Promoting the Wrong Discussion–Socialism vs Capitalism

By Mike Koetting July 18, 2021

The Republican Party has gone full-out on equating Democrats with Socialism. That, of course, is absurd.  It is absurd not simply because it is so far from accurate but also because the entire distinction between “capitalism” and “socialism” is so dated as to have questionable relevance in today’s world. No serious analysis could call China a purely socialist country or the United States a purely capitalist country.

Two examples of the latter are worth some exploration.

Covid Vaccine

The Wall Street Journal ran an article crowing that it was private corporations that created the vaccine. This is true and important, but it is only part of the story.

I think the ability of private corporations to move quickly and minimize distractions from their focus is a serious advantage. I really don’t believe we would have gotten the vaccines this fast without the work carried on by the private corporations. Dismissing that would be a mistake.

On the other hand, we need to be cognizant of the role that government played in making this possible. For openers, Operation Warp Speed provided $12 billion even before there were vaccines. This was an important risk mitigation strategy for the private corporations, as the Wall Street Journal acknowledges. (Pfizer did not take Operation Warp Speed money for research and development, but it’s partner, BioNTech received $450M from the German government and the venture signed $2B in contracts with the US Government before there was a working vaccine.)

Moreover, the work on vaccines is supported by the government in many other ways. Years ago, Barney Graham, the deputy director of the NIH Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, was working with Jason McLellan at the University of Texas to develop a vaccine to protect against Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). As their work progressed, Graham and McLellan realized that by making slight changes in the genetic sequence that they could create vaccines against multiple viruses. Their modification is a key element of all the COVID vaccines used in America.

This is only one of the ways long term investments by government, with no need to hit quarterly targets, creates an environment where private companies can apply their imagination in a very focused way, and, incidentally, make their quarterly targets. For instance, in 2017 the NIH funded Moderna to develop techniques for accelerated vaccine development before COVID was on the scene.

There is no need to argue about whether this is “capitalism” or “socialism.” It’s neither. But it does seem like a reasonable way to run an economy in a very complex world with ever accelerating technological and scientific realities. It leaves unanswered some very real questions about how to distribute the rewards of this fruitful partnership. The fact that private corporations are a critical part of the economy does not justify any particular distribution of rewards. That is an important topic, but a different one that will be left for another day. For now, it is enough to simply recognize that both private enterprise and government intervention are essential parts of the economy as we have developed it.

Fossil Fuel

Fossil fuel is another collaboration of government with private enterprise, but a much less happy story.

Federal tax policy provides up to $20B in subsidies to fossil fuel providers annually. These incentives were designed to reduce the cost of using fossil fuels, but most were put in place in era when there were no viable alternative energy sources and before the full weight of environmental damage became clear.

Republicans have generally worked hard to maintain supports for the fossil fuel industry. This is true not only in Congress, but throughout the country. Ten Republican states have already adopted legislation making it harder to shift away from fossil fuels. They have adopted versions of a model bill authored by the American Gas Association. State treasurers from 15 Republican states complained in a letter to the Biden administration that it was “picking economic winners and losers” by supporting alternative energy sources over fossil fuels and that the administration was guilty of pressuring financial institutions to “discriminate” against fossil fuels.

There are understandable reasons for Republicans to be concerned about the decline of fossil fuels. Republican states will be disproportionately impacted—both in drastic declines in revenue from fossil fuel sources and indirectly through the loss of jobs. It is going to be a rocky transition away from fossil fuel and more so in Red states. We can see how difficult this is going to be, for instance, in Florida, where, ignoring the extent to which his state is at risk from rising sea levels due to global warming, Ron Desantis self-righteously supported a measure to make it difficult for local municipalities to demand alternative fuels. Apparently he guesses that high gas prices and bad short term economic impacts will impact his political career well before any of the longer-term benefits of adopting alternative energies kick in. As David Axelrod is fond of saying, “There’s a reason Profiles in Courage is such a thin book.”

