Sunday, November 02, 2008

None dare call it socialism

There were a few Halloween-themed editorial cartoons this past Friday, depicting Barack Obama taking away candy from some children and giving it to those who haven’t worked as hard at their trick-or-treating. Cute. Sort of funny too, but typically wrong-headed. The McCain campaign and conservative punditocracy have been beating the drum labelled “Socialism!” pretty heavily since the whole Joe the Plumber silliness, and will undoubtedly continue on unabated until polls close on Tuesday night. This much is to be expected during campaign season I suppose, but the refrain of “redistribution of wealth” is so disingenuous as to border on being frankly dishonest.

Why? Mainly, because redistribution of wealth is government’s primary job, whether it be FDR-style New Deal big government or the small-enough-to-drown-in-a-bathtub fantasy of Grover Norquist. But there is something more insidious when “spreading the wealth” is framed in the derisive tones of a Sarah Palin or a Sean Hannity, for it is invariably citing welfare—the spectre of having your hard-earned money taken away and given to some stoned slacker eating nachos on the couch, or an unwed mother who has children solely for the extra money it adds to the welfare check. These stereotypes have been repeated so often in the past that they don’t even need to be explicitly drawn.

What baffles me is that this supposed entitlement of the poor is more certain to get people’s hackles up that the entitlement of the wealthy. Why is it preferable to certain sectors of the American Right that the $700B bailout not purchase American taxpayers a stake in the banks they’re saving? Why is it preferable that these banks have complete autonomy over the money they’re given (as was Henry Paulson’s original demand)? The answer of course is that the former constitutes “socializing” the banks; any government incursion in the private sector is an impingement on freedom, never mind that when FDR made a comparable move in the Great Depression, the American people saw a return on that money.

The first version of the bailout failed in part because there remains a stolid core of free-market fundamentalists among U.S. legislators, who see any form of government assistance—much less assistance that would purchase a stake in private enterprise—as the leading edge of socialism. The $700B figure is serendipitous however, for the fact of the matter is that there is a massive sector of the U.S. economy already socialized to a tune just shy of $700B annually.

Defence spending in the United States accounts for, depending on how you read the numbers, 20-40% of the annual U.S. budget, and the total amount spent each year is equal to the defence budgets of the rest of the world combined. This however seems to have escaped notice in the current campaign silliness, that a whole host of research, development and production companies and corporations are largely or wholly subsidized by tax dollars. Vast numbers of people are reliant on government support: just see how quickly Congressman X loses his seat if he lets a military base in his district get closed down; see how secure Senator Y becomes when she lands a plum DOD contract for industry in her state. Three million people are employed by the Department of Defence; even more by corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, or Kellog, Brown & Root, all of whom receive billions in defence contracts every year. The economic presence of the military, as Eisenhower noted in his farewell address, “the total influence—economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.” Eisenhower then went on to make his famous warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

Re-reading those words today sort of feels like closing the barn door, so to speak. As Chalmers Johnson, writing for Harper’s in autumn 2003, observes: “munitions making and war profiteering have supplanted the energy and telecommunications deals pioneered by Enron and WorldCom in the 1990s as the most efficient means for well-connected capitalists to engorge themselves at the public trough. To call these companies ‘private,’ though, is mere ideology. Munitions making in the United States today is not really private enterprise. It is state socialism.” The ongoing debacle in Iraq has only magnified this reality: a deadly quagmire for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, but a no-holds-barred capitalist playground for companies and corporations in a position to receive government contracts, often without having the bid for them, and usually with little or no government oversight—the result being billions given to companies like the notorious Haliburton, with very little to show for it in the end aside from a very well-equipped Green Zone.

I don’t write this post as a polemic against US military spending, but to try and explode the egregiousness of the whole “socialism” accusation. A good hypothetical litmus test for free-market economy is to eliminate government spending and realistically speculate on what would happen. Would the economy chug cheerfully along? I’m not an economist, but it seems pretty clear that the recent Wall Street collapse would be a minor blip compared to what would happen if the military-industrial complex suddenly found itself without its $600B dollars in annual taxpayer money.

A possible counter-argument here is that I’m talking apples and oranges—that military spending (unlike, say, health care or social security) is an absolute necessity, and that we cannot talk of national security in terms comparable to banking, investment, or the auto industry. I do not agree with this assessment, however, for the simple reason that there is more to national security than being able to drop bombs or fire missiles (especially when the principal threat currently posed is not by conventional armies or nation-states). “Security” is itself a complex of factors, bound up in a nation’s level of education and literacy, its physical and economic health, and its confidence in itself as a nation. The already-cited fact that U.S. defence spending equals that of the rest of the world combined is something we often hear, but it never fails to shock and appal. Why that kind of government spending is utterly acceptable while universal health care is considered the vanguard of a communist revolution (as Ronald Reagan characterized Medicare) by a certain segment of the U.S. population frankly escapes me.

So let’s all take a deep-knee bend and ratchet down the whole “socialism” thing, OK? Or at the very least approach the term with a little more nuance. Which is all very much like crying out in the wilderness during campaign season, I realize, but a boy can dream.

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