socialism?

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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Author: Joanne Corey

Please come visit my eclectic blog, Top of JC's Mind. You can never be sure what you'll find!

14 thoughts on “socialism?”

  1. Very similar to accusations of communism in the 50’s and 60’s. Perhaps some activists were, but I remember clearly how civil rights workers, especially White ones, were so labeled. Mickey Schwerner was not only called a n—–loving communist, but, since he was Jewish, he was also called an atheist. The misinformed grab hold of a term they don’t (care to) really understand and throw it around when they run out of any rational arguments they may have had. I’m finding this particularly disturbing in some people I know pretty well. Of course, some of them probably already consider me a left-wing elitist due to my past professional background, so they might as well add socialist to their list, among other things. That’s OK; I have a few terms for them as well.

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    1. You are right about the 50s and 60s, of course. And, yes, name-calling seems to be the last resort when a position on an issue is indefensible. I try to always keep to an issue when I am commenting. While I don’t delete or edit comments here at TJCM on the basis of opinion, I will remove anything that is hateful or uses inappropriate language. I’m just old-fashioned that way.

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  2. Something very interesting I have grown to recognize more and more. Often, when people have an idea they know others won’t accept, they take great pains in how they “package” their ideas, pointing to this and that. But they never follow the rabbit all the way down the trail. They move from this information to that, flitting here and there (To some degree, they know their audience.). They might quote famous people, point to successes in other countries (which really are not), and attach meaning from cause and effects which aren’t really causes and effects. **But I’ve noticed something else, and this took many years to realize. When someone (anyone) talks, I look in their eyes. I watch their facial/body language. I listen to their words: carefully. And in them, I know when the other is honest and from the heart, misled, or purposefully disguising a concept for their own purposes, whether it’s to be seen “in the know,” “lead discussions,” or actually promote an ideology which the rabbit never travelled. I never trust the pure intellectual. Understanding is the key. And someone dependent upon a system will not speak against that system so long as it works for them. But that’s not what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to seek long-term solutions which is in the constitution.
    Socialism cannot work and never has. But there must be a reason why some people like the idea. Either they’ve never lived in a socialist country, have had others rearrange their reasoning processes (miseducation), react emotionally to things and as such are not able to think clearly, have allowed themselves to believe, or simply have an agenda which begs other questions.
    I’ll take this time to share a part of the rabbit trail. Let each reader think for themselves. Let’s say, in a good neighborhood, low on crime, there is a family (Mom, Dad, two brothers and two sisters, both parents working, but someone is always home when the children are done with school.). While Sandy, the twelve year old is running a small jewelry making business, Johnny starts a lawn-mowing business (I use this because that’s what I did.). So, he goes around the neighborhood, gaining more lawns. With time, and doing good work, he has many lawns to care. Eventually, a friend wants in. The friend wants a certain amount of money. But Johnnie explains that unless they make more profit, he can’t give much. But if they make more, then more money can be had. Of course, money always has to go back into the business, to pay for gas, broken lawn mower blades, tools, and more, repairs included. Of course, they might find a neighbor who can fix engines and such for less. But there’s more. The money they make is dependent upon the neighbors working and having money. And they cannot charge more than what customers are willing to pay from their hard-earned dollars.
    What I’ve just shared is a rabbit trail. You follow the lines of reason, understanding, and actual life. America is a land of freedom with responsibility. Yes, we do things to help others, but minimally is wiser. Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. With things like medicine, there are reasons that cost is so high. It doesn’t need to be. It wasn’t always. And we can’t live by fear of “what ifs.” We can only live by what is and what works, always following the rabbit.
    For readers, I would strongly suggest reading the words of the founding fathers and the federalists. But don’t look for intellectual reasoning. Don’t look to be wise in your own eyes. Don’t look to be respected by others for your insights. Socrates never cared for adulation. He just followed the rabbit. He reasoned. And if something made sense, he examined it further.
    For a country to be successful, people have to be individuals thoughtful to family and friends. We can never allow others to do the thinking for us. We can never allow others to say they will care for us with other people’s money. To some degree, this is necessary. That’s why we have things like insurance. But we have to be careful how far a good idea is taken. It used to be, when someone in the neighborhood was going through a rough time, the neighbors helped. And this is good. But no one was looking for a free lunch. And this is a big difference.