Regardless, this is no longer capitalism by the textbook. Shi-Ling Hsu, a professor at Florida State University, argues if this were in fact a capitalist economy, the fossil fuel industries, particularly coal, would be experiencing a much greater impact from the array of market forces lining up against them. Costs of alternative energies are falling rapidly and financial institutions are getting worried not because of anything Democrats have done, but because they read the longer-term economic tea leaves.

In this context, the argument by some Republicans that Biden is a “socialist” who “wants to pick economic winners and losers” shows how absurdly confused they are as to what we mean when we use the term “socialist”. Or, for that matter, ”capitalist”. In real capitalism, when companies lose market advantage or the public becomes too concerned about the costs imposed on it by the process (e.g. the cost of pollution from a manufacturing process or product), the companies are forced to change or go out of business.

And so…

To bludgeon the painfully obvious, what we have in our daily life is neither “capitalism” or “socialism” and we should stop muddying our conversations about policy with labels that create artificial obstacles. We need to be able to discuss the role of the private sector in the stunning development of medical advances and the actual costs and benefits of fossil fuels and their alternatives without dynamiting the conversation before it begins. These are complicated, nuanced issues of huge importance. Restricting the argument to cavemen’s clubs doesn’t help.

I think there is another issue here. When people use these labels, they are most often not even talking about economics. They are talking about their perception of how government relates to the mediation between individual freedom and collective welfare. But this code further muddies the conversation. One group wraps itself around freedom and their definition of “socialism” is government willing to stomp on individual freedoms. (Understandably, China is the most evil empire in this view of the galaxy, a view abetted by China’s continued insistence it is a socialist country, when it’s simply an oligarchical, fascist society that understands it keeps power by sharing material wealth to a degree.) To the other group, more concerned about the suffering following from the unequal distribution of power and money, “capitalism” is individuals willing to stomp all over collective welfare as long as it suits their purpose.

It’s little wonder these two groups don’t have a productive conversation.

The current divides in this country are caused by a variety of factors. Confusion on these terms is a minor contributor in terms of causality. But I suspect it is a larger contributor in terms of making it hard to talk ourselves out the mess we have created. We are using words to talk past each other.

We need to get beyond the labels. We are enjoying the benefits and suffering the problems of a mixed economy. A mixed economy is a tangible reminder that neither individual rights nor collective welfare are absolute goods. We all want a country where both individual rights and the welfare of all people are generally protected. We have a much better chance of getting somewhere near there if we talk about the specific issues. Trying to communicate using these broad labels is like trying to do brain surgery while wearing oven mitts. Neither is likely to be good for the patient’s health.

What Does the Flag Stand For?

By Mike Koetting July 4, 2021

Just before the 2016 election, I was taking my then five-year old grandson home from swimming. As we drove through a residential neighborhood, he asked what was that sign in someone’s front yard. Then, before I could answer, he announced: “It has a flag on it. It must be for that bad man.” (Trump was, of course, the “bad man.”)

On the way home, I got a chance to look closer. It did indeed have an American flag motif, but it was hardly a Trump poster.

What struck me was that a five-year old had picked up the idea that American flags were emblems of the right. Although this sharpened my appreciation for how much five-year olds pick up, it left me feeling something had gone very awry in the country where, growing up, I started every school day pledging allegiance to the flag of a country that promised “liberty and justice for all”.

***

Given today is the Fourth of July, it is a good time to consider what exactly a country should mean to us and how a flag represents that.

Of course part of our idea about country is simply the recognition that this is us. It’s the same reason I always feel good when Americans win at the Olympics, however mad I might be with our government at the time. Nothing particularly rational. Just recognition that there is some connection that strikes a chord.

However, the notion of us is protean. Presumably the differentiation between “us” and “them” has its roots deep in human history where the dividing lines were fairly clear and there were plenty of reasons to be wary of people you didn’t know. But fast-forward a bunch of millennia and the world is much messier. We’re divided not just into clans, but into religions and races and cultural groups not to mention nesting political units, which might not be getting along with each other. How does one order the primacy of allegiances?

