Mar 152018

One of the strangest things about the US is that one of the government’s most popular programmes is Medicare, which is in effect a socialist programme. As recently as 2015, 77% of US citizens approved of Medicare making it the second most popular US government programme (the most popular was Social Security which is even more socialist).

Yet tell most people from the US that socialism is alive and well in the US, and practised by US government, and you’re likely to be answered with astonishment. Of course the US isn’t tainted by that evil socialism!

Perhaps it would be better to call it “community-funded programmes for all”, although the “for all” would have to wait until Medicare is extended.

Audio Windmills

Sep 122016

The title of this post came from a tongue-in-cheek post on a forum I sometimes post on, and this post is not about the NHS nor it is even about socialism.

What it is really about is the over the top reaction you get when anything even tangentially related to socialism crops up anywhere someone from the US can see it. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that this is a variant on Godwin’s law whereby if someone accuses something of being socialist, they instantly win and condemn the “thing”.

To which I want to respond: grow up and think for yourself.

First of all, socialism is not the same as communism and in turn, communism is not the same as the kind of communism as practised by the Soviets. It is possible that communism inevitably leads to the kind of totalitarianism that the Soviets were so keen on, although there are those who disagree. But this is not about what sort of government you have.

It’s about how to run certain things. How do we pay for, and run certain services we have decided are essential such as :-

  • Health care (of individuals)
  • Public health (of society as a whole – vaccinations, sewage, water supply, etc.)
  • Police and justice system.
  • Defence

There are plenty of things that we have historically decided that should be paid for by the community as a whole, and be run by our government (in a very loose sense the community itself), including many of the items listed above. Even the most rabid anti-socialist is unlikely to start bleating about how the government is interfering with the private sector when talking about defence.

Yet suggest something new should be paid for by the community as a whole – such as the health care system – and Americans will start shouting “Socialism” and condemn the notion without looking at the merits.

By all means condemn a new community-funded notion if there are obvious problems with it, but to condemn it because it might be something suggested by a socialist government is ideologically-driven stupidity of the first order.


Jul 102011

Or “There’s Nothing Wrong With America That A Good Strong Dose Of Socialism Wouldn’t Cure”

This is of course written from the perspective of someone who isn’t that familiar with the US – I haven’t lived there since the 1970s, and I was a bit young to be making notes on the political situation (although I do remember the aftermath of the Watergate scandal). And I’m sure I’ll wander off course from the initial subject of “socialism”. Of course I do read about the crazy freak show that is American politics these days.

For some reason the word “socialism” seems to cause most Americans to blow up. It seems a bit like a trump card – accuse something of being socialist and you’ve won the argument against it, whatever the truth of the argument and whether there’s any scrap of truth in the notion that some policy may be socialist. Or whether a socialist policy has any virtue … some Americans would rather do things poorly than risk doing anything with a “socialist” label on it.

Anyone growing up in the US could be forgiven for thinking that “socialism” is some form of hideous dysfunction that causes an irrational desire to punish hard working people in the form of making them pay more than their share. Or something.

Funnily enough, the US does have socialist policies, but they are called something else – except when some troglodyte wants to destroy such policies. Think “Medicaid”. Or the US Postal Service.

Why does this word trigger such a violent response ? Well there’s a whole bunch of possible reasons …

Firstly there is a lot of confusion between “communism” and “socialism”. The first is a system of government that espouses socialist economic principles throughout the economy (amongst other things); the second is an economic system where the means of production are owned collectively – usually by the government. Of course socialism is really about a lot more than the pure dictionary definition – things like health care provision for all, pensions for the old, attempts at income distribution (to avoid the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor – which is a pretty big problem right now), etc.

And in reality a socialist regime is likely to socialise only a limited part of industry – the obvious example (for me) being Britain in the 1950s where railways, and coal industries were nationalised but most industries were left alone. In some ways that is a poor example given the history of the railways and the coal industry in Britain after nationalisation, but that overlooks the fact that the industries were nationalised partly because they were already in such a poor state.

