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Monday, April 8, 2019

what is democratic socialism?

Two important articles these past 2 weeks have highlighted liberal critiques of the "democratic socialists" programs on Medicare for All. The articles are: 1) Paul Krugman's critique of Medicare For All as a litmus test; 2) Natasha Sarin's and Larry Summers alternatives to tax proposals by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In each case, the author(s) is taking issue with "too much socialism" in the Democratic Socialist agenda, notably expressed in the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, and  from newly elected Congresswoman from the Bronx, NY, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

I call them "important" because these are among the best and most experienced minds in economics, with generally progressive values, combined with deep experience in implementing economic theory into policy, policy into politics,  and politics into law.

Further, none other than Barack Obama appears to have weighed in cautioning "progressives" in the Democratic party and presidential campaigns to "not create circular firing squads". Many justly criticize the Affordable Care Acts defects. Most of the defects, so far, are the product of Republican sabotage. No one knows better than Obama the character of the resistance to health care reform. Nonetheless, campaigns based on fixing Obamacare risk becoming victims of the maxim: "there is no education in the second kick of a mule."

This does not make the critics authoritativeI am not sure anyone can be called "authoritative" in this Brave New World. But socialists might be  well-advised to answer the challenges therein, including asking are they really substantive "challenges"? What is "too much socialism"? What is too little? The multi-layered crises confronting all nations are nearly  inseparable from  market economics, yet there are few solutions that do not rely upon the positive behavior of markets in many if not most areas for supplying the means of life, and for the emancipation and rise of labor. Even if such policies were called "socialism with American characteristics"/

To even more complicate matters a new book , OPEN -- The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital, by Kimberly Clausing, makes a compelling, progressive defense of globalization and openness, of managed capitalism, and for expanded, not restricted, trade relations.  This book runs counter to prevailing narratives and  intuition in Left literature. The book is having a strong impact among progressive economists. It supports justified populist demands for institutional reforms. That means making it legal, within certain restraints, to choose more or less "socialism" (or strong industrial policies like the Green New Deal) in development policy, and to attack both national and global inequality in the distribution of gains  from trade via global tax reform (a la Thomas Piketty). However it does so within a fundamentally market oriented, capitalist context. The book emphasizes workforce adaptation over resistance to globalization. and an enhanced Pay the Losers and Make them Winners infrastructure and programs.

I will not further summarize this material -- it deserves to be read and studied, since these are leading and serious social scientists and thinkers not given to phrasemongering. They too, like all of us, are finding their way in the ever stranger political, economic and cultural terrains.

Instead, keeping the above thinking in mind, I ask: What is democratic socialism? I have been tracking most, and participating in several, socialist trends in the US for many decades. This is good and bad. On the good side, I see patterns in "democratic socialism" seen many times before, although never with the range and scale of interest now. Never with the electoral power of today. Sanders has transformed the terrain of socialist politics. On the bad side,  the "been there done that" sensations are not all that reliable and can lead to underestimating the new and different.


1. I do not know.

Given the immense scale, wealth, complexity, and diversity -- on every dimension -- of US society, plus its equally vast global entanglements and responsibilities, my only honest answer is: I do not know.  Undoubtedly it involves economically a substantial expansion of the public sector, perhaps as large as Roosevelt, paid for by progressive taxation (either of the Warren/AOC mode, or some other). And also paid for, hopefully, by real efficiencies arising from rationalizing health care and energy and focused investments in productivity enhancing services (e.g. education, health care) and infrastructure.

But many areas of reform have potential powerful side effects and high risk, unknown consequences.  Climate change is a perfect example.  But so are interventions in global financial markets! There are major trial and error confrontations on both roads. The wise overall policy of democratic socialism -- beyond emergency course correction steps on inequality, climate change, and tax/budget fronts  -- would be to promote experimental, and more scientific, frameworks to test the best approaches to social, infrastructure and industrial engineering initiatives. Facts, Not Dogma (Deng Chou Peng) would be a good slogan to warm up. Dogma is a weakness to which socialists have frequently fallen prey. (I will confess).

I believe we carry little more of use on the road we are headed than a  roadmap of values, the broadest possible mastery of science, and a memory of capitalism's long and, in some ways, quite mysterious trajectories. Those trajectories surprised generations before us, and they appear to be doing it again.

