Why the New Socialism is Not Going Away

We are fewer than ten days removed from the 2018 midterm elections, but it would be easy for old guard U.S. liberals to conclude that they are on a path to containing, co-opting and neutralizing the new socialist movement that has taken shape rapidly since the global financial crisis convulsed our economy and our politics a decade ago. Much of that movement consists of young people who were traumatized and embittered by the economic hardships and stagnation of the Great Recession. For them, the recession came as a broken promise and generational betrayal. But as the economy improves, at least for one half of the population, some of the dissident energy mobilized by the economic crisis may dissipate. As these young adults continue to move into better paying jobs, gradually lessen their heavy education debt loads, and form more traditional households, the desire for radical change may abate.

Also, the term “socialism” has been bandied about in confusing and inconsistent ways. For some of the new self-identified socialists, it is hard to detect much difference between their ostensibly new socialist views and earlier forms of liberalism or progressivism, although perhaps the new variants are being pushed with a more strident and demanding enthusiasm. So, liberals might conclude that the socialist wave can be safely absorbed into previously existing, mildly reformist tendencies in the liberal capitalist tradition. Already, aspiring candidates are probing the political zeitgeist and lining up for the Democratic nomination in 2020, and the main contenders so far don’t look much different from the party regulars of the past. The election industry in double-party America tends to exert a pulverizing, flattening pressure on activism and is deadly to radical ideas, so if people are shifting their political focus from grass roots activism to party politics and elections, socialist radicalism might well be tamed.

So, is the new socialism expiring before it has even entered its prime?  I think not.

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Bernie’s Amorphous Axis

Bernie Sanders has a new article in The Guardian that presents his vision of an “international progressive movement that mobilizes behind a vision of shared prosperity, security and dignity for all people, and that addresses the massive global inequality that exists, not only in wealth but in political power.” The piece is followed by an appreciative concurring comment written by Yanis Varoufakis.

There are some fine, and even inspiring, thoughts in this piece, but I personally found it muddled and dispiriting. It reads, in part, as a determined effort by Sanders to unite the fractious U.S. Democratic Party he seeks to lead by building some new crusading left-liberal global policy consensus around the confused notion of an “axis of authoritarianism.”

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Nationalize (and then Internationalize) Facebook

Facebook now connects over two billion of the world’s people. They use it to share and promote their ideas among a potentially unlimited audience, keep up with the lives of their geographically dispersed families and old friends, make new friends and acquaintances, build small businesses, learn about people and parts of the world far from home, and organize political and social movements.

A network that connects that many of the world’s people is too powerful to be run as a private business, too necessary to be turned off, and too diverse and global to be regulated by one country alone.  Facebook should be nationalized by the US government – and then quickly internationalized as a global, non-commercial utility.

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A Real World Democratic Socialism


Washington Post opinion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig recently offered a philosophically rich and polemically unapologetic defense of socialism in a debate at LibertyCon, a conference in Washington D.C. for young libertarians. She followed up on her debate contribution a few days later with a column in the Post entitled “It’s time to give socialism a try.” I find myself in warm sympathy with much of Bruenig’s argument, and with her wise concerns about some of the pernicious features of our current economic institutions and practices. But a few aspects of her critique of contemporary capitalism give me pause. Some of the problems Bruenig identifies, it seems to me, are problems endemic to complex, modern economic life as such, problems that might therefore be inherent in any economic system that modern humans are likely to find acceptable. These are then problems that no politically realistic socialism can promise to fix.

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My Piketty Series Resurfaces

Back in April through June of 2014, I did a lot of research on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and wrote a series of twenty blog posts for my old blog, Rugged Egalitarianism, specifically dealing with the arguments of that book. Last year I exported all of the contents of that blog for future use – and then deleted the blog, and forgot about it.

But the Piketty-related posts were fairly well-received. So I have now imported those old posts to this, my new blog, along with a handful of other economics and economic policy posts. Now that Harvard University Press has published a new anthology, After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, I expect that I will be returning to my previous work and offering new thoughts on the recent directions the discussion of Piketty’s book has taken.

I had to go through each of the posts individually to repair the internal links. I hope I fixed them all, but if the reader finds a link that is still broken, please let me know. You can find the posts in the blog roll below, but here is a handy list of links to all of the posts in the Piketty series, listed from earliest to last:

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Welcome to by new blog! I hope you find something worth reading here.

First, a word on the name of the blog: Samma vaca (pronounced something like sum-muh vah-chah) is right speech in the Buddhist tradition. It is the third of the eight factors in the Noble Eightfold Path, the most well-known canonical summary of Buddhist practice.

The aim of this blog will be left somewhat open-ended, and I expect it will include discussions of most of my sundry and scattered intellectual interests, both scholarly and amateur. These include most fields of philosophy, but especially the philosophy of David Hume, which is my main area of scholarly specialization. I also have an abiding love of, and fascination with, the plays of William Shakespeare and their interpretation.