Americans often hear “communist” when someone says “socialist”, and start to worry about communism … or to be more precise an authoritarian state labelling itself “communist” (although the Soviet Union was about as communist as my toenail clippings). The origins of this fear of communism are probably related to the establishment of the Soviet Union and more significantly, their establishment of Comintern with it’s mission of establishment of communist regimes everywhere. Through fair means or foul.

Now here’s where it starts to get interesting: In both the US and Britain between the two world wars, there was a considerable level of official interest and concern in the activities of communists and organisations such as Comintern. By chance, Britain’s “spook” community included someone who believed that whilst action could and should be taken against organisations such as Comintern, targeting legitimate politicians such as members of the Labour party was wrong. This may have helped influence the rather more enthusiastic head of MI5.

Whereas the equivalent in the US (Hoover as the head of the FBI) had no such influence allowing his anti-communist zeal to exceed the real danger and cross over into harassing innocents on the left of the political spectrum. This probably helped the anti-communists on the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities which whilst not quite as loony as McCarthy himself, did go far beyond what was acceptable and far beyond what the risk of communism entailed.

I have known people who were member of the old hard left all their lives – including those who insisted on keeping a portrait of Uncle Joe on the wall. None of those were unpatriotic – they may have wanted a socialist government; they may even have wanted a communist revolution. But none would have countenanced being ruled from Moscow.

You might say they were being deceived, and that Moscow was keeping control of an inner core of hard core supporters to take over a left-wing government and hand over control. But that was always an unrealistic option – it would take Russian tanks in the streets for such a government to keep control, which was more than a little unrealistic for the US.

Not that fighting the cold war was wrong. But the winners of the cold war were far more the people living under “communism” in the Soviet Union and satellite states, and the armaments companies. That is not to say that we did not benefit, but the benefits were less direct than is most obviously thought of. After all the threat of nuclear war was there not because the Soviet Union existed (after all they didn’t get nuclear weapons without us), but because we were facing them down.

But that is all in the past, and the automatic rejection by Americans of policies with the phrase “But that’s socialism” is now outdated. Indeed the correct reaction is “Yeah. So what ? It’s also right.”.

The right-wing in the freak show that is American politics today, is a bizarre and perplexing combination of Ayn Rand‘s seductive denial of society, and the fundamentalist christians. Indeed they seem to have combined the worst aspects of both, and rejected any redeeming qualities – the belief in an infectious imaginary friend but discarding christian charity (except to those “deserving” of charity), and the belief in individualism without the responsibilities of freedom – the responsibility to share in the care of the less fortunate.

Many Americans (and to be fair, plenty of others) hate paying taxes to pay for benefits for those less fortunate – direct benefits, educational benefits, health care benefits, etc. There is a belief that an individual’s income is for their benefit alone, and nobody has a right to take it away. Indeed that taxation is a form of theft by the government.

There is an element of truth to the theft argument, but it is very wrong to assume that an individual’s income is solely down to their abilities. There are too many contributing factors to an individual’s ability to earn – and those factors are commonly paid for by society as a whole. Such as police to keep order, armed forces to defend the country, education, etc.

Sure those services might be provided by private companies under some sort of “libertarian” utopia, but none of us are living under one of those right now.  And frankly, historical experience shows that private provision of what are normally regarded as government services has been less than successful – look at the history of fire fighting for example.

The earliest (in modern history) fire brigades were introduced by insurance companies to protect the property of those who insured with them. Sure enough, they refused to save the property of anyone else, but fire is one of those things that does not protect property boundaries – by stopping the fire of your uninsured neighbour, your own property is protected to a greater extent than if you waited until your own property was on fire. So those private fire brigades were privatised and the brigades funded from the public purse.

It’s a rare and unusual person who complains about socialism when the fire brigade comes up, but isn’t this what it is ?

Socialism and socialist policies are not good in themselves; neither are they bad. The virtue of any policy is whether it would be effective … and more effective than what is currently in place. Not whether it is ‘socialist’, or whatever. The label is irrelevant.

