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Boo! See through the GOP’s scary words

Published 9:17am Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

What do some Republicans mean when they say we are heading toward socialism or communism? These charged words sound ominous. Is it a real threat or a red herring?

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson
Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Let’s clear up some confusion about definitions for these terms. In the present day, communism and socialism are not interchangeable words. They describe the amount of influence a government has in a country’s economy. There are three main types of economic systems: communism, socialism and capitalism.

In communist countries, the government controls most of the production and prices of both essential and nonessential goods. In socialist countries (often called social democracies), the government controls the production of essential goods, but the free market controls the production of nonessential goods. In capitalist countries, the free market controls the production of both essential and nonessential goods.

“Essential goods” includes things like transportation networks, education, health care and social welfare. (I would include beer on this list, but I can’t find a single reliable source to back me up.)

“Nonessential goods” includes things like smartphones, jewelry, recreational boats and probably most possessions a person owns. They are nice to have as long as one isn’t constantly tripping over them.

These three systems are just archetypes. In practice, things are not so neat.

If a panicked person says we’re veering toward socialism, they may be surprised to learn that we’re pretty much already there, and yet the sky remains intact over our heads. The U.S. doesn’t have a truly capitalist system by a long shot. Most people are comfortable with Social Security and Medicare, free K-12 public education, standing military and the public highways criss-crossing the nation. It’s largely socialized.

Nor is this socialism setting the U.S. on a course for failure. According to Legatum Institute’s 2012 Prosperity Index rankings, published in Forbes, the top 10 countries in the world are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Switzerland and Ireland. (The U.S. ranked 12th.) All of these countries have extensive social welfare systems, including universal health care, aka socialized medicine. Thus, the observable evidence indicates that a broad social safety net supports both personal well-being and overall economic growth.

If an alarmed partisan says we’re heading toward communism, they’re a bit further afield. Communism has so far been totalitarian in practice, though some communist countries such as China, Vietnam and even Cuba have been slowly evolving into more open systems. In the 20th century, though, communism left a horrendous legacy. I recommend reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or “Mao’s Great Famine” by Frank Dikotter. These books provide a solid perspective on what it means to live and die under a communist regime.

The U.S. has problems like gridlock and inanity aplenty, but if somebody claims our leaders are flirting with communism, that could rightfully be interpreted as satire, gross misperception or a lie. It is simply not an accurate reflection of where we are at. To spread this hyperbole as fact invalidates the suffering of the tens of millions of people these regimes have plowed under the earth. North Korea’s communist government continues to exact a large human toll.

Some claim that the U.S. government is socialist or communist because it redistributes income. It does to some extent, but the gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans has been growing for the past 40 years. This has happened in conjunction with tax cuts for higher income brackets. Last year the income gap was higher than at any point on record. The top 10 percent of households took in 50 percent of the income. The top 1 percent has bounced back from the recession handsomely — 34 percent growth in income between 2009 and 2012 — while the bottom 99 percent has scraped by with income growth of 0.4 percent.

It’s difficult to see how this yawning income gap is beneficial to most Americans, but if people are repeatedly scared by the word “socialism,” they may not question why the numbers are so tilted against them.

Hence, to answer my original question, we seem to have a lot of over-smoked herring here, something intended to distract people from the real issues.

While we let the odor clear a bit, do you know which entity has historically been the most effective at putting Americans back to work and restoring dignity when the private sector is recovering from a recession? Hint: It’s a petrifying word that starts with a G. Boo!


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party. “My Point of View” is a rotation of columnists from members of local political parties.