Friday, October 23, 2015

Democratic Socialism

As independent senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders has a real chance to become the Democratic candidate for President in 2016, it is time for the American people to understand what he stands for.  Sanders’ party is the Democratic Socialist party.  So, what is a Democratic Socialist?
First, socialism is not Communism.  What distinguishes them is that Communism was a kind of government and economy, while socialism is merely a kind of economy.  Similarly, democracy is a kind of government while capitalism is a kind of economy.  In addition, the Communism of the late and un-lamented USSR was intended to be a democratic socialistic system, but it never threw off its original “dictatorship of the proletariat,” really the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, and it never achieved democracy.
We in the USA live in a democratic capitalistic system; much of Europe lives in Social(ist) Democratic systems.  These terms are not wholly accurate because the economic systems of the USA and Europe are all mixed economies, mixes of capitalism and socialism.  The European Social Democracies are not really socialist because socialism requires a) no private property, b) collective ownership of the means of production, and c) central planning of the economy, none of which is true of the European Social Democracies; they are all capitalistic economies with a heavy redistribution of wealth, from top to bottom.  Europe does have its own billionaires, who are heavily taxed and who do not renounce their citizenship to move to low-tax America (there are exceptions!).
Politically, democracies are one person, one vote.  Economically, capitalism is one dollar, one vote, while socialism is one person, one vote, an economic system built on the democratic distribution of power.
The most profound benefit of pure capitalism is it produces the most dynamically growing economy by allowing its innovators their free-est range of expression.  The biggest problem with pure capitalism is that wealth accumulates into the hands of the few, while more and more of the working population – those who are only capable of commodity labor – are reduced to slave wages and at least partial dependence on the state.  And, as if their slide into near-poverty were not enough, their democracy ceases to become responsive to their needs.  Democratic Socialism fixes this by redistributing much of the wealth of those with more wealth than they need.  So, putting aside the name, Democratic Socialism remains capitalistic, but by a redistribution of wealth it also remains democratic and more FAIR.
Having said all this, I am profoundly in favor of real democratic capitalism.  Because capitalism is more efficient than socialism, and because it rewards most those who deserve to be most rewarded, those who advance the economy as a whole.  Unhappily, however, democratic capitalism seems congenitally unable to remain democratic; the people still get to dance their ritualistic dance of voting every few years, but those who rise to positions of political authority end up doing the bidding of those with the most economic power, not the bidding of We the People.  In other words, democratic capitalism seems inevitably to degrade into plutocratic capitalism, where plutocracy is the rule of the wealthy.
So, what then is Democratic Socialism?  It seems to me that Democratic Socialism is no different from democratic capitalism except the democratic part is not allowed to degrade into plutocracy.
So, a lousy name for a decent and worthy system.
Maybe we need more Democratic Socialists.

Adam Smith (1723-90), the father of modern capitalism, never uttered the word "capitalist" or "capitalism" in any of his writings.
The socialism of Karl Marx (1818-83) is the dream of very few living self-styled socialists.  When most of us use the term socialist we mean “for the public good” (like Social Security and Medicare, like public libraries and public schools and national parks).
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) outlined his idea of a just political-economy in Agrarian Justice.  He’d be with Sanders.
Readers: challenge me, I want to get this 100% right.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Snowden and the NSA

