Genuine Example of a Socialist Disease

Traitor! Socialist! Bronze statue!

Traitor! Socialist! Bronze statue!

Since I haven’t been around for every election since 1932, I can only speculate that the word “socialist” is being bandied about more than at any time since that earlier era’s titans of capitalism venomously accused FDR of taking us down the red road of economic ruin. I suspect that the ubiquitous nature of the word this year is no coincidence. Some of the right-wing talking knuckleheads must have let it out, and the ditto dunderheads picked it up and started throwing it around in letters to the editor. And I’m sure some RNC/McCain folks must have highlighted it as a talking point.

socialists

The hat is a dead give-away: socialists

And it’s all really kind of stupid.

Obama is no socialist. No American pol who gets the support of millionaires and billionaires is a socialist. No guy who buys $1,500 suits (with his own money, mind you), is a socialist. Obama is, as the NYT conservative columnist David  Brooks asserted, as bourgeois as they come. Of course, most of the conservatives screaming “socialist!” probably have no clue what that means, but it sounds French, so it’s can’t be good. And I would bet most of them have no clue  what socialism really means. Hell, the ongoing nationalization of financial institutions is more socialist than Obama’s desire to have a truly progressive tax that makes the wealthy pay their fair share for the running of our government and building of a stronger society. That’s what I think he meant when he talked about redistributing wealth, not just taking money from my pocket (if I actually made more than $250k) and sticking it in the pocket of somebody on welfare.

Socialism, of course, predated Marx and Engels, who probably serve as the chief bogeymen for most die-hard American capitalists. They thought the socialism that preceded them was, in Engels’s words, under the control of “mere sects…gradually dying out” and “social quacks…who professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances.” So Karl and Fred came up with the Communist Manifesto, denouncing those early forms of socialism, and calling for the abolition of all private property. And later K-Ma added his famous dictum, “To each according to his needs….blah blah blah.” And of course, the professed Communists who have come to power since then have religiously (oops!) followed that, right? Right. No special privileges for the upper echelon in the USSR, China, North Korea…

Not like the other two guys with beards...

Not like the other two guys with beards...

I think it’s safe to say that Obama does not want to take away the billions amassed by Penny Pritzker, one of his early major backers. If he does, I bet he hasn’t told her about it. What I assume Obama and other progressives, like me, want to do is be like those yucky pseudo-socialists K and F detested. Redress all sorts of social grievances without destroying capital and profit. Kinda like what FDR wanted to do with the New Deal. And despite all the pissing and moaning of the wealthy of his day, capital and profit coexisted with the first real attempt in this country to address major socioeconomic issues (the Progressive Era notwithstanding).

Now, let’s talk about the progressive income tax. From my limited understanding, it’s based on the idea that the wealthy can afford to pay a higher share because they can still live pretty well on the money they have left. In the words of one proto-socialist:

“A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

Oh, did I say proto-socialist? That was Adam Smith.

The Romans had an income tax, though I don’t know how progressive it was. Our first income tax came during the Civil War, with rates ranging from 3 to 5 percent.  The first full-time income tax, in 1913, set a top rate of 7 percent. And how much you wanna bet the folks who had to pay that bitched? Today’s top rate is 35 percent, which I know some wealthy folks say is just so onerous. But consider this: we are at war, we have been for almost seven years, and the wealthy are, relatively speaking, getting off pretty easy. The top rate was 77 percent during WWI and a whopping 91 percent during the Big One! Americans accepted that wartime required sacrifice, but not today’s crops of conservative whiners.

And while we’re on a historical jag, let’s look at the real socialists in America’s past: the Pilgrims. When they arrived, they tried to create a communal society with everything shared. OK, it didn’t work. But they still saw the need for taxes – every male newcomer after the first settlers, over the age of 16, had to “pay a bushel of Indian wheat, or the worth of it, into the common store.” Not a progressive tax, to be sure, but a realization that everyone owes something to the common good.

I get this sense that most of the people who complain about paying taxes don’t get the idea of a social compact. It’s at the heart of American political thinking, back to John Locke. People come together to form a political society. In doing so, they give up some of their natural rights to the community, which acts on their behalf for the good of everyone. Of course, in the civil society we have today, people debate what exactly should be done for the benefit of the community: Ban or allow abortion? Regulate or deregulate derivatives? Use government resources to help the needy or promote certain ends deemed positive to society, or promulgate a policy of every man for himself?

On that last question, I think, Obama seems to believe the former, as do the millions of Americans who have accepted New Deal and Great Society programs created to help people in need. Those and similar programs are not perfect. They need to be modified or maybe even eliminated over time. And the tendency for government inefficiencies to emerge needs to be checked. But those programs serve a need. And they require taxes to make them work. And after 7 years of war and lower taxes on those most able to pay them, something has to change. Just don’t call it socialism. Karl and Fred would not approve.

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~ by mburgan on October 26, 2008.

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