Socialism… what is it good for?

gleefully ignorant

I can’t tell you how many people have walked away from me shaking their head once I’ve asked what they don’t like about socialism. It’s always well into the conversation, often after they have used the term as a confirmation of why something is bad. As in, after I’ve shown my support for single-payer healthcare, their response is that single-payer is bad because it is socialist. “And what’s wrong with socialism?” I’ll ask, knowing that I’ve probably just brought an end to the discussion. (Much appreciation to the very few who have continued past this point, you know who you are.)

I’d like to say up front that I get it. Really, I get that we don’t want to be a socialist country, so my question is a bit of intentional provocation. I could try to mitigate the situation by drawing a distinction between socialism and social democracy, since I’m actually advocating for the latter, but sometimes I can’t resist poking fun at labelphobics. Because it’s socialist? Seriously? Can’t we have a conversation about the thing without resorting to strawman tactics? And why are we hardwired to conceive of every dispute as a polarity? Can we only be either capitalist or socialist? Is it not more favorable to land somewhere in the middle?

The fear…

So far as I can tell, from my own research and the rather limited input from my interlocutors, there are valid arguments against pure socialism both at the state level and for individuals. (The problem is that too many people are inclined to see the faults of pure socialism as a reason to oppose any socialist policies whatsoever. But I’ll return to this point later.)

At the state level, socialism is a hindrance for ingenuity, innovation, and productivity; which, by the way, are the greatest strengths of capitalism. In terms of competition, government control of an industry is no different from a capitalist monopoly – if you don’t need to win over customers, you have no incentive to improve the good or service you supply. And assuming the state is not also fascist (which would lead to communism), socialism removes the profit incentive, both from large businesses controlled by the state and from small businesses trying not to become so big that the state wants to control them – once the state has control, the goal of a business shifts its highest priority from turning a profit to providing a service. So long as population is increasing, we need economic growth to keep up with demand. For economic growth, we need both competition and profit as incentives. Therefore, socialism is inefficient because it malnourishes the advancement of civilization.

As for individuals, socialism places restraints on personal liberty and right to property. The state gets to choose where to invest its money, its people, and its material resources, people no longer get to make these decisions for themselves. To pay for this, the state compels its citizens to pay taxes. Taxation means taking money from one person and giving it to another, which at its very core is a form of theft. Therefore, socialism is immoral.

Such are the arguments against socialism, as I understand them. If I’ve missed anything, please leave a comment to set me straight.

The reality…

Both arguments fail because they rely on the same false premise that the controlling entity must be either the state or the people. The government controls the people, or the people control the government. The missing component, of course, is the corporate entity.

Any old-school economist worth his value in stock shares knows that market activity is an impersonal machine of necessity whose actions are defined by the laws of supply and demand. Those economists are wrong. So long as a company’s contribution to its sector of the economy is modest, supply and demand do indeed force the hand of management and, thus, the behavior of the company. But once a company has grown large enough to carry the health of an industry or even the whole economy on its shoulders, power shifts from demand to supply. When no one else can provide the same or same level of a good or service, a company can regulate output to manipulate price and profit margin, can spend lavishly to lobby politicians, and, most importantly for the working class, can wield resolute leverage when negotiating employee wages. At this point, neither the state nor the people are in control. The corporations are. Taxes are how society pays its bills. Under-compensation for labor is theft. 

Corporations have done a marvelous job convincing the American people that they are still bound by the same economic laws as before. Not only that, but they have deprecated the government’s role in regulation, claiming for themselves sole responsibility for creating jobs, ensuring quality products, and mitigating disasters both economic and environmental. Trickle-down economics, brought to life by the Reagan administration, has made corporations the masters of our national destiny, and any attempt by the government to protect against egregious impropriety is cast as a villainous regime attacking the benevolent hero.

