Change: It’s Up to Us

The current conservative narrative revolves around the imagined horrors of Socialism. Apparently without awareness of the many socialist programs upon which they depend, the reactionary segment of the U.S. voting population has taken up the latest incarnation of the old Red Scare.

A “Red Scare” is promotion of widespread fear by a society or state about a potential rise of communism, anarchism, or radical leftism. The term is most often used to refer to two periods in the history of the United States with this name. The First Red Scare, which occurred immediately after World War I, revolved around a perceived threat from the American labor movement, anarchist revolution, and political radicalism.  The Second Red Scare, which occurred immediately after World War II, was preoccupied with national or foreign communists infiltrating or subverting U.S. society or the federal government…

…the Red Scare was “a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of life”…[1]

If any of this sounds familiar within the context of current political debate in the U.S., well, it should. The same argument has been fomented now for 100 years. Hysteria about the creeping plague of socialism undergirded the Cold War, our disastrous policies in Latin America, and the war in Vietnam. The hue and cry of those terrified of socialism and its big brother communism has motivated the expenditure of trillions of U.S. dollars and spilled the blood of tens of thousands of our young men. The damage worldwide is incalculable.

So what exactly should we fear about these philosophies of social order? For one thing, we should avoid conflating the differing ideas. Socialism is not communism. Democratic Socialism is not Socialism. All Societies employ socialism to some degree. For example as a minimum in the United States: the public library, public works, social security, the military, the fire department, police, health care (state hospitals, Medicaid, and Medicare). All of these functions and more can operate quite well under a capitalistic democracy.

Countries that have a strong central government tend to exhibit more acceptance to social programs. The idea that people can do more as a group rather than as individuals is accepted by the population under a strong central government and are more willing to surrender certain personal rights. In North America, two similar countries can be compared. Canada, for example, has a strong central government as evident in her national gun laws and criminal codes applied across all provinces and territories, and at the political level a healthy socialist political party…

The United States, on the other hand, has strong state rights over a central government resulting in various gun laws and criminal codes across the country, and does not have a party with socialist leanings (although the Democratic Party is often referred to as liberal). Therefore, individualism is a characteristic in the United States that is highly regarded and individuals are less likely to surrender certain personal rights. Social programs greater than the absolute minimum are considered charity at best and at its worst seen as diluting individualism and reducing personal wealth.

Americans, therefore, view socialism as a threat to their individualism and coupled with the McCarthy Era’s effective propaganda have developed an unrealistic definition between it and communism supported by fear.[2]

Face it. We’re no longer a society dominated by small close-knit communities where caring neighbors or a church provided care for those in need. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors. Neither churches nor charitable giving offer systematic methods of determining whether someone is truly needy or simply playing on sympathies. Nor do local charities have a method to ensure that assistance is available to all who might need it rather than the select few who appear at the church house door. Nor is there any assurance that the amount of support provided by a charity is appropriate to the need at hand. Charities themselves are often cookies jars raided by their operators.These are the exact reasons a federal system became vitally important as our nation grew beyond its early days of small rural communities.

While we thumb through our Twitter feed or view video from around the world, why do we expect that despite all the advances in technology and global economies that we’re somehow able to exist socially in a previous century? We are not what we were in 1850 or 1900 or even 1950.

As for that mythical freedom to pursue our fortunes, it’s time to recognize that those days are long gone – if, indeed they ever existed. There is no free land given to veterans of war or government projects, no expanses of virgin timber, no undiscovered gold. Our population in 1800 was 5,308,483. Now it’s 291,421,906.

If a rich man can afford five houses, two yachts, and countless other luxuries, why is it a hardship to take enough of his money so that he can only afford two houses and one yacht? Chances are high that he didn’t create that wealth by himself but rather workers hired at the lowest possible rate of pay in order to profit off their labor. Or he inherited his fortune from someone who did the same.

If a poor man is homeless, what do we do about it—let him die on the street?

If a newborn is the one out of 33 born with a medical problem like a heart defect, spina bifida, cleft palate, clubfoot, or congenital dislocated hip, and her parents have no medical insurance, what’s the right thing to do?

If people don’t have enough to eat, do we feed them?

If we are faced with a life-threatening illness, should we lose our home and everything we own to get medical care?

Is it truly our morality as a nation to allow the pharmaceutical industry to gain billions in profits while forcing the poor to die without the medication they need to survive? To allow doctors to live like royalty? To allow hospitals to generate profit off the sick and dying?