But I will also spend much time thinking through contemporary issues in the political, cultural, ethical or economic sphere. In doing so, I will strive to avoid pointless controversy and discord. I used to blog quite a bit on politics and economic policy, but no longer value or enjoy the sharp, snarky and hostile style of discourse that tends to prevail in the internet public sphere. Our contemporary world is pervaded by verbal, artistic and physical violence, which in my view has contributed to a growing sense of futility and absurdity in our social life, and to a degenerative cycle of increasing stupidity and nihilism. So I will do my best to to adhere to the ideal of samma vaca, right speech, and to foster clarity, peace and concord in my writing, even when dealing with issues about which there are important disagreements.

One among the several places in the ancient Pali Canon where right speech is discussed is the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya. The following translation, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, can be found at the Access to Insight website:

“And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action?

“There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.

“Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.

“Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large.

“Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal.

“This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.”

— AN 10.176

Socialized ≠ Free

Some economic systems are fully or partially socialized, even in America. For example, our education system is partially socialized. In other countries, education is even more thoroughly socialized. What does that mean?

One thing it doesn’t mean is that the education is free. Public education isn’t free. The teachers, administrators and staff at schools are not providing their services pro bono. They are paid for what they do. But they are paid by some body of the public at large, rather than the individual student/customer who seeks the education that is provided. And correspondingly, the amount of education the student is entitled to access is based on something other than the ability to pay. That’s what it means to have socialized education.

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A Neo-Socialist Look at Taxation

There is an important debate going on about just how progressive a tax system has to be in order to serve progressive political ends. The debate was instigated by Edward Kleinbard, writing in the New York Times. Kleinbard argues that we should avoid steep increases in taxes on the rich in favor of “boosting revenue over all,” on the grounds that the American tax system is already the most progressive in the world, and that in any case we should focus on the progressivity of the entire fiscal system, not just the taxation side of that system. Some of the more interesting critical discussions of Kleinbard have been produced by Mike Konczal, Steve Waldmann and Matt Bruenig.

From my vantage point, building a bit on the neo-socialist approach I sketched in my previous post, tax policy should be informed by ambitious egalitarian goals. Contrary to Kleinbard, I believe we do need to tax the rich much more heavily. But the primary point of these taxes is not to finance the spending side of the nation’s fiscal program. Here are the two key points I think need to be made:

The best reason to tax the very rich heavily is, initially, to make them less rich.

The best subsequent reason to tax riches heavily is to prevent people from becoming very rich again.

The long-term goal of neo-socialist political economy is to build a more equal and a more democratic society, a society in which we have done everything we realistically can to level the vast differences in income, wealth, social status, education, political power, cultural participation and human dignity that currently prevail in the United States. Toppling the looming citadels of concentrated private wealth will help to advance democracy, broad prosperity and justice. That’s a good enough reason to do it, all issues of public revenues aside.
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Capitalism and Socialism in America

Here is a fact: every country in the developed world possesses an economy that combines capitalist and socialist forms of organization. It seems to me that this fact is something that used to be more widely understood and accepted. The economies of the mid-to-late 20th century emerged from long processes of contentious struggle between classical liberal, socialist and traditionalist ideas, and had all arrived at different combinations of those various elements. We used to call these economies “mixed economies”, and almost all educated people understood that we all lived in such economies. We debated which ones were better than others: which produced more prosperity, or more happiness, or more justice.

People disagreed, frequently intensely, but often understood at the same time that these disagreements were mostly practical disagreements about getting the right mix, and that the pure textbook forms of capitalism, socialism, communism, or whatnotism were abstract, purifying ideals that each left out various important aspects of human nature, and were thus too high for humanity.

Most people who pushed in a socialist direction understood that you can’t plan everything all the way down to the smallest pizza shop, and that you shouldn’t eliminate all of the confidence, personal pride and creativity that come from accepting some measure of individual control over private property. Most people who pushed in a capitalist direction didn’t really want private firms running all the law courts, militaries, schools, parks and highways, and recognized that a civilized and harmonious human society shouldn’t be based on the bestial norms of wilderness competition, with its cruel, Sisyphean struggles for dominance and survival. And most traditionalists understood that the kingdom of heaven is not of this earth.

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Cooper on r > g and the Return to Capital

George Cooper continues to have doubts about Thomas Piketty’s famous inequality r > g, which says that the rate of return to capital is greater than the rate of growth of national income. Cooper raises those doubts in connection with a recent post of mine in which I attempted to dispel some of the confusion surrounding Piketty’s inequality by making it clear that the rate of return to capital is not any kind of growth rate. But Cooper doesn’t raise any serious objections to Piketty’s inequality, at least so far as I can tell. In fact, Piketty’s inequality ought to be regarded as among the least controversial points Piketty makes in Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The thought experiment I introduced was designed to clarify certain fundamental points about the conceptual relationship between wealth, income, the rates at which wealth and income grow, and the rate at which the ownership of capital is rewarded by income. Without going back over the whole thought experiment, let me summarize what I take to be the essential takeaway points:

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