Socialism (and why I buy into it)

May 19, 2009 at 9:07 am (Economy, Health Care, Politics) (, , , , , )

I’ve been thinking a lot about politics (in a sort of vague and non-specific way) over the past few days.  One conclusion that I’ve come to as a result of all of this is that I unabashedly believe that government involvement is often the best thing for certain types of things in this country – at least as it exists today.  I wouldn’t call myself a statist, because I don’t believe that government should be huge and controlling for any reason at all.  What I am, ultimately, is a socialist.  I really believe that when it comes to protecting and promoting society’s interests, the government is our best bet.

I probably ought to explain this further (since that’s kind of a loaded statement these days), so here goes.  I have no illusions that the government in the United States is perfect – it’s not.  It makes mistakes, and it runs things badly at times.  But I think that someone would be hard pressed to find a large entity of any sort that isn’t like that.  Bureaucracies are run by humans, and humans are fallible – the goal is to make them as good as possible, but it is impossible to make them perfect.

So the question becomes not, do I want bureaucracy?  Rather, it becomes, which bureaucracy do I want to have control over the most important parts of my life?  It’s rather pointless to argue about whether or not we need bureaucracy in today’s world, because the fact that it’s impossible to go through even half a day without coming into contact with one speaks to the fact that it is necessary.  Our society is too large and too complex to survive without the rules and regulations that make up bureaucratic red tape.  It is frequently annoying, and sometimes unfair, but I don’t think any other system would be an improvement.

So what bureaucracy do I want to control things like the military, or health care, or my money?  Corporations of a size large enough to manage any of that have the same flaws as the government.  But on top of that, they also have profit as their primary motivation, and they are accountable to nobody but their shareholders.  The government, on the other hand, takes profit entirely out of the picture, and it is accountable to everyone who actually votes.

There are certainly government employees who are not elected or appointed, but most of those report directly or indirectly to somebody who is.  Again, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a lot better than a corporation who doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks as long as its major shareholders are happy and it continues to turn a profit.

One of the most common arguments against a government considered to be socialist is that it redistributes wealth.  Perhaps this may sound a bit flip, but I don’t really see why that’s a bad thing.  Sure, wealthy people earned their money (or someone up the family tree a ways did).  I don’t begrudge them that.  What I begrudge them is the disproportionate amount of power they have in our system.  If they are going to have that much power to influence policy and other things, they really ought to be paying a heck of a lot more into it.  On top of that, they are the ones who benefit most from things like public schools, or the military, or infrastructer.  It is only fair that they should pay a larger share of the cost, since they are getting a larger share of the benefits.

I also think that ultimately, the whole argument boils down to a distinction between what is fair and what is equal.  Those two words don’t mean anywhere close to the same thing.  An equal tax structure would have everyone paying the same percentage of their income; a fair one is graduated so that the people earning the most pay the highest percentage.  The reason why the latter is more fair than the former is that someone who is living paycheck to paycheck spends all or most of their income on necessities; someone who is wealthy doesn’t even spend their entire income.  So taxing everyone at, say, 20% means that the poorest won’t be able to afford all their necessities, and the wealthiest will simply have more money (that they don’t need) to save.

In addition, an equal society wouldn’t be good for other reasons.  In a fair society, everyone would get the same chance at a good education; in an equal society, everyone would need to get exactly the same education.  That basically means that the least capable and the most capable lose out, and everyone gets a sort of middling education.  When it comes to higher education, it is fair to say that everyone who meets certain standards can go if they want (regardless of considerations like class or race); equal would mean they have to accept anyone who applies, even if they fall short of the standards that would allow them to succeed.

Aside from all of that, cutting the poorest (and even the middle class) a break is good for our economy and our society as a whole.  Putting most of the burden of taxation on the non-wealthy means they have less ability to consume (which is necessary for the health of the economy), and it makes it extremely difficult or impossible for anyone to actually have upward mobility.  I don’t think that it fits in very well with our ideology as a country to have solid, stratified classes that have little to no movement between them.  And I also don’t think that even the most opulent spending by the wealthiest Americans could possibly make up for the lack of normal spending by everyone else.

So basically, I am all in favor of a little bit of wealth distribution, and I fully support the idea that the US government should take control of those institutions which are most important to all of us.  I know it may seem easy for me to say I’m in favor of wealth distribution now (when I earn relatively little), but I don’t object to paying taxes.  As long as I have enough money left for me, and the government is being responsible with the money I handed over, I think taxes are a good thing (so phooey on everyone who criticized Joe Biden for saying that paying taxes is patriotic – it is).

And since I can’t figure out how to make this post shorter, congratulations to anyone who actually reads the whole thing!

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*wades back into politics*

May 8, 2009 at 10:52 am (Economy, Politics) (, , , , , , , , )

Okay, I’ve kind of been ignoring the news just lately (which is part of the reason I haven’t been posting).  It’s very hard to read news about financial ruin when your own personal financial situation isn’t especially secure.