“Country” demands a special place in this array because it structures so many of the quotidian elements of our day-to-day life—our money, our communication system, our Olympic team, the borders that are strictly enforced and a host of other matters.

But, beyond the pragmatic dailys, country is also a general set of principles that provide broad guidance for the generation of specific policies that define the particular nation state. In an authoritarian regime, the connection between the national principles and policy is direct and not so complicated. In some countries—say Norway—there is enough overlap among various ways of defining “us” that the underlying principles don’t need constant examination.

But the United States has always had a more difficult hand to play. It arose as a confederation of relatively independent political units with some fairly significant cultural differences that needed a common purpose against the common enemy. Two principles filled the bill. First, and foremost, all men should be free to pursue their own happiness and, secondarily, all men are created equal. Both of these were radical for their time and, in fact, super-charged a profound change in all political organization henceforth.

With hindsight, it’s obvious these principles were adopted in only a blinkered way and, moreover, they sometimes bumped up against each other. But that was the hill on which the new nation chose to risk dying on. It didn’t die and, in fact, thrived. But as it grew, and as other parts of the world further evolved the principles America had adopted, it became impossible to avoid their contested nature.

The inability of the country to agree on the meaning of those principles was the root cause of a horrendously violent civil war. The Confederacy was a choice that other ways of defining “us” –state, race and land—were more important than expanding the limited principles of the Revolutionary War, turning their back on the dynamic nature of those principles. The Confederacy lost the war, but 150 years later, it is not clear the majority of people on the losing side ever acquiesced to these broader principles, particularly as the rest of the country expanded them to women, people of color, and then other identities. To be fair, the population of the North was nowhere near unanimous in support of applying these principles more broadly. But enough were that for most of the last century the country was willing and able to present itself to the rest of the world as being organized on an evolving definition of these principles.

But other ways of defining “us” simmered below the surface. For the most part, the tension was kept at manageable levels by simply ignoring how incomplete the application of these national principles was and had always been. But demand for and enactment of the Civil Rights laws in the Sixties seems to have kindled a definitional struggle concerning these principles.

It is in part the case that there is no ultimate “resolution” of these principles. They are so foundational and so absolute—what is “freedom” and what is “equality” and how do these two ideas both inform policy—people will and should continually debate them. But if the poles in the debate become too far apart, the underlying sense of “us” starts to fall apart. An article in Scientific America observes:

This phenomenon differs from the familiar divergence each party holds on policy issues related to the economy, foreign policy and the role of social safety nets. Instead it centers on members of one party holding a basic abhorrence for their opponents—an “othering” in which a group conceives of its rivals as wholly alien in every way. 

I don’t think the sense that a nation represents “us” stems from how its citizens define the national principles. Probably sensibly, most never think about things in such an abstract manner. On the other hand, when there is a divide in how to interpret those principles at the level of policy, if it is virulent enough that the political classes start to exploit other ideas of “us”—class, race, religion—then the idea of “us” as a nation starts to wane. We are approaching that point.

Naturally all sides claim they are promoting the “true” American values. In the case of the flag, the forces of a more inclusive version of the American principles were willing to let those with narrower interpretations own the flag–in large part because it made it so easy to underline the contradictions between the larger principles and those who hid behind the flag.

But there is an ironic give-way as to the true sentiments of those proposing a narrower view of our national principles: they are willing to tolerate substituting the American flag with the flag under which parts of the country took up arms to protect the most narrow version of those principles.

This is not a casual coincidence. The flag of the Confederacy is born in rejection of the notion that all men are free. Today’s Confederates may not be pushing a resumption of slavery. But their fundamental beliefs are that some should be more free and that it is tough luck if the ability to pursue one’s own happiness is limited by external conditions.

As noted earlier, the concepts of freedom and equality are complicated and it is both inevitable and appropriate that a society debate them and particularly how the two ideas interact since they exist in some important degree in tension with each other. But unless there is a largely agreed upon center in these ideas, the “us” of nation is replaced with an ever-escalating sense of “us” versus “them” and the country is in deep trouble. In the extreme, there is civil war. Short of that, the country will be mired in uncivil discourse and find it difficult to carry out the major functions of a nation, let alone the more difficult task of maintaining a democracy. By then, the flag is only one more element of discord.

***

What we have tried to tell our grandson is to look beyond the symbols themselves to recognize the values to which they aspire. If the country respects and protects those values and their aspirations, the flags will, with any luck, take care of themselves. But the flags aren’t the important thing. It’s the values.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

By Mike Koetting June 20, 2021

In today’s political environment, there is a lot of discussion about thwarting the will of the majority or attempting to establish minority rule. This way of taking about it presumes a majority-minority scale where it is possible to determine particular spots on the spectrum. But the actual structure of American government, for better and worse, includes no such yardstick at the national level. There are a series of independent electoral processes which, historically, come enough together to form a national will in service of a shared national story. In that respect, it is more like a marriage—where two people decide to marry their way through life. Counting votes doesn’t really matter; the issue is whether there is will to proceed and flexibility to accommodate each other’s particular issues.

When the differences over the issues become too large, when every discussion turns into rancor, the will to continue wains and suitcases are packed.

Of course it’s too limiting to see the various factions in the country as two distinct persons. There are obviously all kinds of sub-divisions and internal fissures. And they do not neatly map to geographies. (In a very insightful piece, George Packer in The Atlantic maps four Americas.) But the marriage analogy may be a more useful way of seeing the electorate than along any single spectrum where change is accomplished by moving the needle a little this way or a little that way.

There are currently two salient facts about the would-be national marriage:

  • In parts of the country, the Retrumplicans in fact enjoy a majority. In federated America this will be sufficient to guarantee continued discord. Even if they are a minority nationally, the structure of American government will give them power. (Retrumplicans are a sub-species of the Republican Party who are identified by their refusal to repudiate Donald Trump’s version of the election. Virtually all can also be identified by their belief that not all voters are equal, that no principle is more important than maintaining power for themselves as the guardians of the true Christian-American culture, and the importance of the common good is primarily shaped by what helps them maintain power.)
  • It is extremely unlikely that the moral/cultural sentiments that predominate in the “Blue” states are going to peter out. While the specifics may wax and wane, unlike the Retrumplican world, demography favors these values–younger generations everywhere are more urban, multi-cultural, less religious, and unwilling to roll back the clock to the 1950’s.

There has never been a single American center. But in the past—give or take a Civil War–the factions have found ways to live with their differences, even if never reconciling them. But in the present, the differences are so deep, working together seems impossible. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see what counseling would help.

While there has been much wailing about these national divides, it seems to me there has been less willingness to confront the reality of what it means, instead, allowing a not closely examined sentiment that somehow this will all work out. Trying to be specific about possible dynamics for, say, the next ten years is sobering.

Country Trends Blue

I think this is the most likely outcome, but is by no means certain. This doesn’t mean the country will turn into New York, Vermont or California. There would still be fracious politics but the sense that the entire Blue culture is under attack would recede and there be opportunity for some bipartianshp. For this to happen, Democrats are going to have to hold on to Senate seats in Georgia and Arizona, hold on to the House in 2022 and beyond, flip at least one other large state, and start to make real inroads in state legislatures. It is a long road.

Still, as I said above, demography favors Blue culture. Young and minorities in Red states are much less likely to be attracted to the Retrumplicans than others in those states. The change will not automatically flow into politics; it is only possible if Democrats can sustain organizing efforts at full tilt. It is like paddling a canoe upstream. Any pause and the current pushes the canoe downstream.

Country Trends Red

Less likely, but possible. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio show that simply being a northern, industrial state is no guarantee that the Retrumplicans can be kept in check. Joe Manchin will be on the ballot in 2024 and that seat could easily go Retrumplican. For all the talk of Texas, Florida or North Carolina being close to flipping, it consistently doesn’t happen.

It is also the case that not all minorities will align with Democrats. There are clearly some opportunities for Republicans to make inroads among Hispanics, although that is hard to square with Retrumplican rhetoric on immigrants.

The Retrumplicans also have structural advantages:

  • Our federated electoral process is constructed to give higher weight to votes in smaller states than in larger states. This gives Republicans a two to five point head start in federal races, which makes a huge difference when the country is so divided.
  • Many state legislatures are slanted Republican and use that advantage in drawing favorable districts and narrowing the channels of voting.
  • Republicans have stacked courts to guard against legal challenges.

Trending Red would mean the constant attempts to undercut Blue culture as were seen in the Trump administration. I don’t think we would see whole-sale authoritarianism. But If Retrumplicans retake the presidency in 2024, it will be seriously ugly, particularly if they were to retake Congress. I am not sure the country as we know it would recover in subsequent cycles. The stakes don’t get any higher.

No Change

In truth, no change will not look that much different from the above two for the next ten years. The difference will not be much more than the cultural sense of whether we are perched on the edge of a precipice, as now predominates, or we have begun to slide one way or the other.

No change would be continuation of divided government, inability to resolve the most pressing issues, every election contested, a sense of the futility of it all from both the left and right, spilling over into the kind of acrimonious demonstrations that marked the summer of 2020.

Dissolution

Maybe the marriage can’t be saved. When I considered this several years ago, I scoffed at it. I still have no idea how this could work, but it is a prospect I have started to take more seriously.

I don’t know if others are as extreme in their thinking, but it is becoming harder and harder to see what national story the Retrumplican and the Blue parts of the country have in common. Several things are pushing me toward divorce:

  • The anti-science attitude of the Retrumplicans, most immediately their willingness to skip vaccinations, is a clear and present danger to me as the Retrumplican states are an incubator for variants. Nor is this the last issue where science will suggest measures that are inconvenient. I don’t want to be in a country where portions of the country are willing to be governed by people whose political impulses sideline science, even if they can sometimes avoid specific bullets.
  • The willingness to criminalize abortion and gender-identification is dystopian abhorrent. This is so far into Big Brother territory, if this is where that part of the country wants to go, I don’t want to tolerate it as part of my country. (Of course, Retrumplicans equate critical race theory with Big Brotherism. This false equivalency is of such proportions it strengthens the argument as to why I don’t want to share a country with these people.)
  • The willingness of parts of the country to tolerate wide-ranging measures to make voting harder is wrong. The American story that we have previously shared is one of majority rule and a long-term trajectory toward making that a more inclusionary majority. A clear intent to restrict voting is a thinly disguised attempt to return to an era where majority only means the majority of a particular group. If parts of the country want to return to this practice, there is no compelling reason for us to share the same country because we no longer share the country’s first principle, all men are created equal. Why would one stay married to someone who rejects the original principles of the marriage?

Again, I have no idea what split would practically work, particularly given that the overlap between geography and Retrumplicanism is messy. But here is a final thought. I have previously thought of national dissolution as certain southern states seceding, again. But maybe Blue states should think about themselves seceding—or pushing Retrumplican states out—as a proactive measure. Remember, these states are, more or less, responding to the majority in their population. What makes the rest of us think that somehow the majority will of Blue states is going to change those states?

Perhaps it’s time to consider Paul Simon’s advice:  “Drop off the key, Lee. Make a new plan, Stan….”

Can We Make Government Work Better?

By Mike Koetting June 7, 2021

In my last post, I suggested that government will always have difficulties being efficient because it is trying to serve many ends, not of all of which are easily compatible. I then, rashly, as it turns out, suggested this post would include some suggestions that could mitigate the difficulties of implementation in government.

It’s not that there couldn’t be improvements. The problem is that it is hard to imagine how to implement the things that would improve implementation.

Continue reading “Can We Make Government Work Better?”

The Ups and Downs of Government Functioning

By Mike Koetting May 24, 2021

At the moment, it seems Michael Lewis is everywhere, pitching his new book, Premonition. His general theme is that, in addition to whatever specific depredations the Trump administration committed, there were deep government failures that made the pandemic response worse. The specific culprit in his book was the CDC, which made multiple errors and missed critical signals. Lewis sees this more as an example of how American government is subject to functional failures at critical points than a singular failing.

This touches a nerve. I believe in government, especially as compared to the limits of private enterprise. Government does a lot of things very well—and fairly. Medicare hums, airplanes zip around the country without smashing into each other, and we take clean water for granted.

Continue reading “The Ups and Downs of Government Functioning”

Steel Tariffs

By Mike Koetting May 9, 2021

Okay. This doesn’t sound like the usual stuff I write about. But it got my attention because it Is such a technicolor illustration of how much more difficult real policy is than policy theatre, in large part because things in the real world turn out to be very interconnected. The topic also begins to raise some necessary questions about what kind of global institutions we might need for the future of the species.

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The World Needs More People? Really?

By Mike Koetting April 18, 2021

Several weeks ago, a headline in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention: “What the world needs now is more humans.” My antennae went up. It was so counter my basic belief, I was compelled to read it.

I was not even a little convinced. But it raised enough questions about the future to be interesting.

Facts

Let’s start with a few basic facts. You probably know world population has been on an exponential growth curve for some time. But have you really stopped to examine that curve? World population has increased since 1900 almost five-fold, from 1.65B to 7.7B. Even with few other facts, this should cause at least an eye-brow raise. It’s hard to imagine systems that can have five-fold flexibility without getting into trouble.

Continue reading “The World Needs More People? Really?”

It’s Too Late to Start Yesterday

By Mike Koetting April 4, 2021

The media is awash with stories about the border crisis, specifically the surge of migrants seeking to enter the United States at its southern border. For the most part they have been fairly good in reporting the humanitarian toll of the crisis and also putting it in the context of larger immigrations trends, in this case the acceleration of a surge that actually started a year ago, while Trump was still president.

However, the media has been slower to point out that most of the political responses, on all sides, are a form of Kabuki theatre. In truth, there really aren’t any good solutions in the short term. Things that might have been “solutions” are 25 years in the rear-view mirror. Which is the point of this post: big problems require solutions that are big—not simply in terms of dollars but in terms of time. Some things simply require elapsed time to get accomplished. You can’t change the amount of time required for a pregnancy by adding more resources.

The current border situation is a technicolor reminder that things can get very ugly if society tries to ignore its way out of problems, particularly those that take time to solve.

Continue reading “It’s Too Late to Start Yesterday”

Time for Worrying Is Over–Get Rid of the Filibuster

By Mike Koetting March 21, 2021

The American Rescue Plan is law. Very good. But what now? It passed with zero Republican votes and we have shot our Budget Reconciliation bullet for the time being. Given lack of Republican interest in engaging, do Democrats just spend the rest of the year making speeches about policies that aren’t going to happen. Faced with Republican opposition to whatever is proposed, do we just roll over?

I was initially wary of attacking the filibuster on the grounds it would even further deepen the divide. But the reality is that even if a substantial majority of the population supports them, action on voting rights, immigration or climate will be impossible under current Senate rules. Our choice is to eliminate the filibuster or give up on moving political conversations from culture wars back to policies. Capitulate or get rid of the filibuster. The latter, on reflection, I have come to see as not only necessary politics, but good policy as well.

Continue reading “Time for Worrying Is Over–Get Rid of the Filibuster”

Strategy for the Democrats

By Mike Koetting March 7, 2021

Despite winning the presidential election and controlling both houses of Congress, the short term for Democrats is worrisome. The margin in both houses of Congress is thin, incumbent parties don’t usually do well in mid-terms, and Republicans have many structural advantages.

I believe Democrats need a three-prong strategy.

Continue reading “Strategy for the Democrats”