In Defense Of Social Democracy

Way back in the not so much dark but just kinda foggy ages, when I was in high school (and the fog was the marijuana smoke rising from behind the wood shop), we learned about history and government and other things under the umbrella of “social studies”, and actually discussed those things openly, right there in class. We didn’t just study the lessons, and we didn’t restrict our discussions to just what was in the textbooks. We expressed, discussed, and debated our own viewpoints even when they contradicted the analyses of the scholars who wrote the texts, and we didn’t declare that any one of them was right or most right. I imagine a teacher would be hauled out of class and strung up in front of the school for permitting such things to occur today. 1976, our nation’s bicentennial year, brought an interesting and somewhat peculiar election — all on the same day we elected Jimmy Carter and, there in California, approved a ballot proposition that the conservatives had labeled a “tax revolt”. I was among the first to be harmed by the nascent neoconservative-neoliberal-evangelical troika that was growing in power then; the state cut education funding and the evangelicals took over the school board in 1977. It altered the trajectory of my life. That’s another story so enough said about that for now.

With taxes being so hot a topic then, we talked about taxation at length and in unusual depth for a high school class. I don’t remember his exact words, but in essence what our teacher said was that taxes and government spending are the truest measure of a democratic society’s values. Money being a finite resource, those things the culture values most will be well funded and considered unassailable, as what was in those days considered the “third rail of American politics”, Social Security retirement benefits were, and as military spending is today. Those things that the culture cares little about will receive limited funding and will be considered expendable, as we see today in social programs for the economically disadvantaged. And, of course, those things the culture doesn’t care about at all will get no funding at all. It seems as obvious as balls on a tall dog to me, but there are many I’ve spoken with who just can’t grasp the concept. All they know is that taxes are bad and government worse, and people who accept money or services from the government are layabouts who are unwilling to earn what they get.

That ideology would never have created the interstate highway system, NASA, or most of the other grand and useful things we have accomplished through collective action. It used to be that the richest nation on Earth acted like it, but now we’re just a nation with a handful of obscenely wealthy people.

The rest of us who can, and who probably long ago did, wrap our heads around the concept that taxation and government spending are the truest measure of our society’s values can and probably already have taken the view that social democracy is nothing more than taking care of our own. We all learned in our history classes, most of us in history classes in public schools paid for by the taxpayers of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, that rampant greed has destroyed every empire in the history of the western world. Their greed drives their expansion until their enormity becomes unsustainable, then they collapse. How many nations, though, have been destroyed by compassion? I’m having trouble thinking of one.

We’re already spending vast sums of money, we’re just doing it in ways that most of us now see as wrongheaded and bad for us. A few examples of very many:

Every Walmart “supercenter” in the country is costing us, the taxpayers, between about one million and about 1.75 million dollars per year just for the benefits we have to provide to their workers because their employer won’t. They won’t even build a store unless the local government gives them huge tax breaks and free infrastructure upgrades, things like new streets and traffic signals, widened streets, and so on. It seems ludicrous that we bribe the single richest family in America to come to our towns to drive out all of the smaller stores owned by local residents so that we can pay between $3,000 and $6,000 per worker, per year, for the benefits Walmart will not provide to those workers, benefits they must have just to survive.

You can’t really call it “earning a living” when you aren’t even paid enough to sustain your body so you can continue working. I imagine that it’s a terrible blow to one’s self esteem to have to take food stamps in order to have the strength to go to work for an employer who doesn’t even value you enough to pay you a wage that will sustain your physical body with food.

National Forest timber sales actually cost the taxpayers money — what the timber companies pay is less than what it costs us to give them free roads and remediate the damage they do in cutting. We’re essentially paying them to ruin our forests. The loss is so great that it would actually be a lot cheaper for us to put every one of those timber workers on the government payroll to maintain the forests. Only about four or five percent of the lumber we use each year comes from National Forests anyway, so more efficient use and, where practical, alternative materials, would completely make up for the lost production. The point being: We choose to pay timber companies to tear up our forests, and it costs us more than if we just hired all of those timber workers to work for us to make our National Forests healthy and whole again and then keep them that way. It’s just a decision: How are we going to spend our money? Do we really want to pay someone to destroy our forests?

We subsidize oil companies. Oil companies! The richest people on Earth can’t afford to operate their companies without welfare payments? It’s just a decision. Right now, today, oil prices are falling due to massive production in the US that was made possible by subsidies and exempting energy extraction companies from environmental protection regulations that the rest of us must abide by. Ain’t that some shit? We give them welfare, let them poison us, and the net result is that their investments don’t perform as well as they did before we gave them welfare. Sure, it makes our gasoline a little cheaper — it’s a clearance sale. They have to get rid of it before it goes bad. There’s so much natural gas being produced that we can’t use it all, and the excess is exported. In many oil fields the natural gas is just flared off (burned) because the cost of capturing it can’t be recouped at current natural gas prices. We’re giving them free money while they’re throwing energy away. Talk about perverse incentive.

It’s really the wrong way to go about mitigating anthropogenic climate change. I just can’t look at my grandkids, or the children of Dinkytown, or the children of any other place on Earth, and say “Fuck you, kids. I want lower gasoline prices today so badly that I am going to force you to endure famine and death by starvation in your lifetime to get it”. It’s just a decision. How do we want to spend our money?

That’s all social democracy is, deciding that we’re going to spend our money taking care of our own rather than taking care of the very richest few. Right now we tell our poorest that we can’t help them while we’re telling our richest that they can have all we’ve got. People are suffering and dying for no reason other than our horrible decisions about how to spend our collective wealth. We had no excuse for not knowing what was coming; we all were compelled to attend the schools that taught us all essentially the same things — surely the terms Gilded Age, Robber Barons, Yellow Journalism, Great Depression, and New Deal ring some bells? Weren’t we all told that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it? I remember all of those things, anyway, and I was stoned at the time. It seems amazingly stupid to conclude that your teachers were lying and your television telling the truth, don’tcha think?

And we’re supposed to believe that this state of affairs is preferable to social democracy? That the wealth of the wealthiest nation in all of human history should be concentrated in the hands of fewer people than the number who die every year because they can’t get medical treatment in the richest nation on Earth? That’s one of the costs of doing things the way we’re doing them: We decide that in order to make these people richer than they already are, we will starve those other people and when they get sick we will let them die. It’s not even for so indefensible a purpose as making you and I rich or even slowing our own economic slide — it so that the already rich can get richer.

Social democracy doesn’t do that. It tells the rich that it’s okay for them to be rich, and it’s okay for them to get richer, too, but they have to give back in proportion to what they take out in exchange for the sacrifices made by commoners who have made and continue to make their riches possible. It’s not about stealing from the rich as they’ve been stealing from us since 1981, it’s just about not letting them steal from us any more. It’s not like there were no rich people prior to Reagan.

A brief aside: There can be only one purpose for NAFTA, CAFTA, TPP, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, GATT, the WTO, World Bank, and IMF: The economic colonization of the entire world by the financial elites. There is no other purpose which can be served by those things. They are the tools of world domination, and because of them the legitimacy of our government is at risk. If the principals of the Declaration of Independence are rendered meaningless, the Constitution itself will soon follow.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when you’ve created a nation in which money spends people.

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