However, I think I can stomach it for now, and it’s good to stay informed when possible.

So, how about that stress test?  I will freely admit that I didn’t read the second half of the article, because at some point, financial news makes my eyes cross (and that’s even when the financial news isn’t bad or worrisome).  But I did read Paul Krugman today.  He is, as usual, being a little bit doom-and-gloom, but at least he’s easier to read.

What I find interesting on this topic is that the stress test itself, as Krugman says, tells us very little (and certainly not much that’s actually reassuring).  Where I don’t agree with Krugman is why President Obama is approaching the situation in just this way.  Krugman seems to think that any incentive for changing the financial landscape is fading, and that the Obama Administration is mostly just deciding not to be dramatic here.

But seriously, Obama is Machiavellian.  He is incredibly smart, and able to use that to manipulate situations to fit his desires and goals.  I actually think there’s a very good possibility that he’s going to let all of the banks have a fair shot at getting out of this pickle without major changes precisely because he thinks they won’t be able to do it.  They’ve got less than a month to tell the government how they’re going to raise the extra capital needed to pass the stress test.  So what happens if some or all of them can’t figure out how to do it?  Obama can swoop in and say the government needs to make sweeping changes, because we gave the banks a chance and they couldn’t come up with a solution.

If people complain at that point, Obama can argue that he gave the banks a very fair shot – the estimate of their shortfall in capital was extremely, generously in their favor.  So if they couldn’t even come up with that, then how could they possibly weather the more serious shortfall that many people think is likely?

I hope that’s what he’s doing, anyway.  Otherwise, Paul Krugman’s gloomy outlook is probably right.  I’m just going to hold on to my hope that Obama is smart enough to use momentum he gets for free…but that he’s also charismatic enough to create his own momentum when he needs it.

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Urban Sprawl and the Stimulus

March 24, 2009 at 7:40 am (Economy, Politics) (, , , , )

There’s an article in the New York Times about Urban Sprawl in Houston that caught my eye yesterday.  Basically, Texas intends to use some of its spending money for a toll road that would connect I-10 with HW-290.  It would end up being out in west Houston where there’s at least one developer who wants to build a new planned community, and it would cut right through some of the Katy Prairie that is currently not developed.

What’s interesting about it is that Obama has said, explicitly, that he doesn’t support urban sprawl, and doesn’t want states to use their stimulus money that way.  Texas is not alone in doing this – I think the article mentioned that New Hampshire, Washington, and North Carolina are also trying to expand freeway networks which would tend to encourage the growth of cities.

It’s an interesting topic, I think.  On the one hand, urban sprawl certainly has a lot of downsides.  Huge cities can be rather unwieldy for those who live in them.  They undoubtedly contribute to pollution because people tend to rely so heavily on cars.  They do eat up the land around them.

But on the other hand, not every large city is the same.  Not every region has the same kinds of issues.  And, dare I say it – I don’t think urban sprawl is always as bad as its made out to be.  Uncontrolled sprawl isn’t a good thing at all, but I don’t think that every city in the country needs to be as dense as those in the Northeast.  And, of course, some of those cities have the worst of both worlds – sprawl and density.

When I think about the way that I tended to live when I was in Houston, it’s not at all the way that people who have never lived there might expect.  There were huge chunks of the city that I never visited in the 22 years I lived there.  Nearly everything I did was within a much narrower radius around my house.  If I had to spend more than 30 minutes driving to get somewhere, I often decided it wasn’t worth it.

And I think that’s part of what can make a city like Houston work.  There isn’t one city center – the Galleria or the Medical Center are just as much population centers as Downtown.  They have their own radii of jobs, housing, and businesses that are really rather separate from each other.  With a more extensive and creative use of reliable public transportation, it could be possible to do most things within one of those centers without a car.  Instead of a network of just freeways connecting these various centers, the city could add high-speed trains to get from one to another.

That said, I don’t think that Houston should just keep expanding outward indefinitely.  As much as I personally love the single family home with a big yard, I think people who live in cities have to come to terms with the fact that they can’t all live in a place like that.  At the very least, everyone ought to scale down their expectations of what a single family detached home can reasonably look like in a big city…and McMansions aren’t really it.

But, I also think that this proposed toll road in Houston is not the best use of the city’s stimulus money.  It seems like a much better use of it would be to figure out how to increase public transportation options for commuters.  Instead of pouring money into more freeways, which only encourages more driving, it would be much smarter to try and find a means of public transportation that people out in the suburbs are actually willing to use.  It might not ever be quite as convenient as driving, but surely there are other incentives for leaving the car on the outskirts of the city.  If people would just open their minds a little bit, they might even see that those incentives are pretty darn good.

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