The new speak of economic name calling: Times reporter calls government ownership “capitalism” & McConnell says granting Puerto Rico statehood is “socialism”

The problem with the news media talking about socialism in the context of the current election cycle is that most people—including most reporters and columnists—have no idea what socialism is and only a fuzzy notion of what capitalism is. What’s worse is that popular but inaccurate or misconceived definitions of the two words confuse the issue. A reporter may use the technical definitions of socialism and capitalism in an article, but her readers understand one of the several non-technical meanings of the two words, and may therefore not get the point of the article. It is more likely, however, that the reporter is misusing the words. Too often these words serve as mirrors—reflecting to the viewer whatever the viewer already thinks.

Two particularly absurd recent examples of people who influence our thinking not understanding or pretending not to understand what socialism is come from the New York Times and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.   

In an article titled “An Austerity Workaround for U.K. Cities: Going Into Business,Times reporter Peter S. Goodman details how a few local governments in the United Kingdom have addressed the devastating crisis in local government services caused by the extreme austerity program of the national government led by the Conservative Party. Towns such as Preston and Ashford are going into business or investing in real estate. In other words, these local governments are owning and managing the means of production, which is the classic definition of socialism. And yet, here is what Goodman writes: “Other communities have doubled down on capitalism…” The bolding and italics are mine, to make sure no one misses the sheer stupidity of saying that a government setting up a business is capitalism. The entire point of capitalism is putting ownership of the means of production into the hands of private citizens.  Take the definition of capitalism supplied by Merriam Webster’s” “An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” 

On the surface, the easiest explanation for Goodman’s ridiculous statement is that he confused the “means of production” with “the free market.” He neglects the primary technical definition of socialism—government ownership of the means of production—and replaces it implicitly with a definition that most conservative thinkers would endorse—“interference of government into the free market.” There are two problems with this explanation. First and more significant for a discussion of socialism versus capitalism in the United States is the fact that no free market has ever existed without a large number of constraints imposed by government. Conservatives call unions, minimum wage laws, environmental and safety regulations and consumer finance standards “socialist,” but do not apply the same label to regulations that support the fossil fuel and banking industries. Moreover, no one ever thinks of labelling as socialist the standardization of weights and measures, engineering standards for buildings and equipment, laws enforcing contracts, the building of free roads and inexpensive sewer systems, the placement of airports and mass transit stops, laws against slavery and indentured servitude, and hundreds of other business customs backed by law. These standards and laws control how the free market operates much more than the issues about which politicians typically fight. So if you include government control of the market as an aspect of defining socialism, then all economies in all epochs have been socialist—the question is how much or how little, and, as the Latins used to say, cui bono: who benefits from the socialist acts? 

This confusion of definitions should still not lead to the conclusion that a government that goes into business is engaged in a capitalist activity. Since it involves government control over production and distribution, what is happening in Preston and Ashford is full-fledged, red-as-blood socialism. 

For illumination on why Goodman would make such a goof and his editor miss it, we need to turn to Mitch McConnell’s appalling misuse of “socialism” in his well-reported statement that granting statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia would be “full bore socialism on the march.” His reasoning in that the two states would likely send four Democratic senators to Washington, which would be bad for the GOP agenda. 

In other words, socialism = bad and capitalism = good. I believe that since World War II, these value judgments serve as the commonly understood definition of the two words when used by politicians of both parties, the mainstream media and the rightwing propaganda media that developed after President Ronald Reagan dropped the Fairness Doctrine. (The Fairness Doctrine forced broadcast outlets to present both sides of any issue and thus prevented the emergence of the one-sided coverage now presented by Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting and others.)

While the demonization of socialism started almost from the day that workers organized the first American labor union in the mid-19th century, it became de rigor for the mainstream news media and all Republicans and Democrats during the fifty odd years that we considered the Soviet Union as our enemy. Practically everyone in the American market of ideas in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s equated communism with socialism. Soviet style communism is an extreme form of ownership of the means of production by an unelected government run by an oligarchy organized into a political party. The Cold War made us ignore the democratic and more attractive socialist and mixed economy models (which McConnell and company would call socialist) that exist throughout Scandinavia and Western Europe. 

