Friday, October 24, 2008

On "Socialism"

For me the biggest joke in this year’s election (besides the Palin-pick) was the constant cry for less government by the Republicans. I think they forgot, that they helped push through an incredible bailout plan. The current Republican administration, bought up large stakes in insurance companies and banks. McCain’s proposal to just buy up all the faulty home owner loans speaks for itself. You cannot have it both ways. I don’t know whether the “socialism” label has the same stigma that it once did. I wouldn’t know anyway since I haven’t lived here long enough. All I know is that it is laughable to believe in the free market but to expect that the government comes running to rescue your bank if it fails.

In my opinion the words “socialist” and “socialism” are used in the wrong context in the American media and it really bothers me if the media uses the words without really thinking about their real meaning. I am writing this in response to Huevo’s post and in response to the media’s description of European countries as being "socialist”.

I think it is safe to say that European countries are not “socialist” societies. At least not in my understanding of “socialism”. The socialist country that I spent the first 12 years of my life in looked like that: Everything was state owned. And if I say everything, I mean everything. Hard working people were regarded as at least as valuable for society as doctors if not more valuable. My dad, for example, earned more money (1.400 East German Mark/month) than a practicing doctor (1.200 Mark/month). He was a miner and indeed one of the best paid workers in the nation. However, he did not earn a lot more than everyone else since socialism tries to guarantee that everyone pretty much has the same standard of living. In former socialist (and by the way also communist) East Germany everyone was granted free health care, child care and a little retirement money. Paid with taxes and the profits of the state owned businesses.

So that was socialism in Former East Germany. When the American media today refers to “socialism” in Europe, I think people might get the wrong picture. None of the European nations today is truly a socialist country. Germany, for that matter, is a democratic country with a capitalist market governing everything. However, the German constitution says, that Germany is a “social” country. Which does not mean “socialist”. It only means that the government has to make sure that no one gets left behind and that simple things like health insurance, social security, unemployment insurance, retirement, and money for child care are provided for everyone. In real life that means: If you loose your job you’ll get paid up to 60% of what you earned after taxes for one year as unemployment money. After that you are a case for social security which means you will get money for a small place to stay, for health insurance, and some extra money for the rest – but only after you used nearly all the cash money you have left, sold your house, and move to a smaller place (apartment, not house). The extra money you get does not allow you to have a “normal” lifestyle. However, providing the money for a place to stay and for health insurance allows you to keep your dignity as a human being and allows you to stay part of the society which makes it easier to find a new job. The extra money allows you to eat.

All this is paid for by taxes. 45% of our income probably goes to taxes (including health insurance, unemployment, retirement, ....). Health insurance is roughly 7% of what you make. The other 7% is paid for by your employer. No one can employ anyone without paying (partly) for his or her health insurance. All this is not socialism, it’s being human. I call it a democracy with a social face.

I think people in America don’t have to be worried about this “socialist system” that’s brought up all the time. First of all, there will never be such a system in the U.S. out of obvious reasons. Secondly, even if some of your taxes go to someone who needs the money it will benefit the society as a whole. While the European and the Canadian systems are far from being perfect (and yes there are people who exploit the system – but there are also people who need the system to survive), they make sure that the gap between the really rich and the really poor does not get too big. And just a remark regarding the “spreading the wealth”-discussion that is going on right now: paying taxes is always spreading the wealth. Oh yes, and taxes pay for roads, bridges, schools, street signs, community projects, …

I know that systems like the German one can be exploited. There was a reform a couple of years ago to make just that a little harder. While the reform was quite successful, there are still people living off the government. However, there will always be people who benefit from the system when they need it. Like me when I was 15 or 16 years old: When my parents got divorced my mom, my sister and I were on our own. My mom is an incredible hard worker. But as a hair dresser you just naturally struggle to support your family. Times were not easy, but they could have been disastrous if we would not have been able to benefit from some of the government programs that were in place to help families like ours (affordable health care, free education, and even financial help with paying the rent for our little apartment, just to name e few.). And we benefited from the programs even though my mom didn’t even pay income tax because she didn’t make enough money. My mom somehow managed to get her own little hairdresser business and things became better. But for a while my family suddenly was in a place that I could have never imagined it to be in. And again, while I am not a socialist and Germany is not a socialist country, I do believe that a capitalist (democratic) society does need a social countenance in order to let people keep their dignity and in order to guaranty every child the same possibilities in life.

It still amazes me that the U.S. is hands down the greatest place on earth when it comes to community work and the willingness of people to volunteer and help one another. However, as soon as it comes to taxes and money, everyone is on his own. I think taxing people making lots of money way more than others is perfectly sound. And a health care system that benefits everyone (and I mean “everyone” – not “everyone that can afford to buy a plan”) is a must. Let’s face it – the health care system in the U.S. is a joke! I know tons of people in the U.S. who do not have coverage at all or have just an “emergency” coverage even though they have a good job. If a friend of mine (Ph.D. student at UGA with a teaching position) brakes his hand while playing ultimate Frisbee, but is afraid to go to the doctor because of the money, I can just shake my head. It’s a joke if I hear Republicans (and also some Democrats) say we do not want Canadian or European state of things. Well, I went to 3 doctors in Germany 2 weeks ago just to get a check-up. They tested everything with all kinds of expensive machines. Turns out I am healthy and my bank account was healthy afterwards as well, because it didn’t cost me any extra money to do that. Oh, and I also went to the dentist – no extra cost, no deductable.