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    1. Just to be clear, no Democratic presidential candidate is proposing that the US become a socialist country. Countries that follow democratic socialism principles continue to have the vast majority of their economy under private, not government or collective, ownership. The United States already has some elements of democratic socialism, for example, Social Security.

      One of the things that strikes me in our Constitution is the preamble which sets out the purpose of our government, which includes all of us, we the people. We are called to “promote the general welfare.” I expect our tax dollars to be used for this purpose, not just for people from my town or state, but for whoever is in need. It’s also how we fund our roads and schools and public infrastructure, etc. which benefit us all, either directly or indirectly. None of us succeed on our own; we exist in community and benefit from a web of support, part of which is commerce, part of which is public works, and much of which is voluntary, such as caregiving and volunteering.

      I marvel that our Constitution has continued to sustain us by updating with the times. The Founders set up a system where voters were almost entirely white men with property. Many people, indigenous, women, and, most shamefully enslaved Africans, had no or limited rights. Thankfully, we have moved beyond some of that, but still don’t have full equality. Because of my understanding of the common good – the “general welfare” – our Constitution, and my faith tradition’s teachings on social justice, I look at all the people as my neighbors and feel a sense of community and mutual responsibility on a national scale.

      My fear at this point is the extent to which our Constitution is under strain, especially the separation of powers and the co-equal structure of our branches of government. From reading our founding documents and papers and letters from that time, I believe that the architects of our nation would be appalled.

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  3. I’m reading the words, but my inner knowing says read between the lines. I’ve shared this before, and it has become a good friend, that when people talk, I listen. I look them right in the eye, which encapsulates body language, and where they are coming from becomes clear. In this format, we only have the words, but over time, if we’ve listened to others carefully, learned to think for ourselves and study history (also how what is happening today is a repeat in many respects), and read carefully, we see, even if the writer is unaware. **I have often noticed that when some people want something, to influence, to pursue an agenda, but realize their real purpose must be packaged carefully, the words used say one thing, but in reading between the lines, something altogether different. So, I’ll simplify to make the point. Two parents have four children. They have the responsibility to each other and to the children. They take care of their needs. They work, buy food, and supply other things. We can call this responsibility and caring for others. But as they get older, the parents ween their children of this need. They still love each other, but love is also placing them on their own feet. We work together yes, need each other as any family cares for one another, but we don’t encourage reliance where independence can take care. **The thing I’m watching is where speakers attempt to “blur” the lines. And why are they attempting to blur the lines becomes a question. So, we follow the rabbit down the trail.

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    1. It does generally work that children leave their parents and establish their own independent households, although, with my rural roots, I have known quite a few multi-generational households that showed a higher level of interdependency with a generational shift happening over time that the younger generation(s) support the elders who had once supported them.

      Additionally, I would point out that the family of six does not exist in a vacuum, but in a community. In the US, there are very few families that are totally self-reliant. The vast majority shop in stores, use electric power from the grid, send their children to school, belong to Scout troops or churches or veterans’ organizations or civic societies or sports leagues or other expressions of community.

      One of the blessings of my life has been to live in supportive communities. We help each other to navigate our way through life. Over these last few years, I have been grateful for the support of friends and professionals in navigating the final illnesses and deaths of my mother and mother-in-law. We would not have been able to function without our community. I am, perhaps, more aware of our interconnectedness because of my grounding in Catholic social justice doctrine.

      I hope that, if we were to meet in person, you would be able to see the sincerity with which I write this.

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  4. A friend I shared this with had a thought: I would ask a person promoting “democratic socialism” (We are a democratic republic, not a democracy. We’re a representative country) if they would be willing to work hard (40+ hours per week), then give half their paychecks to the needy which they’ll find right in their neighborhood. Also, he would ask how big their house is, and if they would be willing to sell it, live in a small apartment, and give the proceeds to the needy. Another thought he just relayed is if the person has a big back yard open to all who need a place to sleep, tents and meals provided. There’s an old saying: live by example.