And yet, the working class continues to struggle. Corporations make deals with local communities to bring in jobs in return for tax and utility waivers, land grants, even loans, then abandon ship when business falters, leaving the communities to cover the losses themselves. They threaten to kill jobs and/or raise prices if the minimum wage goes up, knowing that government programs will supplement incomes for those whose paychecks aren’t enough to live on. They demonize stewards of the land, like the EPA, for enacting regulations that place unnecessary burdens on commerce. They lobby against transparency in order to preempt regulation and shirk responsibility when problems occur. It is the government’s constitutional mandate to promote the general welfare of the people, and yet we as a nation have bought into the fantasy that only a market free from outside interference will guarantee our prosperity. Never mind that there is no such thing as a free market, at least not here, not now. Never mind that businesses aggressively negotiate to eschew any social responsibility, paying as little as possible to get the labor and materials they need regardless of true cost or consequence. Never mind that we, the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world, still have millions of hungry, homeless, and uninsured. And never mind that there is no evidence that any of the assertions stated above favoring the corporate world are true. Folks are seemingly content hide behind accusations of fake news and they happily, gleefully, ignore the facts. Like the Western diet, capitalism over-nourishes the advancement of society, to the detriment of the current well-being of the people. But if you’ve read this far, you probably didn’t need convincing. You know all of this to be true already.

The solution…

The answer is not to pivot to pure socialism, as my back-turners may have assumed is the goal. Nor is there any reason to believe that it would somehow be the end result. We need capitalism. We need corporations. We need patent laws and trade secrets, and we even need the ability to pay top dollar to get the best leadership in the private sector. We also need a government competent enough to protect us when profits won’t. No well-reasoned person I know wants government to take over any industry, much less all industry. The real question is what level of government intervention is appropriate for a given industry at a given time. Monopolies are bad for competition, driving up consumer prices and reducing consumer choice. Thus, government should step in (more often than they do) to break up monopolies. And if we are to concern ourselves with the pocketbooks and market selections of individual consumers, are we not also obliged to consider the very goods and services they are purchasing? Should profit be the priority for every industry? Put another way, are there goods/services that should be available outside of the conventional models of maximized profit?

Single-payer healthcare…

I believe the answer to that last question is yes. Every child in America is guaranteed, ostensibly, access to public education to be paid for by taxpayers. The system can be improved upon, certainly, but does anyone believe that a privatized, for-profit education system would be better? Is there any evidence that charter schools are so successful that the entire system should switch over to their model? The result would be a formal recognition that those with the most money get the best education for their children, and although that is somewhat true now, at least we openly endorse equal access to quality education for all, and we enact policies to encourage this.

Likewise, every person in America should be guaranteed access to public health care to be paid for by taxpayers. Under the current system, you get only as much health care as you can pay for, and in many cases much less. One of the benefits of capitalist markets, stated above, is that profit incentives encourage better products. And yet, we pay more for health care than any other developed country in the world and we receive worse outcomes. Tragically, people who do not have health insurance, or sufficient health insurance, can be denied non-emergency health care. Health insurance also is often tied directly to one’s employer, so switching jobs creates the potential for dropped coverage. But the most important reason to insure everyone is that everyone will consume this product, some continually, others eventually. Choosing not to purchase insurance only shifts the inevitable financial burden onto those who do pay.

The taxpayers already foot the bill for those whose health care is not covered by insurance. Integrating this purchase into the tax system to create formal coverage will raise taxes, but it will reduce health care costs – by capping maximum charges for procedures and drugs, by encouraging growth in health care professions, and by providing lifetime access to care, thus detecting disease and disorder while treatment is relatively cheap. This does not mean the government runs health care. What it means is that the government represents the people and not the corporations. It means that the citizenry as a whole, through government, can negotiate with providers to lower costs. It means the priority is on health and not profit. Better health outcomes means cheaper health care. This coupled with a national food policy that values nutrition over calories, a single-payer health care system is the most efficient, most effective, and most financially conservative choice for Americans.

 

So there is something to be gained from looking at both sides of this discussion, when the discussion is allowed to occur. Capitalism and socialism both have their strengths and their weaknesses – both have beneficial applications, yet each is ruinous in its pure form. It should be clear by now that what I’m describing here is, thus, not socialism per se, but social democracy. Perhaps I’ll write about the term itself at some point. And perhaps I’ll adapt my discourse with the back-turners. After all, there are plenty of other opportunities to provoke.

 

 

Who is responsible for Trump?