What is socialism, anyway? By its old definition, a socialist economy was owned by the people. Factories, offices, and industry in general were either worker cooperatives or government owned. No one in the U.S. except perhaps the extreme left advocates for such a system. The problems of this approach included worker apathy and potential for corruption, not that capitalist systems don’t suffer similar downsides. The benefit was that everyone had means of support and a job to do.

A new approach to social problems is called democratic socialism. Let’s look at what that means.

…in many of the societies of Western Europe which have adopted progress toward democratic socialism, productivity, standards of living, incentives, and markers of personal happiness and security are very high. Social democracy is a kind of socialism that tries to mix parts of socialism with capitalism. In this system, the government takes wealth (money) from the rich and gives it to the poor… but despite there being more government control and less chance to make a very large amount of money, people can still run their own businesses and own private property. Unlike communism, where all private property is taken to be owned publicly, people and businesses pay taxes on their property, and this money is spent on public services after taking out the costs of running the government and collecting the taxes. [3]

We as a democratic nation have an ongoing opportunity to craft a society that allows for entrepreneurship while also providing a safety net for those who need our help. We’re already pretty far along this path but much more work remains to be done. The question is, do we go backwards now, undo laws governing labor (sick leave, vacation time, 40-hour work week, workplace safety, retirement benefits)? Cancel policies providing food, medical care, and minimal living support for the disabled and poor? Do we go back to subscription schools where only those who can afford it are able to educate their children?

Or do we make clear-eyed decisions about how to best provide an equitable existence for our fellow man? Because, yes, we are our brothers’ keepers. We live in a nation still rich in opportunity. We’re not stupid. We need to approach these questions with open minds and do what we as Americans do best – move forward with meaningful solutions. That’s what will make America great.

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare

[2] https://www.quora.com/Why-are-Americans-so-scared-of-socialism

[3] https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism

 

Further reading: Saving Capitalism, by Robert Reich 

“Perhaps no one is better acquainted with the intersection of economics and politics than Robert B. Reich, and now he reveals how power and influence have created a new American oligarchy, a shrinking middle class, and the greatest income inequality and wealth disparity in eighty years. He makes clear how centrally problematic our veneration of the “free market” is, and how it has masked the power of moneyed interests to tilt the market to their benefit.

“Reich exposes the falsehoods that have been bolstered by the corruption of our democracy by huge corporations and the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street: that all workers are paid what they’re “worth,” that a higher minimum wage equals fewer jobs, and that corporations must serve shareholders before employees. He shows that the critical choices ahead are not about the size of government but about who government is for: that we must choose not between a free market and “big” government but between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver the most gains to the top. Ever the pragmatist, ever the optimist, Reich sees hope for reversing our slide toward inequality and diminished opportunity when we shore up the countervailing power of everyone else.

“Passionate yet practical, sweeping yet exactingly argued, Saving Capitalism is a revelatory indictment of our economic status quo and an empowering call to civic action.”


“What Causes Poverty” by Mike Sosteric

July 8, 2015

“…Poverty causes nothing but hardship and struggle for the people. Children who grow up in poverty have poor health, poor hygiene, poor diet, poor housing, lousy experiences at school (as evinced by higher absenteeism and lower scholastic achievement), more behavioural and mental problems, and long term employment difficulties. Adults who are poor have the same difficulties as their children, getting sicker more often, being unemployed for longer periods, taking more time off work, living shorter lives, and so on. There is no doubt about it, being poor is a liability: it causes disability, disease, and even death…”

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America’s New Greatness

It’s been a crushing year. One after another, hard-won social advancements have been blocked or dismantled in the rush to “Make American Great Again.” But what does that even mean?

Exactly when was America greater? When everyone used outdoor toilets? When women couldn’t work outside the home? When skin color decided who could marry whom, or vote, or eat at a lunch counter?

Is ‘great again’ a worthy goal, the best we should expect? Is the conservative mantra right, that free enterprise and individual liberty “under limited government” was and forever will be the pinnacle of human achievement? If only we could rid ourselves of this ‘big government’ and free ourselves of onerous taxation, would the U.S. of A. become the shining star of the days of yore?

No, no, and no.

Let me explain. At the time of the Founding Fathers, ‘free enterprise’ applied to white male landowners. The constitution ignored the rights of women and non-landowners. Voting rights for Natives or slaves never entered the discussion. The founders conceived of a nation of educated, well-to-do white men who used women, natives, and slaves to meet self-serving goals in creating heirs, seizing ever greater slabs of the continent, and forcing labor from non-whites in order to sustain and increase their wealth.

