Thursday, July 31, 2014

For whom the bell tolls: socialism and society

My brain got going after writing the quality of life comparison.  I didn't mention the social market economy and the important part it plays in equalizing German society.   I realized that I had a passion to write about the socio-economics of Germany and America.  I feel like these economic systems are misunderstood by many Americans.  First I am going to define socialism and some of the socio-economic models used in Europe and the USA.   Not because I think you're stupid, just so we're on the same page.

Socialism has a couple of different definitions that make talking about it very confusing.  It can be a transition stage in Marxist theory between capitalism and communism (communism is where the means of production are owned by the people as opposed to owned by the state), the abolition of private property,  communism and similar theories or when society allows the means of production to be owned and controlled by the state.  The most accurate definition for what I'm going to be talking about it the last one.  
b :  a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state  source
The social market economy model in Germany combines free market capitalism with regulation and state intervention to promote fairness and equality.  It's not socialism but the word is social is thrown in there because some important things are owned, run or regulated by the state since they can't be trusted to direction by the economy.  Please note the difference between everything being controlled by the state and just some things. Americans tend to grossly misuse the word and throw socialism out there any time they talk about government intervention in the economy.  Those people don't know what they're talking about. Type 'Obama a socialist' into Google and this is one of the first things that pops up. 

The US has a mixed economy model.  This means that some things are run, controlled and regulated by the state.  Instead of having a goal of taking care of its citizens the American model focuses on trying to influence the economy, keep unemployment down and keep financial collapse at bay.  Why?  It turns out that Laissez-faire capitalism (capitalism that is not somehow controlled or regulated by the state) can result in some very ugly things.  When I think of unregulated capitalism I think of the Bolivian water wars, trickle down economics, The Jungle, workers that were exploited by being paid in scrip, the Irish famine, and child labor.  There is a reason not a single country in the world has a purely capitalist economy.  The model is not sustainable. it would result in abuse and collapse.  Someone has to protect workers from exploitation and that responsibility usually falls to the government. 

To explain why this responsibility falls to the government we have to go into the theories of society, the state and the social contract.  Why do we have states and governments in the first place?  What happens if the central government collapses?  The theory of the social contract is the idea that left to our own devices there is nothing to stop people from killing, raping, and stealing.  Therefore society needs government to regulate society.  Individuals give up certain personal freedoms (the freedom to rape, pillage and kill), they agree to obey the government and pay taxes in exchange for protection and grantee of their civil liberties.  The American state does all kinds of good things for me, like making sure food and drugs are safe (FDA) or making sure the people driving on the road are qualified (DMV) as well as some not so good things like taking military action against nations with which I don't personally have any conflict.  It is super important to note that the social contract does not benefit all members of society equally but more on that later. 

It might be hard for someone raised in modern society to believe that the only thing keeping us from savagery is the state.  What about religion?  What about the moral compass?  Ancient and modern history can give us plenty of examples of people doing terrible things to other humans the second they are no longer prohibited by government or society.  This phenomenon crosses all races, religions, gender, age, education and economic status.  It usually happens during times of government disruption like war or conquer.  In no particular order: the Holocaust, feudal system, Kosovo, Conquistadors, Somalia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Portugal's age of discovery, Belgium Congo, Nanking, My Lia, Katrina, modern day Iraq, Haiti and Dakar, historical and modern day slavery. 

I'm not saying that governments are always benign institutions. They need to be regulated and are just as capable of evil as individuals.  Some societies and governments don't offer citizens civil liberties or abuse the social contract.  That's why democracy and republics are held as the best forms of government.  Government for the people by the people.  Right.

I think one of the flaws of American thinking is that America's focus on the individual doesn't take into account the role of society and government in maintaining the individual.  Society can continue without one person but one person would find it mighty difficult to go one without society.  That doesn't lower the value of the individual, it just puts it into perspective.   This is the part of the post where I throw poetry at you because who would I be if I were combining sociological theory with art?

For whom the bell tolls a poem
(No man is an island)

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

by John Donne source

The resounding cry of Americans is 'why should I pay for someone else?'.  The answer is because you live within the benefits of society and the social contract.  Those at the top of the income bracket essentially exploit those at the bottom and is therefore responsible for their wellbeing.  Anything less is robbing the less fortunate of their civil liberties for your own gain.  Denying poor people health care, food, shelter, paying them unlivable wages, these things that happen in the US make the social contract skewed towards favoring the wealthy and exploiting the poor.  If the social contract works against a group of people they probably aren't going to follow it.  That's one explanation for crime in the US.  Denied equal access to resources people are more likely to seek income in illegal areas like selling drugs, prostitution, or theft.  Right now the US deals with the symptoms of inequality by passing tougher prison sentences and building more prisons to house people pushed to the fringe of society.

If you don't believe America exploits the poor try to imagine what would happen if the lowest paid workers went on strike.  That would be the people who prepare and serve food, cleaners, cashiers, farm workers, and those who care for the elderly and infirm.  I don't think middle class and wealthy Americans would be too happy planting, picking, processing and preparing their food, cleaning their cars and houses, and changing the bed pans and sheets of their elderly and infirm relatives.  Some things, like shopping, would simply be impossible without lowly paid cashiers.  Now I want you to think of what would happen if fertile women refused to get pregnant.  How many sectors of society are dependent on the birth of children?  How long would it take before there was a collapse?  Do you still think American women shouldn't have maternity leave and child care?  American society is dependent on the groups it seeks to exploit which just makes the exploitation more egregious.  We've tricked ourselves into devaluing valuable members of society.

Every time an American labels something like universal health care socialism I feel completely frustrated.  Not only is it inaccurate fear mongering, it casts something that would promote equality in a negative light.  I can think of a couple of things in the US that are owned and controlled by the state: k-12 education, the US mail system, the Army, police, social security, some banking institutions, unemployment, student loans and subsidies.   In comparison things I can think off the top of my head that are controlled by the German government: subsidized housing for low income families, daycare, k-12 and university education, state mandated vacation and maternity leave, health care and welfare.  These state run programs allow Germans to live a better life on less money.  Low wage earners can go to work because the state subsidizes things like child care.  These programs promote autonomy whereas America leaves single parents in a bind.  Parents can't work if they don't have affordable child care.  Germany has a more equal society and they mostly finance it by taxing higher earners.  Germany still has wealthy and middle class people.  They have the biggest economy in Europe.  What is America so afraid of? 

If you've managed to read this far my conclusion is this: social is not the same as socialism, poetry is wonderful, Obama probably isn't a socialist, equality makes the world a better place and we should work together for a better world.  Sorry if this post geeked out too much.  I had a lot of fun writing it.