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.

 

 

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.

 

 

The health of our food system

junk-food-brainThis post will lay out (what I understand to be) the basic logic behind why consuming a varied diet of whole foods cooked yourself is more desirable than a “conventional” diet of processed, packaged, or prepared foods. In sum, what you eat is a major determinant of your health cost; that is, the financial burden of your medical needs. It is an ironie du sort that taxpayers are the very ones who make the least healthy foods the cheapest to eat, thanks to corporate lobbyists. This is why the discussion of food is political rather than merely personal. The argument consists of an extremely complicated set of issues, and although some points will be more obvious than others, each and every one deserves its own post, researched and cited. As that work is done, I’ll update this post with the appropriate links, and corrections when necessary.

It must be said that there are many variables that affect our health for which we have little to no control, from genetic predisposition to environmental exposure to accidental injury. The one aspect of our health that we can control is our diet, although even here there are factors that restrict our ability to choose, such as budget, tradition, and availability. I hope to have the opportunity to expand my coverage at some point, but the focus of this argument is two-fold: to show why a more natural diet is optimal for our health, and to recognize that the current food system encourages eating habits that are patently detrimental to our health.

  1. Good health is intrinsically connected to nutrition (although nutrition is not the only component of good health). Furthermore, diet is responsible for more ailments than we generally acknowledge.
  2. We house a vital community of bacteria in our gut, commonly referred to as the intestinal microbiome. I’ve come to refer to these critters endearingly as “gut buggies”. The makeup of this community depends on the nourishment it receives, which is determined by the foods we eat. A more complex diet leads to a more complex community of gut buggies.
  3. These gut buggies contribute to the breaking down of food in the process of digestion. A more complex community of gut buggies means a larger variety of nutritive elements made available for use by the body.
  4. Without venturing a numerical guess, good nutrition requires more essential elements than we have isolated so far. In much the same way as it is hubris to discount the possible existence of life elsewhere in the universe, or even our own galaxy, it is hubris to think we have mastered the elements of nutrition. A varied diet built upon whole foods is preferable because it exposes us to the still unknown complexities of nature rather than to the limited consistency required of factory mass production.
  5. Currently, the subsidies provided by our tax dollars prioritize calories over nutrition.
  6. Highly processed foods – primarily, those artificially loaded with salt, sugar, and/or fat in order to create addictive bliss points – tend to have lots of ingredients but are actually less complex in terms of nutrition because many of the ingredients that go into these products start from just two sources: corn and soybean.
  7. Highly processed foods are a leading cause of poor nutrition in the developed world. This problem is compounded by the relative low price of these foods compared to whole, raw foods, a phenomenon supported by those government subsidies.
  8. Poor nutrition contributes to many long-term health problems, to include heart disease and type 2 diabetes (two of the leading causes of death in the developed world).
  9. Eating more whole foods is cheaper in the long run. Changing the way we subsidize our food system will improve our health and will reduce the burdensome costs of health care.
  10. I am not advocating for the complete abolition of any particular type of food. Put simply, our food system should encourage foods that are more healthy and discourage foods that are less healthy. Current subsidies in our food system lead to higher long-term health costs than necessary, which is detrimental to our economy, our society, and our culture.