Early last month, twice-failed Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appeared at something called the Shared Values Leadership Summit and, in a further effort to deflect blame for her defeat away from her own deficiencies as a candidate, said that the reason she lost was that she was “a capitalist” and too many Democrats are “socialists.”
In doing so, Clinton played into one of the hoariest right-wing clichés: that the Democrats are a bunch of Muslim-loving far-left Marxists who want to confiscate all the wealth and give it to “welfare queens.” It’s one thing to make excuses, but it’s quite another to throw members of your own party under a bus driven by the opposition party. It wasn’t as bad as Kevin Spacey coming out as gay just to distract from charges that he tried to sexually assault a minor, but it’s from the same playbook, screwing your own people for the selfish purpose of covering your own ass.
Clinton also subtly perpetrated one of the oldest lies out there, that capitalism and socialism are warring ideologies and one must perish for the other to survive. First, there is a difference between a capitalist, one who participates in a free-market economy, and a Capitalist, a laissez-faire fundamentalist who believes that the free-market is the miracle cure for all our ills. One can be a small-c capitalist and still believe that government programs and regulation can play a legitimate role in managing those markets for the benefit of the people as a whole.
One way to look at it is to buy into the old cliché that the free market is the “engine” of prosperity. Taking that metaphor literally, if a car had nothing but an engine, then it would only go in a straight line until it hit something or someone, probably killing people in the process. So, if capitalism is the engine, then you still need the steering wheel, the throttle, the brakes, the seat belts, the airbags, the bumpers, the crumple zones, and every other part of the car that lets the engine do its job without doing too much damage and hurting too many people.
But just as that car won’t move without its engine, socialist programs can’t do much good without some sort of market economy to drive the system. To put it in the crudest possible terms, if you’re going to redistribute wealth, you need something to create the wealth in the first place. Communism was an attempt to have socialism without capitalism and we all know how well that turned out.
So, I hear the Ayn Rand groupies say, if capitalism is so necessary to create wealth, then leave it alone to create that wealth and let the free market do its thing. Unfortunately, while capitalism is good at creating wealth, it’s not so effective at distributing it for the good of the most people. Despite the cliché that the socialism is all about redistributing wealth, the truth is that all economic systems redistribute wealth. That’s what economies do. Left to its own devices, however, capitalism tends to blindly distribute wealth upwards rather than down or laterally.
Another laissez-faire cliché is that we should let the wealthy keep as much money as possible because the wealthy are the “job creators.” This is also a lie. Putting more money in the hands of people who already have more than they need doesn’t tend to move that wealth back into the economy, but rather into off-shore tax shelters. It doesn’t do the economy much good to give someone another million dollars if that person is still spending the last million we gave them, or the one before that. The other problem with the so-called 1% is that they are only 1% of us. No matter how lavishly they spend, how many mid-engined supercars they buy, the 1% can’t match the economic strength of a healthy middle class.
A confident and secure middle class is the real job creator. They buy in mass quantities, but they also invest and start small businesses and create new jobs directly. To make the economy stronger, you make the middle class stronger. The only way I know to do that is if more poor people ascend out of poverty and into the middle class. And funneling some of that wealth toward the poor can have a far more immediate effect on the economy than a tax break for the wealthy. The 1% might spend an extra billion-dollar tax cut if they feel like it, but history shows that they’re more likely to buy that money a ticket to the Cayman Islands. A poor person will spend an extra $100 or $1,000 because they have to. The middle class will spend some money because they have to, more because they want to, and save the rest to spend later.
Yes, I’ve heard the large-c Capitalists say, but the wealthy invest in businesses, big and small, which also helps to create jobs. True, but if the economic fundamentals are not sound, if the middle class is not confident in its economic security and more of them slip out of the middle class and into poverty, those businesses that the wealthy invest in will have fewer and fewer customers and ultimately prove to be a bad investment. Without a healthy middle class, the wealth of the elite is increasingly built on sand. The 1% seem to have convinced themselves that their wealth exists on a plane above and independent of the economic well-being of the rest of the world, but if we continue on our current course, with the security of the middle class in free-fall, the wealthy will find out the hard way how wrong they are about that. If the bottom falls out of the middle class, it’s a short drop from there to the point where one of your billions will barely be enough to buy a latte at Starbucks.
And don’t get me wrong. As I hinted in the title, I am definitely a small-c capitalist, and a big fan of the free market doing what it does well. But almost nothing or no one, not even the best at something, is equally good at everything.
