Thursday, October 23, 2008

Obama a Socialist? Hardly

The article I share below is written by David Lightman and William Douglas and appeared in yesterday’s Minnesota Pioneer Press.

Despite being a socialist-leaning guy, I appreciate this article’s examination of how various “experts,” such as political scientists, are refuting the McCain campaign’s contention that Barack Obama is a socialist.

Why? Because in doing so they define and discuss socialism without demonizing it. That’s rare in this country, I’ve discovered. Indeed, I can’t tell you how unfortunate and frustrating it is to observe the number of normally rational and intelligent Americans displaying an almost pathological aversion to the word “socialism.” As Lightman and Douglas point out, this is largely due to the linking of socialism to communism (i.e., the communist regimes of despots like Stalin and Mao) during the Red Scare days of the past.

There’s one thing I’d like to add, however, to this particular article: when the authors define socialism as “involv[ing] state ownership of the means of economic production and state-directed sharing of the wealth,” it needs to be said that in authentic socialism (as opposed to, say, corrupted expressions of it such as Stalinism) “state ownership” implies public utilities operated under the democratic control of the people. Thus the recent government bailout of Wall Street was not a socialist action. If it had been truly socialist, these Wall Street financial institutions would now be under the democratic control of the working population. Now whether or not such control is feasible or even possible is another issue.

I also think it’s important to note that the democratic socialism we see in Europe could not be possible in the U.S. where, sadly, the political system is more of a plutocracy (the rule of money) than a democracy (the rule of the people). Most European countries are much more democratic than the U.S. - in part because of their parliamentary systems of governance - systems that ensure, for example, such things as proportional representation.


Socialism? No Way, Say Experts Who Point to the Past

Conservatives’ claim about tax plan for wealthy rebutted

By David Lightman and William Douglas
Minnesota Pioneer Press
October 22, 2008

Make no mistake,” Republican activist John Hancock told a John McCain rally in this St. Louis suburb, “this campaign is a referendum on socialism.”

Republicans have been pounding that theme in recent days, even though Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama hardly fits the classic definition of a socialist.

Critics point to Obama’s plan to raise the top two tax rates on the wealthy as clear evidence of his socialist bent. However, Len Burman, the director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, said that while Obama “would make the tax system more progressive overall, it would not be a radical shift.”

It wouldn’t qualify as socialism.

“The answer is clearly no, Sen. Obama is not a socialist,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. “We’ve had a progressive tax system for some time, and both Republicans and Democrats have bought into it.”

Conservatives often charge that Democrats are engaging in “class warfare” when they want to raise tax rates on the rich — McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have used the phrase against Obama — but they rarely find such fault when tax rates benefit the wealthy class disproportionately.

Socialism involves state ownership of the means of economic production and state-directed sharing of the wealth. America’s democratic capitalist system is neither socialist nor pure free market.

Rather, it mixes the two, and it has at least since the progressive income tax was introduced 95 years ago. Under it, the wealthy pay higher income tax rates than those who are less fortunate do. It’s a form of sharing the wealth.

Government intervenes in U.S. free markets all the time. The deduction that homeowners get for mortgage interest is one form, because it subsidizes housing. The government contracts that sustain the great U.S. weapons makers, such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, are another.

For that matter, President Bush and other Republicans, including McCain, backed a massive federal government rescue of ailing financial institutions this fall, one that’s committed more than $1 trillion so far to “private” banks, even taking partial ownership of the nine biggest.

Socialism has proved more popular in Europe, including in Great Britain, France and Italy. In the United States, the term traditionally has been closely associated with communism, and thus claiming the socialist mantle has been political poison. Since World War II and the Cold War, American political candidates who advocate pure socialism rarely have gotten very far. Most notably, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont was first elected to Congress in 1990 as a socialist and remains one.

The new round of socialism claims was triggered by Obama’s comments last week to “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher in Toledo, Ohio.