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    1. Personally, I have spent most of my adult life as a caregiver for three generations of my family, some of whom have chronic medical problems. I have also volunteered extensively with the school system in our town and with our church. As a one-income family, we don’t have a huge house and yard. We live modestly and support both local and larger-scale charities, as well as quietly helping folks who need some help to get by. This is not something I usually talk about, but am trying to answer your question.

      We are also grateful that my spouse has work that is well-paid. Others in our community are not so fortunate. They work hard but aren’t paid enough to support themselves and their families. There is no city in the US where a full-time worker at federal minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. Workers in my state are benefitting from a rising minimum wage, so their financial circumstances are starting to improve.

      Catholic social doctrine teaches about the dignity of work and of workers. It calls on employers to pay fair wages so that workers can support themselves and their families. Currently, business owners and/or their shareholders can take large profits while paying their workers wages that are so low that they qualify for food assistance to keep from going hungry. I think this is wrong. I have lived in communities in which the large employers have looked on their workforce as a valuable asset and have been in partnership with the town to make the community a good place to live for everyone.

      I think fair wages are not only a moral issue, but also good public policy. Lower-wage workers, when they make more, will also be able to spend more in their communities, which helps the businesses have more customers. None of this is socialism. It is capitalism that is more sustainable. I don’t think it is fair that employers can pay low wages and expect charities and taxpayers to make up the difference.

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  5. It’s good to have discussions so the readers can “see” the talks for themselves. People share. People read. One thing: there’s no such thing as fair wages. That’s socialism talking (You can only “force” fair wages by implementing socialist government controls, which means the government must become more socialist, which means our freedoms are being taken away, which means we’re not following the constitution, the same constitution that the people supported to get away from totalitarianism. People need to read the federalist papers.), which brings me to reading between the lines and packaging. What sounds good and thoughtful often is the reverse. I’ve no doubt people want to do what is right and helpful. But there’s thoughtfulness and there’s reality. People make the money companies can afford. If they’re required to pay more, that extra money must be made up for the company to exist, or they must start reducing hours, removing workers, or creating a computer system (like McDonalds) that takes the need for another worker out of the equation. When I was young, I worked for money, but couldn’t leave home just yet. But to make more money, I had to have skills the companies wanted. In sales, if I wanted more, I had to sell more, and if the company had been forced to raise wages, they would have had to let me go while I was learning and I might never have gotten those experiences that prepared me for higher paying work. That required experience to place on resumes, along with education, which with ability, brought more opportunities. **As I get older, I see how the ideas of socialism are being “packaged” in different ways, and some are removing the tag line to get their points across. Again, it’s good to have these talks.

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    1. There are employers who are concerned for their employees and communities and those that, unfortunately, are not. For example, the Walton family has become enormously wealthy while paying their workers such low wages that they need government and/or charity assistance to survive. I think this is unfair, which to me is moral judgement. It has nothing to do with socialism, which involves community ownership rather than private ownership. A company can still be owned by a family and/or shareholders and pay living wages to its workers. It just means that they will make a little less in profits or, maybe, bring their executive pay more in line with what it used to be. For example, the ratio of CEO to typical worker pay was 20-1 in 1965, 58-1 in 1989, and 221-1 (or 278-1 if you take into account the value of stock option when they are realized as opposed to when they are awarded) in 2018. https://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-compensation-2018/

      I find it difficult to apply 1789 US economics to 20th and 21st century economics. For most of the first century of the United States, the economy of the southern states relied on business owners literally owning their workers. The economics of slavery affected the northern states, too. The Triangle trade and all that. Unfair is much too mild a word for such a heinous system.

      My own understanding of these issues starts with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum”. It critiques both capitalism and socialism for their failures to respect the dignity and rights of workers. A very brief summary of the encyclical from the US Catholic Bishops Conference can be found here: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/upload/encyclicals-descriptions.pdf. Catholic social teaching has continued to develop over time. It is not a recycling of socialism; it is an integral part of our faith.