They weren’t evil men. That’s just how things had always been. No wonder certain white males today would see those as the glory days.

But there’s no lack of free enterprise. Men and women of any class or color routinely open their own businesses. Three out of ten workers in the U. S. are self-employed or are hired by self-employed persons.[1] The ‘small business’ community provides the majority of American jobs.

…large businesses only employ about 38 percent of the private sector workforce while small businesses employ 53 percent of the workforce. In fact, over 99 percent of employing organizations are small businesses and more than 95 percent of these businesses have fewer than 10 employees. The reality is that most Americans are employed by a very small business that has little in common with the tiny sliver of the business demographic represented by corporate America.[2]

The complaint of conservatives is that free enterprise is hindered by big government. They rail against requirements that employers pay into insurance policies that provide medical care for workers injured on the job or that provide health care that meets the employees’ needs. Employers also must pay into Social Security and Medicare funds on a 50-50 basis with the employee’s withheld funds. Employers are required to deduct the appropriate amount of state and federal income tax from employee wages and to deposit this tax into government accounts. Employers also must provide a wage statement at the end of each year (W-2, 1099, etc.).

These requirements annoy the hell out of employers. When I operated my own café, I spent hours working on payroll. I resented spending money on workman’s compensation insurance – I never had an injured employee and all that I paid was money down a hole. But I understood the reason for it. If an employee had become injured, should I expect the government to pay for medical care? Should I personally pay for it? Should the employee be abandoned to pay himself?

These are old problems solved incrementally over a long period of American history back when a majority of legislators worked for the people instead of themselves. We stopped sending disabled or aged persons to poor farms where a pitiful stipend from the state supported them along with the random generosity of wealthy donors who might drop a few crumbs from their tables. We stopped allowing employees to be injured or killed in unsafe workplaces. We required people and their employers to set aside funds for retirement.

Like the Affordable Care Act, social support systems developed by our elected representatives to better provide for the ‘general welfare’ are an evolved safety net for all of us. The simplistic idea that these systems should be dismantled in pursuit of some long-vanished ideal of “free enterprise” fails to recognize all the reasons these systems came into being in the first place. We need them. They serve an important purpose.

‘Individual liberty’ is another often-touted phrase by deconstructionist conservatives. What that concept meant to the founders no longer applies in our current reality. The founders lived on the edge of an unexplored country with such a vast reserve of lands that no one could imagine a time when there weren’t new horizons where young men could ‘go West’ to make their fortunes. Individual liberty was possible only because men gained forty acres or more by simply staking a claim or, in many cases, serving in the military after which they received land grants.[3]

What land is free now? None.

What we took from the Natives was a virgin continent full of natural resources. The lands of Europe had been exploited for over two thousand years and here was a whole new start. Individually and collectively, we harvested those resources while patting ourselves on the back about how smart and industrious we were in building a fabulous new nation. We never considered that sooner or later, the last farmland would be plowed, the last gold nugget would be found, and we would run smack up against the end of the bonanza. We did the same thing here that our forefathers had done in Europe.

Conservatives, enraptured with these myths of a glorious past, believe we can return to times when anyone who wanted to work hard could simply plow his way to success with a mule and a compliant wife. Women, keen for their own ‘individual liberty,’ aren’t so compliant anymore. Farming is no longer a viable path to sufficient livelihood.

Obviously our living standards have changed. No more outdoor toilets or working the fields from dawn to dusk. We’re dependent on electricity and modern medical care and automobiles, all things that as recently as a hundred years ago simply did not factor into the picture for a majority of Americans.

Ever in pursuit of their bankrupt myth, the conservatives’ last gasp is the current grab of political power, attained by selling the myth to those who don’t understand. The conservatives are busy ending food and medical care for the aged, the homeless, and other needy segments of the population. The entire social net crafted over decades is being dismantled in a futile grab for a long-lost past.

The descendants of European colonialism want the glory back. They don’t agree that taking from the rich and giving to the poor is the right approach for modern societies. European nations have already grasped this concept. America today and in the future can never be the America of 1800 or 1900 or even 1950.

Making profit off of sick people or school children is immoral. Just as government regulates utilities, so it must regulate other services required by everyone, including health care and the internet. This is not an appropriate arena for capitalism. Government, not profit-driven capitalists, serves as the most efficient provider for the common welfare –healthcare, affordable housing, education, public transportation, infrastructure like bridges and railways, and a vast network of social services.