It has recently come to light that Russia purchased ads on both Google and Facebook in order to influence our presidential election. So does that make our current POTUS illegitimate?
hypnotrump

The legitimacy of Trump’s presidency is a tricky issue for me. On the one hand, I do sympathize with the view that people are sometimes (often?) misled into making a decision, whether through inaccurate or incomplete information or false advertising or grandiose promises etc. But Russian endorsement through advertising is not the same thing as rigging voting machines. It pains me to say it, but Trump got the votes to win the electoral college. Does it make his win illegitimate just because Russia helped people choose who to vote for?

 
I hold voters accountable for the catastrophe that this presidency has become because they (we – I didn’t vote for Trump, but maybe I could have done more to campaign against him) are ultimately responsible for his win. I also want to blame Russia for pushing their agenda on our electorate. I also want to blame conservative news for focusing on straw-man targets instead of addressing issues via evidence (looking at you, @Fox News). I also want to blame Hillary and the DNC, the spineless Republican leadership, gerrymandering, even social democrats who have been loathe to carry their banner into the fray.
 
But most of all, it’s still our fault. We had all the proof in the world that Trump is an incompetent, misogynist, ethically bankrupt individual who would tell any lie necessary to win. We overlooked every bit of it and let him win anyway. As much as I want to blame everything else, in the end, we are still responsible for the fate of those millions who will remain and who will become uninsured, of those millions who continue to be impoverished by the asinine claims of trickle-down economics, of those millions, billions, who in the generations to come have to suffer the consequences of climate change, not to mention the victims of whatever war we might be headed toward. If we’d stop pretending that politics doesn’t matter, if we’d educate ourselves about the issues and the candidates, then we could have prevented the disgrace that is Trump. But right now, the best we can hope for is replacing him next time, and that rests more on our maturity as citizens than all the interference.
 
Not saying we shouldn’t focus on all of these things together. But we have to address the plague of willful, gleeful ignorance, most importantly. Trust expert consensus, not anecdotal hate-bait. And elect the good students, not the blustery know-it-alls.
 
Yeah, I know, people are gonna believe what they want regardless. I feel defeated even as I try to offer solutions. But the message needs to get out there. We need to learn how to learn, and stop being afraid of everything we read. We can do better. Demand better.

The Adolescent Age of Information

the brain with a matrix-style overlayIt might seem like the Information Age has been fatally corrupted with the election of our current POTUS, but I’m here to say that even though we have taken a few (okay, several) steps back, the work is far from over, and the future remains bright. What we as a culture suffer from now is the inability to deal rationally with the trove of data that is released upon us at every moment of our waking lives. Like children struggling to navigate the new responsibilities of independence, we have not yet figured out how to regulate our impulses in favor of deliberation and sound judgment. We give in to spontaneous reactions to “breaking” news without having all the facts, then vehemently defend our ill-conceived opinions due to the devastating effect admitting a mistake would have on our pride and self-perceived identity. Plus, it’s just easier to lump every headline under umbrella categories for which we’ve already formed opinions. And while there is no stopping the information (short of self-quarantine, which I do endorse in regular doses), we will get better at processing and evaluating what we hear. We will adapt. Reading and learning is hard. As adults, we are (will be) more willing to take on the challenge.

If this sounds like a problem we have faced all throughout history, it is. We humans have always been a gullible folk, and we believe whatever is easiest to believe. The difference today is the pace at which we encounter new information. Instantaneous global communication has created such an anxiety that careful consideration seems antiquated. Pause is no longer efficient, there’s just too much to take in. And, by the way, this is a problem for people at both ends of the spectrum of impressionability – those who don’t believe anything, and those who too willingly believe everything. Neither group has a healthy relationship with truth, although at least they are easy to spot, each often castigating the other for their polarity. We would do well to avoid both.