Wurzelbacher told Obama he hoped someday to buy a plumbing business, and asked, “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”

Key Bush administration tax cuts are due to expire January 1, 2011. Obama wants to end breaks for most individuals who earn more than $200,000 and families that make more than $250,000; McCain does not. Obama’s position would restore the top rates to where they were under President Bill Clinton, when the economy boomed.

“It’s not that I want to punish your success,” the Illinois senator told Wurzelbacher. “I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance for success, too. My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s going to be good for everybody. ... I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Republicans pounced, and haven’t stopped.

“You see,” McCain said in his radio address Saturday, “he believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that help us all make more of it. Joe, in his plainspoken way, said this sounded a lot like socialism, and a lot of Americans are thinking along those same lines. In the best case, spreading the wealth around is a familiar idea from the American left.”

It was Bush and McCain who claimed a central role in the drama.

“If we’re moving toward socialism,” Beck said, “it’s a bipartisan event.”

A major challenge the next president faces, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman and Obama backer Paul Volcker said Tuesday, is “how do we reprivatize institutions” that have been “socialized” by the Bush administration?

Many conservatives were uneasy about the bank bailout, but they argue that it’s important to remember that “George Bush is not on the ballot,” said Brent Littlefield of the American Conservative Union.

David Lightman and William Douglas

NOTE: For an actual socialist perspective on Barack Obama, see the previous Wild Reed post, Reality Check.


. . . Then Again, Maybe Obama’s
a Closeted Roman Catholic?

My friend Jim shared with me the following reflection by Ed Kohler of St. Paul.

“You spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Senator Obama is reported to have said to Joe the Plumber.

Some conclude that proves Obama is a socialist. I, however, find him a closet Roman Catholic. For this reason: the underpinning of the Church’s social doctrine for over 100 years is an ancient principle that goes back to Aquinas (1224-1274) that calls for the equitable distribution of limited resources.

Wealth, a limited resource, is more than money. It is also education, health care, a job with a living wage, decent housing, means to live a dignified old age, all resources in short supply.

History shows that the wealthy too often serve their self-interest by opposition to even modest efforts to level the playing field. Only a strong central government has the power to overcome that opposition and move us toward a society where those with much have a little less and those with less have a little more.

Ed Kohler

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Obama, Ayers, the “S” Word, and the “Most Politically Backward Layers in America”
A Socialist Response to the Financial Crisis
R.I.P. Neoclassical Economics
Capitalism on Trial
John le Carré’s Dark Suspicions
Progressives and Obama (Part 1)
Progressives and Obama (Part 2)
Progressives and Obama (Part 3)
Progressives and Obama (Part 4)
Progressives and Obama (Part 5)

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Left Needs More Socialism - Ronald Aronson (The Nation, April 1, 2006)
World Socialist Web Site

Image 1: Jim Young.
Image 2: Shepard Fairey.


Anonymous said...

There are many forms of socialism in the U.S. I use the word "socialism" very broadly. Public utilities are one form of socialization. Private insurance is another form of socialization. These are ubiquitous; no body thinks anything of them beyond the usual complaints about service, efficiency, the same things said about companies. It seems disingenuous to reserve complaint or praise for one particular idea and form of socialism.

The U.S. economy has been run on a war footing since about 1938. Is that "bad?" I have nothing against defense preparedness, to a point, but the Federal government has been involved in the economy since the early 30s with nary a complaint from anyone. That fat defense budget is a great, big jobs program. I think it is in most countries.

Frank Partisan said...

Keynesian economics is a reform of capitalism, not socialism.

Obamas economic advisors are graduates of the University of Chicago, home of Milton Friedman. Despite rhetoric they aren hostile to universal healthcare and would privatize SS, if they were able.

Socialism starts with workers control of the means of production, the right to recall politicians, everyone is a bureaucrat, so no one is a bureaucrat, no standing army.

Anonymous said...

It's difficult to say whether he is a socialist or not. Now, a president is not like a king.