Reducing the tax burden for the wealthiest among us accomplishes nothing but the impoverishment of our entire nation. The current imbalance of wealth is clear evidence that the rich should be taxed even more. Expanded social programs should ensure that those at the lowest income levels are brought into counseling, health care, education, and training programs in order to improve their economic status.

We’re a largely urban, multicultural society now, completely different from what the Founding Fathers knew. Just as the founders were right to declare the rights of personal liberty, so were progressives right to end discrimination against minorities, women, and the handicapped and to provide mechanisms by which the damages of such long-term discrimination could be healed. It’s the progressives who have understood that the safety net must be available equally from state to state, a service that only the federal government can ensure.

The personal bankruptcy of a small number of men like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon cannot be allowed to dictate the future of our country. Such men long for a culture where white maleness guarantees ascendancy. Without a white male-dominated social structure, they cannot gain the power they so desperately crave. These are weak men dependent on the subjugation of others for emotional and economic support. They will die off just as the Neanderthal died off.

It’s called failure to evolve.

Here’s a toast to 2018 and the continuing evolution of our great nation.

 

~~~

 

[1] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/10/22/three-in-ten-u-s-jobs-are-held-by-the-self-employed-and-the-workers-they-hire/

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristie-arslan/five-big-myths-about-amer_b_866118.html

[3] Bounties of up to 1,100 acres were granted for Revolutionary War service between 1775 and 1783 and up to 320 acres for the War of 1812 through 1815. Additional free lands went to men fighting in the Mexican War 1846-1848 and in Indian Wars from the 1780s through the 1890s. While outright land grants ended in 1855, Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War received homestead rights along with others meeting certain criteria. Much more on land grants and homestead rights at Wikipedia.

 

His Fight, Our Fight

According to the brief description that accompanied this photo that crossed my Facebook timeline the other day, the funeral of Pretty Boy Floyd drew the largest attendance of any such event in Oklahoma history. The image gives me goosebumps, almost puts a lump in my throat. It’s not the coffin—I can’t even discern where it is. It’s the people, backs straight, their attention focused entirely on the dead man.

On what he represented.

My dad sometimes talked about Pretty Boy Floyd although at the time of Floyd’s death, my dad was only seventeen. For him, like so many, Floyd stood as a heroic symbol to survival in their times. Dust bowl, economic depression, most of all the shift of worlds. From the independent farmer working alongside his wife and children to wrest of living from the land to the new reality of the need for money and consequently, jobs in town.

Giving up the farm and its creeks and horses and the smell of fresh cut hay. Learning to work for someone else. Breathing exhaust. Street lights burning the dark. Rigid hours to serve someone else’s profit. Dependent on the dollar instead of the land.

There were men who couldn’t make the change. Men who rebelled, who clung to the old ways. Men who’d rather die than portion out his life in the 9 to 5. They didn’t willingly give up the tradition of their fathers, but rather borrowed money on the hope of better times, more rain, abundant crops. The loans came due before better times arrived.

According to his biography in Wikipedia, “[Charles Arthur] Floyd was viewed positively by the general public. When he robbed banks he allegedly destroyed mortgage documents, but this has never been confirmed and may be myth. He was often protected by locals of Oklahoma, who referred to him as ‘Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills.’” He was thirty when he died.

Floyd’s robberies of banks made him a target for the fledgling FBI and the true manner of his death became one of the agency’s earliest cover-ups. After he was downed by rifle shot, another agent shot him with an automatic weapon at point blank range. Not widely known at the time, the unfairness of his killing nevertheless was understood at a visceral level by the common man.

Woody Guthrie, a native of Oklahoma, penned a song about it in 1939, five years after Floyd’s death. Called “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” the song has the form of a  Broadside “come-all-ye” ballad opening with the lines:

If you’ll gather ’round me, children, a story I will tell ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an Outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well.

The lyrics recount Floyd’s supposed generosity to the poor and contain the famous lines comparing foreclosing bankers to outlaws:

As through this world you travel, you’ll meet some funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam, You won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.

Many other artists have recorded this song, among them Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and James Taylor as another generation’s anthem to the tragedy of corporate takeover.

It’s easy to see Floyd as a martyr. In his short life, he did what so many others wanted to do. Like the young Chinese man who dared to stand in the path of an oncoming tank, Floyd like similar ‘criminals’ of the early 20th century defied the banks and credit systems that threatened everything that mattered in rural American lives. They instinctively understood they were being swept into a capitalist system that had no sense of morality, no obligation to human circumstance. They fought back the only way they knew how.

The battle that cost Charles Floyd his life has not ended.

~~~

 

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Boy_Floyd