I am also a big fan of Bruce Springsteen and would pay a hefty chunk of cash to see him play some rock’n’roll music (although maybe not hefty enough to see his current Broadway show). I would not pay a dime, however, to see him be the starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. That is not what he does well at all (anyone who’s seen his music video for “Glory Days” knows what I mean). I doubt he’s very good at brain surgery either.
Capitalism is as good at providing affordable healthcare to the largest number of people, for example, as Bruce Springsteen is at throwing a split-finger fastball.
We tend to view healthcare very incorrectly in this country as just another “sector” of the economy, another industry no different from retail or technology. Anyone who’s ever been in the hospital or had a loved one in the hospital, however, understands that the way we consume healthcare is not market-based at all. If we’re sick or hurt, we go to the doctor, who tells us what’s wrong with us. The doctor then says what must be done and we say, “do it.”
We don’t haggle. We don’t ask for an estimate so we can shop around for a better deal like we might to repair a fender bender. If we or a loved one has cancer, a heart attack, or a fractured skull, we just want the doctors to fix it. No humane society should expect people to worry about what such things will cost. Our survival rate for such ailments should never depend on where we fall on the socio-economic ladder.
I would even go so far as to say that a socialist approach to medicine is good for the capitalist economy, even beyond the simple idea that the economy probably works best if everyone is healthy enough to show up for work. It’s more basic even than that.
One of the most deceptive ads I’ve seen (it was probably for a health insurance company) showed a couple where the wife was pale, thin, bald and wearing a scarf, obviously undergoing chemotherapy. The couple is ready to purchase tickets for a cruise the following year, no doubt as a sign of optimism that she will recover. In the real world, even if she does recover, the couple would be crushed under too much debt to be able to afford that cruise.
Our healthcare system has the effect of “killing” its patients even if they physically survive. If you beat cancer or survive some other major ailment, but you’re so far in debt that every spare dime goes to service that debt as you teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, then you might as well be dead as far the economy is concerned. Sure, the credit card company or the bank earns a profit off you for a while, but that money isn’t going to a new car, new clothes, new gadgets, or a new house. It sure as hell isn’t going toward a Caribbean cruise. And when the couple in the commercial does go bankrupt, then even the banks end up getting screwed by our healthcare system, recovering only a small chunk of the money you had to borrow in order to live.
And if you survive cancer but the bills ruin you financially, chances are the insurance company will drop you and you won’t be able to afford new insurance because, well, you’ve had cancer and you’re bankrupt. If the cancer recurs, you’ll be a sitting duck.
But If that young couple could fight her cancer without worrying about how they might pay for it, without worrying that she might be an uninsured cancer survivor living in her car, then they can come out of the ordeal financially strong and able to contribute to the economy like any other productive citizen. At that point, the scene where they optimistically buy tickets for a cruise will no longer be a lie.
That is not to say that capitalism and the free market don’t play a role in healthcare. Hospitals and doctors still need everything from heart monitors and MRI machines to tongue depressors and those stupid gowns that never close in the back. In a single-payer system, there is still plenty of room for free enterprise to provide all of that and more.
I think the same principle, that a socialist approach is better for capitalism, applies to college education, even beyond the argument that we are just better off as a country if more people, and not fewer, are well educated. If students come out of college saddled with debt, even optimistically assuming they can find a job, how much of their first paychecks will go to service that debt, rather than toward something that contributes to the economy? If the student has to live at home with the parents, drive Mom’s hand-me-down minivan, and wear the same cheap suit to every interview, how much have we, as a society and as an economy, really benefited from that person’s education?
And let’s talk about areas of government where the money doesn’t go directly to individual people, but benefits all of us collectively. Are we not a stronger country if we properly inspect and maintain our bridges and dams, rather than just crossing our fingers and saying “oops” when something goes awry?
When the government uses our tax dollars to provide a collective defense against foreign enemies, is that not just as socialized, if not more so, as any form of single-payer healthcare?
Isn’t a functioning healthcare system, accessible to all, as essential a part of the national infrastructure as roads, bridges, and clean water? Is it any less essential to the security of the country than the national defense?
To wrap things up, when I say “socialism,” I do not mean the highway robbery of our most successful citizens to fund Xboxes and abortions for a bunch of hopeless deadbeats. What I do mean is us as a country, through our democratically-elected government, doing what we can to ensure that the prosperity created by capitalism benefits the largest possible number of people.
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