Jun 252010

Well we have had the emergency budget and one of the announcements was a two year public sector pay “freeze”. Of course in reality it is a pay cut because of inflation. Of course if politicians were a little more honest they would actually announce it as a pay cut by freezing cost of living increases; one minor sign of improvement was when the prime minister admitted afterwards on a debate with the public that it was actually a pay cut. After all in the past, politicians have blindly and foolishly proclaimed that a pay freeze was not a pay cut at all.

For those that doubt that it is a pay cut, take a hypothetical public sector worker who earns £20,000 a year and who spends every pound on buying a £1 loaf of bread. This is of course ridiculous, but makes the arithmetic easier. Now let us assume that the current UK inflation rate is 3% (it’s actually a smidgen higher) and stays that way.

In the first year our hypothetical worker can buy 20,000 loaves of bread.

In the second year, the price of a loaf increases by 3% to £1 * 1.03 or £1.03. Because our worker has not had a pay increase, he can now afford just 20,000 / 1.03 loaves of break … 19,417 loaves of bread. In the third year, the bread goes up yet again to £1.06 and the number of loaves our worker can buy drops again to 18,867.

In a very real sense the value of the work that our worker does for the public is being nibbled away year by year. And don’t forget that it lasts until the cost of living increases above inflation eventually restore the value. Sure our worker still gets £20,000 a year, but the value in money is not the in the symbol printed on the bank note, but in what it can be exchanged for.

Whilst the government has plenty of reasons to reduce government expenditure and reducing the total public sector pay bill is perfectly reasonable, the way it was done is a little old-fashioned. One of the noticeable things about the similar efforts in the private sector in this recession as compared with previous recessions has been the amount of negotiation involved. More enlightened managers have negotiated with the workers to find a mutually least disagreeable way of reducing the cost of salaries.

Sometimes this has meant a number of voluntary redundancies; sometimes a cut in the hours worked with an associated pay cut, and sometimes it has been a simple pay cut. Or a combination of all three.

Why hasn’t the government tried a similar path with the public sector workers ? After all, these things can be negotiated. One obvious compromise is to not only freeze the pay, but also to reduce the standard working week every year by the amount of inflation. This is still a pay cut, but at least values the work of the public sector worker the same – it gives the public sector worker something in exchange for less pay – a shorter working week.

By imposing this pay cut without negotiation, the government is behaving like an old-fashioned tyrannical employer who treats their workers like wage slaves.

And where does this idea that all public sector workers get gold-plated pensions from ? Sure many get final salary pensions which in the majority of the cases is not a spectacular amount. Despite the demonising propaganda floating around in the press, most public sector workers do not earn immensely large salaries; on a personal note, I earn roughly half what my brother earns for roughly the same job – and that excludes his yearly profit bonus.

Fact is that the private sector has slowly been dropping final salary pension schemes for years without any great reflection on whether this is necessary to ensure pensions are affordable, or whether this is a means to ensure fatter profits for the fat cats. And yet still there are a significant number of private sector firms that offer final salary pensions.

The targeting of public sector pension schemes by the right-wing fascists is little more than playing up to the insecurities of private sector workers who have been deprived of their final salary pension schemes.

As someone mentioned on a TV debate on the increase of the pension age to 66 in 2016, we not only need a review of government provision of pensions (to both the workers in general and the public sector workers), but we also need a review of how pensions are paid for in the private sector. We are a richer society now than we were 20 years ago, but pensions are less generous.

Is this simply because people are living longer than they used to, so pensions cost more ? Or is there something else at work ?

In dealing with pensions, I have more questions than answers but it needs some serious thought about how pensions can be paid for. Can we as a society really not afford to pay pensioners a decent pension ? We have a belief that the wealth created by private sector workers belongs to the entrepreneurs who risked everything on setting up a company. But all too often these entrepreneurs are merely managers of very large companies that are risking very little. That is not to say that genuine entrepreneurs do not exist, but the assumption that every head of a company is an entrepreneur is wrong; indeed the ones who earn the most are rarely the ones who risk much.

This is beginning to sound like I am in favour of some kind of old-fashioned hard left socialist state. Not at all, but the belief that the free market can solve everything is just as foolish a belief.

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