In the film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I think of that quote every time I hear someone accuse Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, or any other member of Congress of being a socialist.
Merriam-Webster defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” The second definition is a) “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property” b) “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”
No member of the United States Congress is calling for the abolition of private property or for government ownership of businesses. Capitalism continues, although with more legislation to ensure that workers are paid adequate wages, have safe work conditions, and are protected from discrimination or abuse.
Most proposals also call for higher taxes on the very wealthy. The top marginal tax rate in the United States was 70% or higher from 1936-1980. To be clear, the US income tax is a graduated tax. The first bracket of taxes is at a low rate; as income increases, the percentage of tax also increases. If someone is being paid millions of dollars a year, they still pay a low rate on the first bracket amount, paying a higher amount on each bracket. Only the amount of income above the starting level of the highest bracket is charged at the top marginal rate. For reference, the top marginal tax rate is currently 37% for income over $510,300/individual or $612,350/married couple.
None of the health care reform proposals is calling for “socialized medicine.” This system, which is currently used in the United Kingdom, is one in which the medical providers work directly for the government. All the proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates are either a combination of public and private health insurance or single-payer systems. Medical care providers continue to work for private practices, hospitals, etc. as they do now. In the single-payer system, the government acts as the insurer. This is the system in place in Canada. The current Medicare system is a form of single-payer, although many recipients also have a private supplemental plan. The “Medicare-for-all” proposals also expand Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing care, while cutting premiums and co-pays to at or near zero.
What confuses things more is that a few members of Congress consider themselves “democratic socialists.” What they favor is what is generally called “social democracy” in Europe. Many European countries have a social-democratic party and use some of these principles in their governments. The Nordic countries are structured with a lot of social democracy principles. They have strong social safety nets and much lower levels of income inequality than the US, and their citizens rank among the happiest in the world. Yet, the vast majority of their workers still work for private companies.
So, the next time you hear “socialist” being thrown about as an epithet or a scare tactic, ask yourself if the speaker is using the word accurately. Chances are high that they are not.
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