The idea that socialism = bad and capitalism = good stands behind McConnell’s wild statement that granting statehood to DC and PR would be an act of socialism. It stands behind Louisiana Republican Representative’s statement that “socialism will be the prevailing theme of the 2020 election” and Iowa Republic Senator Joni Ernst’s assertion that the people of the Hawkeye State should send her back to the Senate to ”stamp out socialism.”

None of them are talking about government ownership of the means of production, except when it comes to their desire to end public schools and the Veterans’ Administration healthcare system. They are talking primarily about government intervention into the economy that constrains businesses from doing whatever they damn please or about government efforts to redistribute the added value produced from the economy. Currently, an overwhelmingly large share of added value goes to the superrich, with the merely rich and the upper reaches of the middle class getting some scraps off the table. 

Right-wing politicians also use “socialism” as part of their complicated but easy-to-understand racial code language—helping minorities is another act of “socialism.” They don’t care whether something actually is socialist or not. They use the word “socialist” as if it were a bad curse that a little child screams at an adversary on the playground.

Through years of misuse and confusion, the media and politicians—donkeys and elephants—have pretty much established the idea that socialism is always bad. The problem is that a majority of citizens like virtually all of what Republicans call the socialist agenda. Survey after survey shows that Americans want universal healthcare of some sorts. They want to raise the minimum wage. They want the government to act aggressively to address the problems caused by human-made global warming. They would like to raise taxes on the wealthy. They want to reign in the banks and large corporations with regulations that protect consumers. 

According to a recent study, 43% of Americans embrace some form of “socialism.” I’m fairly certain that this large group doesn’t really know what socialism entails, but have heard right-wingers refer to so many government programs they like as socialist that they believe that they themselves have become socialists, or fellow travelers.  

As the election heats up, expect more and more Republicans to employ “socialism” as a curse word. And while it may work with some older and uneducated voters, younger voters, minorities and educated folk living in urban areas are less likely to fall for the name-calling than in former generations. When they hear “socialism” applied to universal healthcare or infrastructure programs, they are not going to care, and may even realize that the term as used by the GOP translates into nothing more or less than “bad,” “dirty,” “un-American” or “evil,” just a cheap invective with no real meaning.

We know Trump is shoveling BS when he tries to justify a war with Iran. As usual, the real reason for the war is to help military contractors

Yes, we know the BS that Trump, Bolton, Pompeo, the Saudis and the Netanyahu government have been slinging in the news media. Accusations of tanker bombings and other acts of terrorism, all backed by as many facts as supported Lyndon Johnson’s version of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. Backed by as many facts as substantiated why Bush II gave for the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq—weapons of mass destruction and support of Al Qaida. In other words, nothing but lies and false assumptions.

We now know that LBJ felt himself in a bind—he did not want to be the first American president to “lose” a war, even a war that his experts had already decided was unwinnable.

We may never know why Bush II wanted to go to war in Iraq, but my best guess is that the war was a product of the desire of military contractors to make more money. It’s likely that the past 16 years have given these contractors a taste of the largess of perpetual war and that they are pushing for a conflagration with Iran. A hot war has always lined the pockets of armament makers and suppliers of all kinds of materiel, e.g., blankets, batteries, food rations, boots, backpacks, and other gear. The Iraq War added armed soldiers to the list of goods that private contractors provide. Let me substitute a few words in that last sentence to give the full nuance: The Iraq War added mercenaries to the list of goods political cronies could mark up exorbitantly and sell to the military, despite the lessons of American history that mercenaries lose wars (see the American Revolution).

In Trump, military contractors have a cat’s-paw easy to manipulate. Trump has all the traits a military contractor wants: 1. A lack of empathy with any perceived enemy, which translates to a willingness to inflict pain and suffering on innocent bystanders, especially those not of European background. 2. An emotional need to always project power and never appear wrong, a basic flaw of American foreign policy since the time of Teddy Roosevelt and Elihu Root, only elevated to a psychopathic extreme by Trump.