People here in the U.S. just have to get used to the fact that if you preach to love your neighbor you should also be willing to pay taxes that enable your neighbor to survive hardship times especially when it comes to illnesses. That doesn’t have anything to do with socialism but with closing the gap between the extremely rich and the extremely poor. That’s just normal social behavior, at least in my opinion. I don’t like to pay taxes either but I like to be not worried about my health care and retirement, for example. And I like to know that none of my friends and family has to worry about stuff like that. Obama put it like this in his convention speech in Denver: “Government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.”

The fear of “socialism” taking over in America quite frankly is a direct result of people not knowing anything else. I bet that a lot of people would be more receptive to the idea of more government involvement in the social field if they would have lived in a country where government involvement works (if not always perfect) and if they would trust the government a little more (which is hard after the last 8 years I guess). This is a reader’s opinion to David Brooks column “Big Government Ahead” in the NYT from last week:


I'm frankly thrilled to imagine a "European style economy." Here's my argument: My husband and I made $100,000 last year. Of that $25,000 went to taxes. (I am self-employed and pay the extra FICA.) $12,000!! went to health insurance (2 adults in our mid-50's, no children - we pay our own insurance), another $3000 to medication and medical expenses (my husband is diabetic). So, after taxes and medical, we have $60,000.

Now we move on to college: I had two children in college last year - one at George Washington University at $52,000 PER YEAR. I have another at University of Wisconsin Madison at $21,000 per year. (Now even the government knows I can pay for all of that, so they heap loans onto my children.) But, I did contribute $12,000 to their education (while their father contributed another $12,000.) Okay, now we're down to $48,000.

Now I have to save for my retirement. Well, there's another $12,000. And I'm left with $36,000 to pay the rent (we don't own a home - sold our 4 years ago when we realized we couldn't afford it!!!! Imagine!), eat, pay for the one car our family owns, clothe ourselves, pay for heating oil in Minnesota, and have a little fun.

Suddenly, IF the government wanted to take 50% of my income (as I understand happens in Europe) - and pay for all my health care, pay for college, and take care of me in retirement at a level equal to everyone else in my community, I would still have $50,000 a year to spend!!!! NOT the $36,000 I have here in America with the terror of a failing social security, rising health care, and my newly graduated son barely able to eat because of his high interest college loans!

European economics are looking good these days.”

That would be all.


Blogger il Gatto Grande said...

But "socialism" is a relative term, isn't it? If socialism is state ownership or control, then a state that has more ownership or control is more "socialist" than one that does not. Sweden may not be East Germany, but it is still more socialist than the U.S.

In that regard, I don't think the Republicans' labeling of Obama as socialist is really all that inaccurate. If I understand his platform correctly, he advocates for a Scandinavian-style welfare state which is, for better or worse, a [form] of socialism.

Going back to Huevos' point, I'm not so sure that the stigma has worn off socialism as just that not that many people have any knowledge of what socialism - in any form - might entail. During the Cold War, when Russia was still communist and East Germany still existed, it was easy to point to them and say "that is socialism." People knew there was a difference and had an opinion one way or another. These days, I don't think the average person can articulate a single difference between the U.S. and any European country, although there are many, as you point out.

As a result, the only people who have a working definition of socialism are aging Cold Warriors, and the Republicans can push the socialism button with them and get a definite reaction. The major error they are making is ignoring the differences in degree between Obama-style gov't and the former East Germany.

One point about the woman from the Brooks column: she's complaining about the expense of her kids' education, saying that she wishes there were a socialist gov't that would pay for her. Well, there is. She could've sent her kids to the Univesity of Minnessota, which is funded to a very large degree by the state of Minnessota, which is a form of socialism. This would've saved her about $55,000/ year.

10/24/2008 2:09 PM  
Blogger knasselhoff said...

well, i still think we have a fundamentally different opinion about what socialism really means. for me it is not quite as relative of a term as for you i think. for me it is more an ideology. that's why it leaves a bad taste in my mouth if it is used in the media rather careless. what's going on in sweden or other european countries has, in my opinion, nothing to do with real socialism. that was the point of my post. i think those countries are practicing a more social approach to normal day life. however, without any ideological agenda.

that's why i also don't think that free education, for that matter, can be labeled "socialist" under any circumstance.

10/24/2008 2:59 PM  
Blogger Huevos McGringo said...

khoff, the communist/socialist distinction is important here. perhaps the labels are used differently. i think americans consider ussr/east germany to have been communist, not socialist. when the government dictates the salary of any given profession, the amount of certain goods that can be produced, etc, i would label that communism.

i agree with big cat that "socialist" is a relative term. my point was that the term is still generally used disparagingly. and i think so using the word is less and less effective as a political tactic. i think most college kids today, who don't remember the cold war, would react to the term with some combination of "who cares" and "whatever that means".

10/24/2008 3:40 PM  
Blogger knasselhoff said...

different use of the labels indeed:

former East Germany was part of the Eastern European countries trying to practice the so called "real existing socialism" with a centrally planned economy. so everything that you (huevos) apply under the "communism" label. for me socialism and communism are hard to separate and usually come together...i guess that explains my strong reaction to the "socialism" debate in the media...anyway, are you in town next weekend? I'm coming to visit...

10/24/2008 6:39 PM  
Blogger Huevos McGringo said...

halloween weekend? indeed. give me a call.

10/26/2008 5:03 PM  

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