Everyone has something that is a source of occasional sadness – when you have time for such things. There was the friend who had been a studio guitarist for twenty years, and then music director for a few popular television shows, and he had a few film scores under his belt too, and ended up as CEO of a software company he founded. Jamming was fun – we both had a thing for complex chord progressions and he would do his Joe Pass to my half-assed Bill Evans. But after we had beaten the hell out of Joy Spring or some such tune, when the music stopped, the politics got in the way.
He was one of those personal responsibility Republicans, and, looking back, pretty much a libertarian. George Bush was not pure enough for him. He had no use for government doing much beyond offering military security, and locally, filling the potholes out front in the street. He hated the whole idea of the government regulating most anything, as you would expect, and hated that it was necessary to pay taxes – he argued that if we did, as we had to, for the Army and the street repairs, we should have a flat tax, where everyone pays the same percentage of their income. The idea of progressive taxation got him on a tear – why should he have to fork over what he had earned by his own hard work for anyone else’s bad luck or foolishness? He hated entitlement programs – welfare, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, public schools, subsidizing Amtrak and the Post Office and all the rest.
One night, when we were deep into one more bottle of some dry Tuscan red, he did his rant on how the whole concept of pooled risk – what we call insurance – was evil. Car insurance, home insurance, and healthcare insurance – the whole concept of pooled risk was bad for everyone, as people should take personal responsibility for themselves. Damn – it was fine wine. Such evenings would end with him pronouncing that this all led back to the man who ruined America, FDR, with the WPA and all the rest, making people feel the world owed them something. Franklin Roosevelt had turned us into a nation of whiners, where everyone thought those who were hard working and successful owed them something. Roosevelt had created a nation of people who played victim, with their wheedling grievances, and who then managed to arrange to grab the money others had actually earned. And of course he hated unions – if you don’t like the pay or the conditions, quit and get a new job. Solve your own problems. And you didn’t want to get him started on Affirmative Action – good black folks would succeed without anyone’s help, and if they didn’t, they probably weren’t that good anyway.
For a bleeding-heart liberal from the sixties, big on social justice and egalitarianism and community, these late evenings became difficult. There was not much point in arguing back, especially after all the trips to France, that place full of those rude, ungrateful people whose asses we saved in both World Wars and repaid us with opposing our Iraq War. Why would anyone visit Paris? When he and his wife did take their trip to Paris, eventually, he did say those folks had better treat him with the respect he, as an American, deserved. This called for silence. This was not the time to bring up liberté, égalité, and fraternité – even if we had taken a stab at that amazing tune by Charles Trénet (not Bobby Darin). So I listened, politely, and I stopped bringing along the thin, elegant Frenchwoman I had been dating off and on.
But he knew what was going on, as careful silence isn’t agreement. It never is. He cut me off. There was no more music. And that was that.
But it would be nice to know what he’s thinking now, in the final days of this presidential campaign, what with Joe the Plumber and McCain and Palin calling Obama a socialist. The gist of that charge is that Barack Obama’s plan to cut taxes on middle-class families, and raise taxes on the very wealthy, is not just a bad idea – as wealthy people, freed of a big tax burden, will obviously use the money to expand business and create jobs – it’s just socialism. You see, you don’t take from the hard-working successful folks to make things comfortable for lazy losers, or something like that.
Yes, this is an ironic stance to take with a conservative Republican president nationalizing banks and the financial industry, with great gobs of taxpayer money – but perhaps this particular president not conservative, just Republican. That’s what my former friend kept saying.
Now of course there are plenty of western countries that could be called social democracies – they even have Social Democrats – so you can have both a form of socialism and a democracy. You just have a working agreement – the government establishes high taxes, and especially high on the wealthy, but everyone seems to have agreed that using those funds for massive social services where no one falls through the cracks, for universal free healthcare, even for the arts and, in western Europe, for those ultra-high-speed trains, is a pretty good thing. What we think as best run by private parties, for profit – to insure efficiency, as if you do a bad job you just don’t make money and you go away, leaving only the best left standing, providing services – is elsewhere seen as something best not left to be sorted out by market forces. Some things are too important to be left to some sort of Darwinian sorting out – and people have the right to expect certain things from the government, which is, after all, a social contract. You use the government. So the idea is no one starves, no one goes without healthcare, and everyone chips in as best they can.
You could see the difference in how Obama and McCain see this social contract in one of the debates, when each was asked if basic healthcare was a right or a responsibility – Obama said it was every citizen’s right, McCain said getting yourself insured was everyone’s responsibility. That figures. Obama leans toward the European-UK-Canadian model, but might not go that far. His plan seems to be a mixed-mode thing, where you can keep the insurance you have if you like it. McCain wants to increase competition, and loosen all regulations, so private insurance companies can compete to prove who is best at providing services at the lowest cost – and you buy what you want. There the government will help out with a five thousand dollar tax credit – that could make your taxes go down – but that is matched by taxing what your employer chips in for your coverage, as that would now be ordinary income you actually earned. So that’s a wash, and a free-market solution to the problem of nearly fifty million Americans without any coverage at all.
But of course the real issue is taxes, not healthcare. And the issue is letting the tax cuts for the wealthy expire, and tax rates revert to where they were in the nineties. If that means a going back to higher rates for the rich, isn’t that socialism? You are taking from the successful and redistributing money to the less successful. The idea is that this is just not the American way.