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  6. What I have encouraged people to do is “think” for themselves. This is more difficult than I realized early on. For me, it required working in different businesses before a career, reading books without looking for other people’s interpretations (At first, for I had to know my own understanding before hearing others. Then, when I heard others, I could seriously discuss, even question their thinking.), getting into hobbies that were business possible, and getting into the outdoors and such. It required questioning what others said. Time. Even if someone listens to me, likes what I’m saying, I will still challenge them. I will ask, why do you agree with me. For I don’t want them listening to anybody without that “gap” of understanding which we have already, but with all the information, requires time and consideration. I don’t want to talk with a “drone”, a follower. I want real talks with real people, seriously following the rabbit. Too many people are “numb”: too comfortable to follow the trail. Following the rabbit I say. For in this, I can listen to others, differentiate between rhetoric, intellect void of understanding, and understanding, even pick out the good from the rest. All too often, I have heard others mix the real and propaganda. This confuses many. They can’t separate, and this is partly due to needing to appear smart and in the know, but to those who understand, they stand out as followers. But my friends and I don’t get confused. We can differentiate. And in this, I encourage others. Read what I write. Read what others write. But never “buy” into any ideas unless you see it for yourself. Then comes the tough work. It’s never ending. Socialism is all too often packaged to look like freedom. It’s not. And some people will change the language to look like something else. We can see that from a mile away. We can see those people coming. It’s in the way they speak and walk. And this takes time to realize. For some, it happens earlier. Read. Research. Understand the Constitution and the reasons for the Revolutionary War, read the federalist papers (and anti-federalists), read Nate Sharansky (One of my favorite authors due to his history. I don’t agree with everything he says.), read the words of our founding fathers, read Montesque and John Locke, listen to both sides of political discussions, but also have “free time” and fun so the mind has time to relate to the real world. And find friends who aren’t pure intellects but speak from understanding. This takes time.

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    1. The positions I hold have come from decades of experiences, reading, and having friends with diverse viewpoints. That we disagree on this topic does not mean that either of us is not thoughtful or sincere.

      I think part of the reason that I hold the beliefs that I do is that I am neither an originalist nor a fundamentalist. I look at original texts with a view to the conditions and understandings of that time, which affect the thoughts, experiences, and culture of the authors. I consider what has changed since that time and discern how the wisdom at the heart of the text applies to our changed circumstances.

      For example, in the Catholic church, the power structure interpreted scripture in such a way as to accentuate the kingship and authority of Jesus. This allowed them to ally themselves with temporal powers and act in ways that were violent and un-Christlike. While there were always theologians and scholars who recognized that Christ was not violent and ministered largely to those who were oppressed, theirs was a minority view within the church. Studying St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans shows this tension.

      If we read the scriptures and other early writings in Christianity, we read that Jesus openly critiqued those with social or religious power if they used those powers to denigrate or dehumanize others. Jesus always ministers to those who are sick, in poverty, or oppressed due to gender, ethnicity, etc. The social justice doctrine of the church only developed in relatively recent times when the recognition of the non-violent nature of Jesus and his ministry to the powerless was more widely taught and sought as a way of life. Those aspects of the text were always there, but the vast majority of people did not pay attention to them in the way most Catholics do now.

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  7. It’s always good to have these shares. That’s the beauty of blogs. My own experience is from a more practical side. Growing up in mostly traditional neighborhoods, which changed in adulthood, I had time to play, go to school, and think for myself, surrounded by responsible, hard working adults and good relatives. Moving, multiple hobbies, multiple jobs in different fields. reading and reasoning, and watching other people. I learned to really listen. I learned to watch, observe, not judge, but learn from many years of being around and seeing. So, when I ramped up my reading and research, I read with understanding so what was on paper was checked by practical, real experiences, like when I went into starting businesses and such. I have one friend, very intelligent, but almost entirely book smart. I have another friend who balances the two, and so, his understanding is lived, in today’s society. We both see the past revisiting the present. This always happens when a people forget their history or were never accurately taught, nor encouraged to think for themselves. Around me, you have no choice. You must think for yourself (speaking to those I meet and not the writer) or I’ll pick it up. All the best.

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