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis
After the homilies he immortalized in Poor Richard’s Almanac (“A penny saved is a penny earned,” “Early to bed and early to rise …,” “Old too soon and wise too late”), Benjamin Franklin is best known for two more mature aphorisms: “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it” and “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In other words, alongside of the wise Mr. Franklin, I am squarely on Edward Snowden’s side in this contest between the forces of civil liberties vs national security.  If we can’t protect ourselves without resorting to undermining the very freedoms that make us proud to be Americans in the first place, well then, God help us.
Having said that, this is a tough one.
I don’t think we want to live in a society where every government worker takes it upon himself to decide what government secrets ought to remain secret.  There ARE legitimate government secrets and we need not air all our dirty laundry all the time.  I don’t think I need to have access to the conversations of the President with everyone he speaks 24/7, as long as I know they will all be made public, for the sake of history, after 20 years’ time.  Same for all his cabinet secretaries.  And Senators, and Congressmen.  The lives of the public (I mean “us”) are quite busy enough, as long as we get to know the results of all their conversations, as long as the press gives us what we need to be informed citizens.  I think it is appropriate that we criminalize behavior that is anti-social, and revealing classified information to the public is surely at least anti-social; in a few cases, indeed, it may reach to treason.
On the other hand, it is quite clear that government can be over-zealous in protecting itself by classifying way too many conversations and documents as top secret, often to spare the official actors from embarrassment, often to spare them from revealing to the public what the public really needs to know.
So, to come to the point: should Edward Snowden be charged with treason, or some lesser crime, and spend a long time in prison for confronting the American public with the dirty laundry of how we protect ourselves, behind closed doors?
click photo for story
When I began this piece, I was going to end with a humble “I see no solution.  While I applaud what Snowden did, I do not want to encapsulate his actions into law, I don’t want all our secrets to be fair game for public scrutiny, I don’t want every public employee taking upon himself the mantle of whistle-blower.  So, what do I do with Snowden?  I don’t know.  Read Melville’s Billy Budd for a thoughtful treatise on the right vs. the law.  Sorry, no easy answer.  You’re an American hero, Ed, but don’t come home, because you will be headed for federal prison.”
But I think I begin to see the glimmer of a solution.  The jury at any criminal trial in America consists of twelve men tried and true.  They represent us, all of us.  Let them, before the man who thinks himself a patriot stands trial, decide the question of damage, damage to the republic for having its dirty linen aired in public.  Let them decide if damage has been done to us.  If they decide that he has done us harm, let him stand trial for the harm he did us.  If they decide that he has done us no harm, let Snowden walk – no damage, no crime, no trial.  If they decide that damage was done us by those who classified the documents as secret, let us look into that.
I would be happy to sit on such a jury.  But of course, my mind is already made up, so I would never be seated.  <sigh>
Would Edward Snowden take the chance and come home to stand trial?  Weigh in, if you like.

Friday, October 2, 2015


The Obama administration likes to boast that it is responsible for 59 straight months of employment expansion, of employment growth, the longest positive economic growth in American history.  I cannot comment on the streak as I don’t have that level of data, or for that matter that level of interest, to affirm or deny that factoid.  On the other hand, the level of employment growth leaves a lot to be desired.   “Why,” you may ask, “this is an impressive accomplishment, isn’t it?”  I guess it is.  But not as impressive as you may think.  Here is why.
The population of the United States grew from 281,421,906 to 308,745,538 (Census Bureau data) in the ten years from 2000 to 2010 (a growth rate a bit slower than the previous ten years).  We will assume that that rate of population growth has remained roughly constant ever since.  That rate of growth is 9.7% over ten years which is 0.93% for each year and 0.0927% for each month.  That rate of population growth will generate a monthly population increase of 260,878 at the beginning to 286,206 at the end of the period.  How many months (of those 59) saw employment growth that exceeded population growth for the same period?  Nine.  So, out of the last 59 months, 9 (15%) have seen an increase in employment that exceeded the increase in population.  For 50 of those 59 months (85%), the increase in population was stronger than the increase in the employment figure.
So, while we are adding to the work force, we are not keeping up with our natural increase in population.  Even though the news sounds good, it is only good compared with … worse.    You will have to play with the Years
This is great news for the Republicans, isn’t it?  Sure, as long as they don’t subject their own record to the same scrutiny.  The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) says that we have been losing ground steadily since about 2000 (Dot Com bubble burst).  And that we peaked (labor force as % of the population) in 1990 (Dot com bubble begins) and again in 2000.  Straight downhill ever since.  And 9/11 seems not to have anything to do with it.

What made me think of this subject?  I just read Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots.  Chapter Three is called: A Tough Year for the Human Race.  You want a real political issue to chew on?  This is it!