One man's adventure in life!

Socialism and the US

Some reflections following a Freakonomics podcast episode[1] I just listened to and a blog post[2] I just read. Something that puzzled and frustrated me in my five fantastic years in the US was the tendency of some (not all) Republicans to use Western European countries (particularly Nordic) as examples of Socialism. This was usually when talking about Democrats suggesting higher taxes and/or funding social policies to reign in perceived market failures and decrease inequalities – as an example Obamacare = socialised healthcare = Socialism.

This never made sense to me. From an economic point of view, European countries (along with the US and most of the world) operate a mixed economy with private and public spheres. They differ from the US (and each other!) in the relative sizes of these two spheres and where they draw distinctions between the goods and services offered by both sectors. They may even describe themselves as Social Democracies. Not Socialism.

So if not economics, maybe politics? One glib answer is cheap sabre-rattling for political gain invoking collective memories of the Cold War and the victory of American-led Capitalism over Communism, kept alive by conjuring up spectres out of modern day China (and even parts of Latin America). While there may be a strong element of this at play, the podcast I listened to suggested a more subtle play on history.

Based on the podcast (with disclaimers for my own additions and interpretations): Going back to the first colonisation of the US we have a geographically large country, for which a high degree of decentralisation with a comparatively light federal government makes sense. Add to this a very individualistic, frontier mentality that still persists in the collective idea of “The American Dream” (and in an undeniably entrepreneurial, never-give-up spirit leading to the US being such a powerhouse of innovation). Finally sprinkle on that a dose of the good ol' fashion Commie-hating I mentioned before and you have all the distrust-of-big-government ingredients you could want for throwing around the Socialism tag.

I'm happy to debate where exactly a society should draw the line between the public and private sector. As a Brit I'm probably comfortable with more public sector than many Americans. I even suspect this is what most of the young Americans who say they support Socialism/the ideas of Bernie Sanders actually mean... but as soon as someone throws in the “Socialism” bomb any chance of a nuanced debate seems to evaporate. Frustrating.

The labels we use though can be constraining. They try to reduce the rich complexity of a society into simple terms, which can never fully capture the history and culture, the politics and economics, the multi-level scales from individuals to households to communities to regions to countries to the world (and a society's place in it) – the interwoven ever-shifting feedback mechanisms between it all! That's not to say that labels per se aren't useful – but they can get in the way!

Having got all this off my chest (phew!), I'm actually more interested in concepts like Doughnut Economics and how we meet the challenges of now and the future than in tired debates around Socialism. Let's learn from the past but not be constrained by it!

[1] Freakonomics podcast episode 408 (2021-03-04): Does Anyone Really Know What Socialism Is? Interviewees: the economists Jeffrey Sachs, Ricardo Hausmann, James Robinson and Kjell Salvanes.

[2] Blog post by “not a significant bullet” (2021-03-09): Let Socialism Win; Let Capitalism Die 🌹 #HeyKivrin

Entry 62 of my participation in the “100 Days to Offload” challenge – find out more and join in!

2021-03-09 #100DaysToOffload #podcasts #economics #politics

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