What you know best becomes what you know to be the best. Maturity has never been easy and won’t be now. Beliefs and opinions are often dependent upon incidence by default, and this bias is extremely difficult to overcome. You are very likely to identify with the political party and the religious denomination of your parents because you’ve had more exposure to those ideas than any others. This is already well-known to be true in the general terms of politics and religion, but what about more nuanced categories, such as science, media, education? Your level of exposure to an issue has enormous bearing on your ability to decipher the news and filter the fake from the real. If you have limited knowledge about a topic, your natural inclination is to find some association with knowledge you do have, basing your judgment on a larger theme of discourse. This coping mechanism is not without merit, for our understanding of one realm does and should inform our understanding of another. However, we should be sure to appreciate complexity and the consequence of unique variables. And now more than ever, we have access to the tools necessary for objective judgment. Listen to those who spend their lives working on an issue, look for consensus, and be willing to admit ignorance.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. This brings me to a primary lesson I keep coming back to in my studies: humility.  It takes far more courage to admit when knowledge is lacking than to scream in protest when your stance is contested. We just haven’t yet found the courage to learn rather than scream. This makes our present situation all the more difficult, but we’ll get there. Slowly, perhaps painfully, knowledge will eventually win out. It always does.

 

 

Resolutions

Not that you asked, but my opinion on New Year’s resolutions? Make em! Have goals. But be flexible.

Some people are self-obstructively binary about these things by setting a narrow goal and declaring the resolution broken at the first sign of delinquency, or worse, avoiding making a resolution at all because the odds of remaining completely faithful to it are slim. You may say you want to join a gym, go for two weeks, miss the first day of the third week and never visit the gym again. Or you may say you want to quit smoking, you make it through the first day, light up due to some trigger and retreat back into the same old habits the very next day. Diet. Acts of kindness. Writing. These are just examples from my own personal experience, but you have your own. I like to think I’ve matured somewhat over the years. I’m a lot more flexible about goals and resolutions, and I’m a lot more forgiving of myself as a consequence. Leniency seems to me to be a much more successful tactic to achieving a goal than trying to be “motivated” or even “realistic” (neither of which are bad advice, just not very helpful, imho). Just know that it’s okay to take things slow. Making a New Year’s resolution isn’t going to be like flipping a switch – you have all year. The important thing is to make the adjustment an important part of your daily life. Just attempting to make yourself a better person will make you a better person. Stay positive!

Here are some of my favorite food-related New Year’s resolutions that I’ve made over the years. For the most part, I’ve been rather successful with each one. I certainly think I’m better off having set them as goals. My rule of thumb is to worry less about getting it right and more about making it better.

  • Be more present (i.e. less distracted) when you cook, and make an effort to think about what’s going on with the food as it goes from raw to plate.
  • Find out where the foods you normally eat come from.
  • Practice cooking eggs lots of different ways. Not all at once.
  • Bake some bread.
  • Braise some meat.
  • Eat more vegetables. Buy a folding steamer basket.
  • Eat fresh fruits and dried nuts instead of chips and cookies.
  • Drink more water. You’ll be amazed at how good it tastes once you’re hooked.
  • Skip seconds. Have some water instead.
  • Make stocks, and turn these stocks into soups etc.
  • Learn how to cook over charcoal.
  • Learn how to butcher a chicken.
  • Cook seasonal foods. Not sure how to start? Shop at the farmers’ market, or better, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, even for a short time.
  • Donate money to a food bank. Every little bit helps.
  • Don’t eat fast food, especially for dinner. If you’re too busy to make a quick meal for dinner, you’re too busy.
  • Plan for leftovers, for when even a quick meal isn’t quick enough.
  • Get some painter’s tape and start labeling containers you put in the fridge with the date of entry.
  • Stop buying foods that are sold in boxes and bags. You’ll eat less mac&cheese if you have to make it the “hard” way.
  • Make mac&cheese the “hard” way. Not that hard, very yummy.
  • When picking a restaurant, go local. (I’ll have a post about why at some point.)
  • Eat at a real table. The coffee table doesn’t count.
  • Offer to cook for other people, and accept when others extend the offer to you.
  • Talk about food.
  • Burp out loud.

Wishing everyone a delightful 2017! Bon appétit!

frog-bbq

Forgiving Hypocrisy

 

cave-canem

“Beware of the Dog”, House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (1st century CE)

Advocacy is a tricky thing, especially when you are trying to condone a behavior. I have lots of opinions on how we should act in relation to food, but I don’t mind admitting that I am often a hypocrite, and you should be too. So long as there is no encroachment upon the freedom of another person and you aren’t trying to claim glory for righteousness (both of which should be avoided anyway), I don’t see anything wrong with voicing an informed opinion about something and yet, at times, acting counter to that opinion. If involuntary, the transgression should be met with leniency and reflection, but it’s also worthwhile to revisit our established prejudices voluntarily from time to time in order to reevaluate the merits of our stance, even if that means behaving in a way you don’t generally prescribe. Occasionally acting outside your comfort zone is a good thing.