The values are our destinations: peace, justice, a healthy environment, and a material and cultural standard of living that gives rise to our highest aspirations -- those that reveal our true destines. There will be more than one.

One way to think about it is a great baseball game: A. Solve conflicts with games not guns; B. A good and impartial umpire to eject foul play from the game, a fair game is required; C. A good park. Advanced society requires support for leisure.  D. A chance at bat show your stuff; E. A chance in the Field -- to show you are A team. In other words, the pursuit of happiness.

2. Democratic socialism is managed capitalism in the current era. I cannot see how any other conclusion escapes complete fantasy for the United States.  The question is: managed by who?  Socialism has two meanings. One refers to the extent of public vs private property where a market oriented economic system is driving the division of labor and wealth. The other refers to the political and social values of the social classes, in a given country, that favor the former.
  •  Note: Undemocratic socialism is ALSO managed capitalism, at least in this era.
  • Note:  Democratic capitalisms have socialized sectors
Let me use Paul Krugman's stance on Medicare for All as an example of my difficulty in knowing What is Democratic Socialism? - other than Managed Capitalism for the foreseeable future.

All of Paul Krugman's questions about an inflexible, or dogmatic, approach to "medicare for all" are valid. And the alternatives he mentions -- mainly highly regulated mixed systems -- MIGHT be a better, less disruptive means of transforming and integrating a national system out of tens of thousands diverse institutions and services spread across thousands of state, county and municipal health care services that would be bigger and more complex than any health care system on earth.

This argument in effect says the insurance industry's entanglement with the US economy is so deep that nationalizing, permanently, this sector will result in "political chaos".

Bernie responds -- I will use my familiarity with him and his political/economic stance as a stand up example democratic socialist. The quotes are close, but not exact.

"You can't get there (universal coverage) from here if you do not take on the insurance industry and pharmaceutical corruption head on! They will sabotage any tinkering and raise the overall costs of the system while at the same time delivering less not more universal services. As they have done and are doing!"

So true. '

But Bernie too, should he become President, MUST OBTAIN MAJORITIES IN BOTH HOUSES, AND A REVAMPED SUPREME COURT, AND A NATIONAL MANDATE  powerful enough -- general strikes??-- to deal with the REDOUBLED resistance of overthrown or expropriated forces who will exploit every disrupted or reactionary constituency, who will threaten, as they did at the onset of the financial crisis negotiations with both the Bush and  Obama administrations, a serious capital strike and an unemployment rate over 30% if they are not "bailed out because they are too big to fail". There is the decision point, or a good recent metaphor for one. Do you avoid "chaos", again, even though here we are in the midst of President "chaos"? Do you bail out the insurance industry? -- and Wall Street too again since the insurance industry is like the liver AND blood of the financial system now. Or do you arrest the CEOs on the spot, and restart negotiations with what remains?

The real progress toward Medicare for All will be incremental and zig zag, no matter what.  But I think the political dragon lurking behind the demands for Medicare for All, and the more mixed systems, is the dragon of revolution, the potential violence inherent in displacing or reorganizing a significant sector of wealth.  Displaced, very powerful, economic blocs and factions to not leave the scene willingly.  Witness the slave owners or the King of England, or the Tsars of Russia. They do not fall on their swords. No vote that nationalizes insurance property will be viewed as legitimate or acceptable. Resistance to reform will be redoubled. Revolutionary means and approaches, however,  open Pandora's box. Everyone will lose some skin to move on historically. But if you fail to open it,  history may open it for you.

Both force and science will likely be required. The force part is a decisive, well organized majority. The science part will resolve the policy differences between liberal (less socialist) and democratic socialist approaches on health care.

The force part will probably be resolved by Republican reaction, as they remain determined to destroy ALL public options, reform or "socialist": Just like Fort Sumter resolved the differences between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. Of course the era that follows may or may not be as democratic as hoped.  Democracy, certainly the formal kind, requires security. Revolutionary eras put that at risk too.

As Tom Joad remarked:

"They stood on the mountain
and looked to the west'
and it looked, like promised land.
A great green valley with a river running through,
there was work for every single hand, they thought.
there was work for every single hand."

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