  1. A losing hand in the next presidential election, which history strongly suggests would quickly change to a popular mandate merely by declaring war and sending troops to fight on foreign lands.

The profit motive behind waging perpetual war makes more sense to me than other explanations, such as the nefarious influence of Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its regional rival. While it is clear that our decision to aggressively support the Saudis in the Middle East has contributed much to our bad relations with Iran, selling out the United States to achieve a Saudi objective would not occur to Trump. He is only interested in selling out his country of residence for his own selfish interests. Thus, unless the Saudi princes have been bolstering the finances of Trump, the Trump organization and the Trump family to the degree that they make all the real decisions, I don’t see Trumpty-Dumpty going to war to help them out.

I also reject the influence of the Netanyahu government as a deciding factor. True enough, Netanyahu pretty much needs perpetual war for very much the same reasons as Trump does: to sidetrack the citizenry from his corruption and incompetence and to satisfy the voracious appetite of Israel’s (and the U.S.’s) military contracting industry. But Israel is more of a client state than even Saudi Arabia is. We funnel billions a year into the Israeli economy and military. If anything, the decision-making flows from the United States to Israel, and not the other way around.

Certainly the idea that war with Iran would be necessary and justified because of Iran’s acts of hostility towards the United States is complete nonsense. It was Trump who walked away from the Iran Nuclear agreement. Since then, Trump has been adding more sanctions on Iran, which has hurt the Iranian economy and its people. No one in their right mind should want Iran to have nuclear weapons, just as no one in their right mind should want the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain or any of the other 195 odd countries of Earth to have a nuclear capability. It is disappointing that Iran has started producing nuclear fuel again, but what do you expect them to do in light of the shredded agreement? Developing weapons is one of the few trump cards Iran can play in negotiations to drop economic sanctions against it.  Iran, however, has pledged not to fight a war, and really why would they want to? They have seen what war did to Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is an inherently rich country with lots of natural resources beyond oil, an educated population and a fairly large middle class. Their leadership has not and is not going to commit any aggressive act of war against the United States or Saudi Arabia.

My conclusion: The most logical reason for instigating a full-scale war with Iran must be to continue to support the business objectives of military contractors.

I fear that we are in the age of perpetual warfare.

Trump decision to cancel refugee children’s soccer & school follows the centuries-old American tradition of cruelty to non-Europeans in the frontier & at the border

Under the leadership of Donald Trump, the Republican Party has graduated from pursuing Ronald Reagan’s politics of selfishness to pursuing the politics of cruelty.

How else to explain this week’s decision by the administration to cancel English classes, recreational programs and legal aid for unaccompanied minors staying in federal migrant shelters?

The excuse for not educating or providing recreation to these innocent victims of violence and environmental upheaval—to which the United States had made a major contribution—is that the influx of immigrants at our southern border has created critical budget pressures. According to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) PR flack Mark Weber, to save money the Office of Refugee Resettlement has stopped funding programs “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services, and recreation.” Sounds as if Trump is using these innocent victims as a bargaining chip with Congress. I wonder if he ever thought of torturing his own children as part of a negotiation?

So what are these kids going to do all day except hang around being hungry and bored? A recipe for getting into trouble, to be sure. And how can they ever hope to navigate our complicated immigration laws and system and reunite with their parents without any legal help?

Nothing short of an audit by Bernie Sanders supporters would convince me that the HHS is so broke that it has to deprive children of recreation, education and hope.  I think it’s not a bargaining chip, just an excuse for ratcheting up the meanness. Those of us who have followed the revelation about Trump’s personal finances understand that he and his cronies are masters of changing what budget numbers say. Remember Trump’s the guy who told the IRS that his assets were worth little to avoid paying taxes at the same time he was pumping up their value to get bank loans.

There are no doubt other places in the border budget that Trump could save money; for example, spending no more than the amount that most experts recommend is appropriate for walls or wall prototypes. That number, BTW, happens to be zero, since most immigration and security professionals have concluded the wall is a stupid idea.

Based on an analysis of other moves that the Trump Administration and the GOP have made recently, I think we can safely assume that the prime motivating factor in ending soccer and school for refugee children is cruelty. It is purposely cruel, as if Trump and his crew want not just to win, but to make it hurt the “enemy” so badly that everyone knows who is boss. They haven’t stopped to think that 12- and 15-year olds are never the enemy and never deserve purposely cruel treatment.

Separating children from their families is an act of cruelty. Criminalizing abortion and making a woman carry a rapist’s baby to full term is cruel. Putting the “Dreamers” into a legal limbo is cruel. Ending special programs to protect refugees from Haiti and El Salvador is cruel. Cutting humanitarian aid to Central American countries is cruel. Proposing cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security is cruel. Then there’s the especially twisted notion of assessing tariffs on Mexican and Chinese products, which will end up hurting the poor and middle class, as prices for virtually everything will go up when companies pass the cost of the tariffs to consumers. The twist of course is that the tariff money collected will make up some of the enormous deficit the GOP created by giving the ultra-wealthy one of the largest tax breaks in history at a time when their taxes were already historically low.

It’s easy to say that when Trump is frustrated, the first thing he does is look for someone to take it out on, and that the more pain he manages to cause, the happier this sick pup becomes.

But blaming the character of Trump alone would ignore the long U.S. history of cruel treatment of people whom white males considered to be inferior to Europeans and of those they encountered at their ever west-moving frontier. British army commander Jeffrey Amherst knowingly gave smallpox-infected blankets to Native American tribes during the Seven Years War, hoping an epidemic of the disease would wipe out whole communities. Cruelty to blacks characterizes the entire history of slavery and post-Reconstruction in the United States. Whether dealing with Native Americans or with supporters of democracy in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, American soldiers (and pioneers) employed rape, pillage, mass murder and displacement as their main tactics. It was if Europeans could only demonstrate their inherent superiority to other ethnic groups by treating these lesser beings as animals.

Historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth provides an easy-to-read if hard-to-stomach spectacle of U.S. official and unofficial cruelty to non-Europeans at America’s borders over the past 250 years. Grandin’s two premises are shaky: He avers that the U.S. is the only nation defined by its relationship to its frontier, which ignores the histories of China and Russia (and if one studies the medieval Ottonian dynasty, Germany, too). He also asserts that Trump was able to emerge because of societal anxiety now that the frontier is gone and our borders are closed, which fails to take into account Grandin’s own discussion of Andrew Johnson, the prototype of Trumpism; the strain of Jacksonian racism that still infects U.S. foreign policy; or Grandin’s mini-history of border vigilantism. No matter, the book’s detail makes it worth reading. Two other great books on American frontier cruelty—but  heavy reading slogs—are Richard Slotkin’s seminal Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (1973) and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization (1985).

The important takeaway from these books for this conversation is the detailed accounts of how, when faced with both humanistic and cruel ways to deal with the peoples encountered on its frontiers, the American way was virtually always to select cruelty. Blaming victims, of course, is always easier and less expensive than trying to help them. For example, the contemporary GOP program—from Reagan onwards—uses victim blaming as a justification for cutting programs that help our poor, elderly and disadvantaged. A supposed inferiority justified the cruel treatment of slaves. It justified Bush II’s creation of our torture program. And it’s instrumental in justifying the inhumane and illegal treatment of refugees and other immigrants at our borders.

Trump’s views resonate with the 20-25% of the population that is white and feels threatened by the demographic shifts in this country that favor groups they deem inferior. We don’t know, but we can assume that many ICE employees and government officials agree with Trump’s cruel approach, something that Grandin suggests. Trump’s administration is not the first time America has pursued an overtly racist program—Andrew Jackson and most of the presidents between him and Lincoln pursued racist domestic and foreign policies; Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal government and let the Klu Klux Klan run wild.

No, Trump does not represent an inflection point. Yes, Trump is a monster, but not an especially original one. He continues a long American tradition of racism and racial cruelty, especially to non-European immigrants, refugees and combatants.