For example, I have long advocated for an avoidance of highly processed foods, by which I mean those that are artificially packed with salts, sugars, and fats in order to create addictive bliss points. (The reasons why are for another post.) Still, as everybody knows, the best ketchup is Heinz (obviously), and I’ve given up any pretense that I can make my own ketchup that tastes just as good or replace it with something “healthier”. I’ve tried both, and probably will again, but neither have come close to Heinz. This is one instance when I would be denying myself the best of its kind if I were to commit to a relentless adherence to my message. So while I am all for avoiding highly processed foods as a general rule, there is no need to be an ascetic. Moderation in all things means limiting your consumption; it also means not eliminating your consumption. Avoiding indulgences makes them more enjoyable when they are consumed. Being a hypocrite has its perks.

Forgiveness of hypocrisy is especially important in today’s culture if we are to remedy divisive discourse. The succinct and inciteful nature of social media often favors extremist remarks as a means of capturing the attention of a reader. Complexity or vacillation is vilified for showing weakness, and so arguments become simple and rigid, cavalier validations for the like-minded rather than invitations for worthwhile dialogue. Make no mistake, inflammatory headlines are extremely effective as click-bait. They are also extremely ineffective in the dissemination of accurate information. There are often real and valid concerns hidden underneath, but since they suppress rather than encourage a constructive exchange of ideas, messages that may be moderately valid needlessly suffer under the strain of rigidity. We can do better as both authors and interlocutors.

My point is that I see no reason to shy away from making claims about our relationships with food for fear of sounding like a hypocrite, nor do I see any reason to adopt extreme stances in the pursuit of readers. I try to avoid absolutes in an effort to deliver a message that is accurate, helpful, and accessible. Rather than asking yes/no questions, I tend to ask TWE (To What Extent) questions. I love complexity and intricacy and I cherish my good fortune that allows me the luxury of inquiry. Moreover, I am flexible. Except when I’m not.

Further reading: Scientific American, on how charges of hypocrisy can stifle meaningful dialogue.

 

Hello, World!

vincent_van_gogh_1853-1890_-_wheat_field_with_crows_1890

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890

Our personal relationship with food is the most honest expression of ourselves that exists anywhere in our lives, for our most fundamental philosophies and opinions about life are represented in how we choose to fuel our bodies. More than our religious beliefs or our jobs or careers or hobbies, more than our homes or what we put in them, even more than what we wear or how we look, what we eat is the essence of who we are, just as Brillat-Savarin famously quipped two centuries ago.¹ Food is life and life revolves around food, no matter whether you are more interested in simply abating the annoyance of hunger or seeking out the creations of the world’s best chefs. For both extremes and for everyone in between, our food choices tell the genuine story of our identity.

This is not only true for individuals, but for each and every grouping in which people associate with one another, from nuclear families to neighborhoods and nationalities. The effort we put into planning a meal is intrinsically connected to the government’s deployment of tax dollars in the food system. I am interested in how the variables work together, and the implications of change. This blog will be where I confront these issues.

So, the plan. I am a ponderer. I like to take time to prepare and think things through. A reasonable expectation for myself is to make a weekly post (HA!) on something I find interesting in the world of food. There will be categories, of course, but I presume they will take shape as the posts accumulate. I will cite sources, resulting in a list of trusted news and reference sites (and other media) in order to ensure that my musings are based upon good evidence. I also welcome constructive dialogue, if anyone is inclined to participate. Ultimately, I want to contribute to ongoing conversations about food policies, both public and private. I see food as a lens through which we can examine our very humanity. Food is important. Food is intriguing. Food is supremely satisfying. Time to dig in.

¹ “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Brillat-Savarin, J.A. (1825) Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante. Translated by Anderson, R.E. (1877) Gastronomy as a fine art, or, The science of good living : A translation of the “Physiologie du goût” of Brillat-Savarin. London: Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly.