Friday, March 06, 2009

More Socialism

Writing in the Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher Jr. reimagine socialism in the wake of the death throes of capitalism, in a manner that seems reminiscent of old socialism. There's plenty of illogical intellectual non sequiturs to quibble with, but what I find most troubling here (and with the ideas of all those ready to abandon capitalism is the complete lack of understanding that we owe much of our way of life to our economic system. Economics is inherently interconnected with our government, our culture, and our technological development and you can't just look at any one institution in a vacuum. To appreciate the incredably high standard of living we enjoy today, there has to be some recognition of capitalism's role in achieving that standard. And after failing to recognize any of this, what proposals do we have for this new socialism?

Well, that [capitalism] hasn't worked, and the core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we--not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of ├╝ber-planners--have to control our own destiny.

We admit: we don't even have a plan for the deliberative process that we know has to replace the anarchic madness of capitalism. Yes, we have some notion of how it should work, based on our experiences with the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the labor movement, as well as with countless cooperative enterprises. This notion centers on what we still call "participatory democracy," in which all voices are heard and all people equally respected. But we have no precise models of participatory democracy on the scale that is currently called for, involving hundreds of millions, and potentially billions, of participants at a time.

What might this look like? There are some intriguing models to study, like the Brazilian Workers Party's famous experiments in developing a participatory budget in Porto Alegre. Z Magazine founder Michael Albert developed a detailed approach to mass-based planning that he calls participatory economics, or "parecon," and one of us (Fletcher, in his book Solidarity Divided, written with Fernando Gapasin) has proposed a locally based network of people's assemblies. But all this is experimental, and we realize that any system for mass democratic planning will be messy. It will stumble; it will be wrong sometimes; and there will be a lot of running back to the drawing board.

Or in other words, nothing at all except some vague platitudes about how people can work together in some idealistic form of mass democratic planning. They specifically reject both the anarchic and spontaneous nature of the market and the centralized work of elite groups of planners, but that would seemingly leave you with only the worst aspects of both. The rejection of "elite planners" is interesting, as it is seemingly a reaction to much of the traditional concerns over socialism where democracy is all but eliminated. Of course, the biggest problem with "elite planners" isn't the elite part but the planner part. Be it mass democracy or a small group of technocrats, the folly is that any group can come to decisions about how to best structure society than can individuals acting on their own or in mutual agreement with others. And this is where proponents of socialism consistently go wrong, assuming that planning is inherently superior to not planning.


Anonymous rose said...

The size of the overall pie that capitalism has created is astounding. The failure isn't capitalism. It is that our government, intent on slicing the pie to get power and buy votes, continues to do so inefficiently.

In 2007 the federal government spent 9% of GDP on medicare, SS and medicaid. That is $1.3 trillion.

If you distributed $1.3t to the poorest 30 million americans, they'd each get $43,000 annually. Not per household. Per person.

We've sunk $400b (so far) into Fannie and Freddie; call it the cost of affordable housing. That's another $13K+ we could've handed out in cash to the poorest 10%.

The list goes on and on.

Only in a capitalist system could the market throw off enough cash for the government to waste so much.

The median per capita income in the US is $50k. We have plenty of money to provide for all of our citizens if we recognize that social welfare programs need to be designed 1) only to help the impoverished, not the middle class and 2) don't interfere with the market.

Poorly designed entitlement programs and government run monopolies like education that take a bigger share of taxes every year, while providing little to no marginal benefits, are the only things preventing the US from providing the kind of safety net that these whackos want.

That piece and the goings on in Washington right now, are infuriating. It is like watching another New Deal, in slowmo as it occurs, with the media and nation mostly cheering it on.

12:46 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Good numbers Rose and good point on the size of the pie.

What's infuriating to me is the obsession with this notion that planning not only will produce more equitable results, but that planning can save money and eliminate the inefficiencies of the market. It's asinine and has no basis in fact or history. You can't name a good or service that was more effectively produced and distributed by the government than the market because no such good or service exists. Yet right now we have expert of all stripes meeting with the Obama administration to plan out the future of health care.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

Basic healthcare is a commodity like tomatoes. Imagine if the government decided that not enough people could afford tomatoes so they handed everyone a certificate that got them a life-time unlimited supply of tomatoes.

Well obviously the prices of tomatoes are going up, which is placing a burden on the government.

Time for some price controls.

And then the final step, tomato rationing to the deserved; whoever the government deems that to be.

How is Obama getting away w/ claiming healthcare for all and lower healthcare prices? These are mutually exclusive under single payer.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

LL, you predicted moderate rule from either McCain or Obama. You may have been right about McCain.

Would you not agree that you were wrong about Obama? I think using a broken banking system as an excuse to nationalize health care, further nationalize education and further regulate energy is not the work of a centrist.

Admit it. You were not expecting quite this much.

11:07 AM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

It's certainly been a bit much, but the worst of it has certainly been the "response to crisis" as opposed to any sort of pre-ordained plan.

What I didn't expect is that Obama would be able to paint big government in such a centrist manner, although the economic crisis has certainly helped there.

11:10 AM  

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