Wednesday, August 5, 2015

More Columny


My latest newspaper column:
Inconceivable as it is that a Jewish Socialist could become president, I’m glad Bernie Sanders is running. For one thing, it might stimulate inquiry into what Bernie means when he describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” People toss around political labels like grenades nowadays, refusing to consider solutions (not to mention problems) on their merits, flinging the preferred vulpine epithet to dismiss ideas out of hand. It’s long past time to go deeper. Considering the magnitude of the problems we face, it might already be too late. 
There’s a discussion worth having in the US, without the demagoguery and apocalyptic superficiality that’s become the norm since the election of our Kenyan Muslim Nazi Socialist Communist America-hating terrorist-loving powerless dictator of a president. Why, we should ask ourselves, do Scandinavian countries consistently rank better than we do in so many important categories? Health. Education. Longevity. Crime. Quality of life (whatever that means.) If we’re certain we prefer our economic priorities to theirs, we ought to be able to say why, to say what it is about those countries, given the aforementioned areas of ascendency, that we find objectionable. After all, their versions of socialism – what we might call “democratic socialism” – differ widely from that which, until recently, characterized China and Russia. Private enterprise is central to and flourishes in Scandinavia. Who hasn’t brought a bookshelf home from Ikea in a Volvo? 
In the midst of the Cold War, I spent a summer in the Soviet Union on a language study tour. Khrushchev’s shoe was still reverberating in the UN and race riots were boiling across the US. Even as naïve biology major, and well before the appearance of Gorbachev and Reagan on the scene, I could see that the Soviet system (textbook socialism but never communism) was failing. I saw factories in disrepair, where posters on walls declaring the mortal danger of America seemed to be the only motivation workers had to do their jobs. Only Party members had cars, made in the USSR, more of which were uphooded alongside the road than driving on it. Living in cramped gray apartments in shoddy buildings while their leaders enjoyed comparative luxury, people wearing drab clothes and worn-out shoes pushed others aside to get to the loaves of bread on shelves. Newspapers, meanwhile, featured pictures of US police turning dogs and fire hoses on black people, headlines declaring the evils of Uncle Sam. Absent an existential enemy and constant propagandizing, I concluded, regular people there would never put up with such one-sided austerity. (Shall I enumerate similarities to the playbook of one side of our current political spectrum? Too easy. It’d be like shooting ducks in a fish.) 
If communism is inconsistent with human nature (it is), and if pure socialism creates torpor and eventually rots and collapses under its own weight (it does), we’ve seen (but not learned) in our own experience that unfettered capitalism is unsustainable too; yet every Republican candidate would take us there again. The party that considers itself most aligned with business is the one leading the way down, arguing for widespread deregulation and elimination of all manner of protections for citizens (not to mention the planet.) Sequestering most wealth in the hands of few is inimical to successful capitalism. So is limitless squeezing of workers. It’s history, it’s arithmetic, and it’s obvious. Boiled down, that’s what Bernie Sanders is trying to say. 
If the Senator has any chance to win, and I don’t think he does, I’d like to see him moderate his rhetoric. The point about wealth sequestration can be made without blanket demonization of corporations and the very wealthy; but, as ought to be obvious to everyone not receiving gargantuan tax breaks, or hiding profits overseas, or polluting, or all three, there are myriad ways in which their outsized political influence is changing America for the worse. We need more jobs, safer roads and dams and bridges, a modernized electric grid, better access to healthcare and quality education. Government has a necessary role in that. We know where the money is, and it’d require only a small portion of it to make it happen. Corporations and billionaires would be fine. At the least, Sanders’ campaign might result in talking about it.
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