhaps it is worse today than it was in 1949.

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Is There a Single, Most Fundamental Issue that Divides Americans Today?

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Paul Krugmann

Is Paul Krugmann correct that the single most important and governing division in our society today is not race, nor ethnicity,  nor sexual orientation, nor religion, nor perhaps even social class, but instead the division between the “I earned it and I have the right to keep it” crowd, on the one hand, and the “modern welfare state” crowd, on the other hand?  I myself think you could make a case — I don’t know how strong of a case, but a respectable case — for Krugmann’s notion.

That is, it seems at least arguable that most — perhaps all — of the major divisions in our society today have more or less become fronts for that one fundamental division between those who think they are entitled to every last penny they own in life, and those who think they owe society some portion of the wealth they own.   For instance, don’t the Republicans use the gay rights issues to work up  support for their candidates come election time (and later more or less ignore the people who voted for them on those grounds)?  Don’t the Democrats use the same issues to the same ends — changing only which side of the issues they are on?

I don’t know whether Krugmann is entirely right, but my guess is he is at least partly right.

Yet, for a moment at least, let’s assume for the fun of it that Krugmann is substantially right.  That would mean the single most fundamental issue that divides Americans today is rooted in an absolutely absurd notion of what it means to be human.

There are things about human nature as yet unknown to scientists.  There are even things about human nature as yet unknown to the rest of us.  And finally, there are even some things — a very few things — about human nature as yet unknown to our pets.  But only the most oblivious squid living in the deepest ocean doesn’t know that humans are a social animal.

We live together and cooperate with each other to not only survive, but to also boost the quality of our lives.  It is true that a single human,  adept at surviving in nature, can live by himself in the wilderness.  But no human can live as well alone in the wilderness as he can live in a community of his fellow humans.  Humans, unlike bears, are not well adapted to living absolutely alone in nature.  We are a community animal.

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that even our so called “self-made” billionaires would never recover their current standard of living if society made them outcasts — if society cruelly transported them to the Canadian wilderness and abandoned them somewhere between the headwaters of the Yukon and the Arctic.   Please don’t tell me a man or woman is truly “self-made” until you can show me one — just one human — who has walked into the wilderness with absolutely no gifts from society,  and then returned five or seven years later — having never seen in all that time another human — but nevertheless in possession of a fine business suit, and rounded out with an education equivalent to a Harvard MBA.  That would be a self-made human.   But the rest of us must content ourselves with owing at least half our success in life to our fellow humans.

So long as we are a social species, we will owe some portion of our success to our society.   The “I earned it and I have the right to keep it” crowd is wrong:  They might have earned it, but they could not have earned it without the society they lived in and relied on to earn it.  Consequently, they do not possess sole rights to it.  Instead, they owe society some portion of it.

But how does one determine what portion of our earnings we owe to society?

 

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Paul Krugmann on Economic Morality and the Ideal Society

My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be. And I believe that this vision leads, in practice, to something like the kind of society Western democracies have constructed since World War II — societies in which the hard-working, talented and/or lucky can get rich, but in which some of their wealth is taxed away to pay for a social safety net, because you could have been one of those who strikes out.

Such a society doesn’t correspond to any kind of abstract ideal, whether it’s “people should be allowed to keep what they earn” or “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. It’s a very non-Utopian compromise. But it works, and it’s a pretty decent arrangement (more decent in some countries than others.)

That decency is what’s under attack by claims that it’s immoral to deprive society’s winners of any portion of their winnings. It isn’t.

Paul Krugmann

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Democracy and Capitalism

Back when I was growing up, there was a comforting notion that was sometimes expressed like this:  “Capitalism inevitably leads to democracy.”  Near as I can remember now, the notion was grounded in at least some history, although I no longer recall precisely how.

At any rate, it was comforting to hear.  The world back then seemed locked in a struggle between democracy on the one hand and dictatorship on the other.  The notion capitalism was another force for democracy was reassuring.

Then along came some of the East Asian economies — powerhouses of capitalism but with politically repressive governments — and the notion capitalism inevitably leads to democracy wasn’t so reassuring anymore.

Today, the world still in many ways seems to struggle between democracy and dictatorship, although the importance of some of the players and forces have changed.  Most notably, capitalism is no longer the white knight of democracy, if it ever was.  Instead, it is a mercenary loyal only to its paymasters.

The other day, I read how US corporations were selling surveillance technology to China — perhaps even in violation of American law.  It seems the Chinese have got the notion — and they seem on the verge of proving themselves right — that a capitalist economy mixes quite well with a political dictatorship.  Especially if you throw in a bit of technology to ensure you nip any dissent in the bud.