Con­ser­va­tives’ scare tac­tics on ‘so­cial­ism’ are dis­hon­est

Dayton Daily News - - IDEAS & VOICES - Paul Krug­man Paul Krug­man writes for the New York Times.

In 1961, Amer­ica faced what con­ser­va­tives con­sid­ered a mor­tal threat: calls for a na­tional health in­sur­ance pro­gram cov­er­ing se­nior cit­i­zens. In an at­tempt to avert this aw­ful fate, the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion launched what it called Op­er­a­tion Cof­fee Cup, a pioneer­ing at­tempt at vi­ral mar­ket­ing.

Here’s how it worked: Doc­tors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to in­vite friends over and play them a record­ing in which Ron­ald Rea­gan ex­plained that so­cial­ized medicine would de­stroy free­dom. The house­wives, in turn, were sup­posed to write let­ters to Congress de­nounc­ing Medi­care.

Ob­vi­ously, the strat­egy didn’t work; Medi­care not only came into ex­is­tence, but it be­came so pop­u­lar that these days Repub­li­cans rou­tinely (and falsely) ac­cuse Democrats of plan­ning to cut the pro­gram’s fund­ing. But the strat­egy — claim­ing that any at­tempt to strengthen the so­cial safety net or limit in­equal­ity will put us on a slip­pery slope to to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism — en­dures.

And so it was that Don­ald Trump, in his State of the Union ad­dress, briefly turned from his usual warn­ings about scary brown peo­ple to warn­ings about the threat from so­cial­ism.

What do Trump’s peo­ple, or con­ser­va­tives in gen­eral, mean by “so­cial­ism”? The an­swer is, it de­pends.

Some­times it means any kind of eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism. Other times, how­ever, it means Soviet-style cen­tral plan­ning, or Venezuela-style na­tion­al­iza­tion of in­dus­try, never mind the re­al­ity that there is es­sen­tially no­body in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life who ad­vo­cates such things.

The trick — and “trick” is the right word — in­volves shut­tling be­tween these ut­terly dif­fer­ent mean­ings, and hop­ing that peo­ple don’t no­tice. You say you want free col­lege tu­ition? Think of all the peo­ple who died in the Ukraine famine!

So let’s talk about what’s re­ally on the ta­ble.

What Amer­i­cans who sup­port “so­cial­ism” ac­tu­ally want is what the rest of the world calls so­cial democ­racy: A mar­ket econ­omy, but with ex­treme hard­ship lim­ited by a strong so­cial safety net and ex­treme in­equal­ity lim­ited by pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion. They want us to look like Den­mark, not Venezuela.

And in case you haven’t been there, the Nordic coun­tries are not, in fact, hell­holes. They have some­what lower GDP per capita than we do, but that’s largely be­cause they take more va­ca­tions. Com­pared with Amer­ica, they have higher life ex­pectancy, much less poverty and sig­nif­i­cantly higher over­all life sat­is­fac­tion.

Oh, and they have high lev­els of en­trepreneur­ship — be­cause peo­ple are more will­ing to take the risk of start­ing a busi­ness when they know they won’t lose their health care or plunge into ab­ject poverty if they fail.

What about the slip­pery slope from lib­er­al­ism to to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism? There’s ab­so­lutely no ev­i­dence that it ex­ists. Medi­care didn’t de­stroy free­dom.

So scare­mon­ger­ing over so­cial­ism is both silly and dis­hon­est. But will it be po­lit­i­cally ef­fec­tive?

Prob­a­bly not. Af­ter all, vot­ers over­whelm­ingly sup­port most of the poli­cies pro­posed by Amer­i­can “so­cial­ists,” in­clud­ing higher taxes on the wealthy and mak­ing Medi­care avail­able to ev­ery­one.

On the other hand, we should never dis­count the power of dis­hon­esty. Right-wing me­dia will por­tray whomever the Democrats nom­i­nate as the sec­ond com­ing of Leon Trot­sky, and mil­lions will be­lieve them. Let’s just hope that the rest of the me­dia re­port the clean lit­tle se­cret of Amer­i­can so­cial­ism, which is that it isn’t rad­i­cal at all.

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