McCain is banking on people agreeing with that contention. That’s what Joe the Plumber is all about. His story about how he’s buying a business that will make a quarter million or more a year is bullshit, and he’s not a plumber, and his name isn’t Joe, but he’s angry that if any of it were so, he’d pay more in taxes because he got all successful. That’s just stomping on the American Dream. Obama told him it was spreading the wealth around, and he’d have more customers if people had more cash to spend on his services, and he’d have all sort of tax cuts for small business and, as a small business, no capital gains taxes. But Joe was still angry. He became a symbol – get successful and the government will come and take your stuff. It’s not fair.
Perhaps you’ve seen McCain’s new thirty-second ad – ordinary people, one after another after another, simply saying “I’m Joe the Plumber.” No one there looks like they make a quarter million a year, but as in the movie Spartacus (1960), they are standing up for Joe. Of course few remember that old Kubrick movie and the scene where the Roman general is trying to nab that one pesky escaped slave and asks the question to the crowd of slaves – which one of them is Spartacus. Kirk Douglas, as Spartacus, proudly announces who he is, and to protect him, all the other slaves, one at a time, and then more and more of them, rise up and shout out “I am Spartacus.” The general is foiled by their solidarity. The idea now is that if we don’t stand up for the wealthy keeping what they earn, who will? It’s supposed to be inspirational. It’s about the American way – keeping your stuff. Think of it as reverse class warfare.
But even if no one remembers that movie other than some in the gay community – it’s the gladiators – and those into kitsch, the hope is we all buy into the idea of solidarity with those who don’t like being ripped off to support bums. We are not Europeans after all, and have only one self-proclaimed Social Democrat in congress, Senator Bernie Saunders of Vermont. And everyone know Vermont is strange – all those small towns and everything decided by consensus in town hall meetings, and then flowing upward to the state level. Yeah, it is socialism there, but it’s just quaint. The state is an anomaly.
But this is silly. We are, and have been for some time, a social democracy, if not somewhat socialist. Even the press is playing fair and pointing out the obvious. There was the Associated Press and their Charles Babbington in this item, explaining “the nation’s long tradition of redistributing huge amounts of wealth through tax-and-spending policies.” Look at how things work – “Placing a heavier burden on the wealthy has been a cornerstone of the federal income tax since its inception in 1913.”
And then there was McClatchy’s David Lightman and William Douglas with a similar item – “Favoring higher tax rates for the wealthy than for the less fortunate isn’t socialism, and if it is, then the United States has been a socialist country for nearly a century, under both Democrats and Republicans.”
MSNBC notes that even McCain once thought Obama’s approach was the right one:
It’s well documented that McCain’s full-throated support of cuts for those in the top tax brackets represents something of a reversal since 2001, when he voted against Bush-backed tax slashes for top earners. “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief,” he wrote in a statement at the time.
But archived MSNBC videotape from 2000 further demonstrates how McCain’s tone has shifted on taxes and what constitutes socialism since the end of his last presidential race. Answering questions during a Hardball College Tour show in October 2000, McCain defended the progressive tax system when questioned by a town hall participant who warned that the high tax bracket of her father – a doctor – smacked of an inching towards “socialism and stuff.”
McCain said that progressive tax systems are based on the fact that “we feel, obviously, that wealthy people can afford more.” He spelled out this response: “Here’s what I really believe, that when you are – reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.”
So McCain was for socialism before he was against it. The argument is silly. It’s like those uncomfortable evenings across town after the music stopped.
When John McCain talks about the evils of socialism, people should listen. He suffered years as a POW of a socialist regime.
And Sarah Palin is well aware of the dangers of socialism too, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia.
But they keep at it:
“Sarah Palin and I will not raise your taxes, my friends. We want you to get wealthy,” McCain told 10,000 people gathered in a football stadium near Akron, Ohio. The scene had a festive air, with those sitting in the grandstands behind the candidate dressed in T-shirts that composed the red, white and blue Ohio state flag.
Palin, holding her first joint event with McCain since Oct. 13, derided Obama as “Barack the Wealth Spreader” and said: “You have to really listen to our opponent’s words, because he’s hiding his real agenda of redistributing your hard-earned money.”
And there was the populist element:
Palin was exuberant before the crowd, demanding an autograph from warm-up singer Gretchen Wilson, famed for her song, “Redneck Woman.”
Palin joked: “Someone called me a `redneck woman’ once. You know what I said back? ‘Thank-you very much.'”
Rednecks stand up for the right of the rich to keep their stuff. Everyone keeps their stuff. This also was not the time to bring up liberté, égalité, and fraternité – freedom, equality, and certainly not brotherhood. And Obama’s response was weak:
Let’s be clear who John McCain is fighting for. He is not fighting for Joe the Plumber. He’s fighting for Joe the hedge fund manager. … If you make less than a quarter of a million dollars a year – which includes 98 percent of small-business owners – you won’t see your taxes increase one single dime.
It may be too late for facts. Who will stand up for hedge fund managers if rednecks won’t?
And you cannot turn to the intellectual father of modern capitalism, the man who first told us about that Invisible Hand of Competition – you know that natural competitiveness and greed that would, if you think about it, produce the greatest good for the greatest number – because he’s gone all wobbly. That would be Adam Smith:
The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. … The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. … 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.
Who knew Adam Smith was a socialist?
But there’s no arguing now. Let it be. Democratic government is a social contract we enter into with others – in and of itself it is, well, socialism, if you want to call it that.
Most people are fine with that. McCain and Palin can rile up their ever-decreasing base, and my long lost friend, with talk of tossing out the contract. The other guy, the tall, skinny young fellow, says we’re all in this together and can work out sensible arrangements. And he seems to be winning – something to do with reality and all that, and not old gladiator movies.