Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Why You Should Be a Socialist, a Review of the Book by Nathan J. Robinson

            My classes at UMKC are over. It was a challenging semester. A week before Spring Break classes went online. Given that the class I took, Political Ideologies, was a class that relied a great deal on discussion, both the professor and the students had to make considerable adjustments. But we soldiered through. What choice did we have?
            That said, I’ve come across three books that I will be discussing. I’ve read two, and I’m anxiously awaiting the third, which is due out in June. That book is on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and given that the country has embarked on a course that will require reliance on MMT, I would really like to understand it. I hope I’m up to the challenge.
            The first book I’m going to discuss is Why You Should Be a Socialist by Nathan J. Robinson, which was published in late 2019. I read a review of this book somewhere and was able to get it from the library before the stay-at-home order went into effect.
            Robinson is editor-in-chief of Current Affairs, a magazine he started in 2015 and with which I am not familiar. He was born in 1988 and has a Ph.D. from Harvard, an M.A. from Brandeis, and a J.D. from Yale.
            He writes exceptionally well and knows when to mix pathos with self-deprecating humor at least in the early part of the book. He describes the growing inequality in this country, in one example contrasting a home featured in The Wall Street Journal’s “Mansion” section in its Friday editions as having four kitchens, one of which has a loading dock for catering trucks, two garages—a two-car one for the owner and a 30-car guest garage, and, well, you get the idea, with GoFundMe appeals for help paying medical expenses and an injured woman who begged responders not to call an ambulance because she couldn’t afford one. These observations, not reading Marx, he says, are what led him to socialism.
            He attacks the arguments in favor of the status quo, pointing out people are not rewarded according to their productivity, the rich do not “deserve” their riches because they were given to them through voluntary transactions, those who do not succeed do not do so because they “didn’t try hard enough,” and that those who succeed do not prove that anyone can any more than, as Henry George pointed out, every competitor can win a race.
            He attacks neoliberalism, pointing out it is neither new nor liberal. He says it is the privatization of everything including education and fire departments (pointing out during the 2017 California wildfires, some people had paid for special policies so their homes could be coated in fire retardant, and only those houses were). It is also the commodification of everything—for example, the University of Akron eliminated most of its history department in favor of… e-sports, since they were more in demand, prisoners are placed in rehab “programs” which are little more than slave labor, children are placed in for-profit juvenile detention centers for offenses that might be as trivial as creating satirical MySpace pages, etc. He then takes on corporations, which he describes as “an army of psychopathic androids.”
            By the time he gets to socialism, he points out there is a difference between a socialist ethic and a socialist economy. The former is an anger at the systematic destructiveness and injustice of capitalism, while the latter is a rearrangement of the way goods are produced and distributed. He writes that the New Deal “was a series of improvisations in response to specific problems that were stalling economic development… there was no master plan, many ideas failed, and some were ended after a period of experimentation.” Some, as we know, still exist and are taken for granted. He recommends that we take a similar approach today and solve problems without worrying too much about whether those solutions fit the definition of socialist, saying it doesn’t matter if it’s socialism. It matters that it helps create something closer to an equitable society.
            He reminds us that socialist experiments have been successful in this country, including a series of mayors in Milwaukee, where socialism was so popular that even that crusading demagogue and Wisconsin Senator, Joe McCarthy, didn’t dare criticize the mayors.
            Robinson points out how absurd some conservative arguments are, including if people do not work for their money they will become lazy and dependent, to which he gives the example of Dan Bilzerian, who inherited money and spends his life posting Instagram photos of his driving expensive cars, dating porn stars, etc. He devotes a chapter titled “Mean, False, and Hopeless” to refuting such arguments while pointing out that the conservative movement began following the 1971 advice of future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell, who wrote that the right should install conservative professors in classrooms, turn out a stream of books, press vigorously for support of the free enterprise system and penalize politically all who oppose it. Accordingly, a network of think tanks, legal organizations, and lobbying groups (and even educational institutions) now exist to support the conservative view.
            Robinson saves most of his vitriol for liberals in a chapter titled “Polishing Turds.” He is extremely hard on Obama, who brought many Republicans and former Goldman Sachs employees into his administration naively thinking bipartisanship was possible. He tells of Obama deputy chief of staff Jim Messina who was shocked when a Republican staffer told him after the 2008 election, “We’re not going to compromise with you on anything. We’re going to fight Obama on everything.” When Messina pointed out that’s not what Democrats did for Bush, the staffer replied. “We don’t care.” He’s also tough on Bill Clinton.
            As many of you know, I’ve long considered Bill Clinton a closet Republican, and while I admire Barak Obama, as a review of Reed Hundt’s A Crisis Wasted in the April 20/27 The Nation says, he let his Republican appointees steamroll him into a bailout of the financial industry that left homeowners without any relief. Ten million families were forced out of their homes. I strongly believe the resentment caused by this socialism for the rich and cutthroat capitalism for everyone else is a major reason we now have an orange buffoon in the White House.
            Memo to Joe Biden: If you win the election, remember one thing—you can’t be bipartisan unilaterally. Learn from Moscow Mitch and remember Merrick Garland.
            Both Robinson and Max Skidmore, whose book I’ll discuss next, advocate a greater role for the Post Office including providing banking services, which would give underserved Americans access to checking accounts without the high fees associated with low balances. This is not a new idea. The Post Office offered banking services between 1911 and 1967.
            Several stimulus proposals have included funds to shore up the USPS, but Trump said he won’t sign off on any relief for the USPS unless is raises its prices for package shipment. He says prices should be “four or five times” more than they are. I found it strange that the president would want to raise prices for package shipment, but the rationale became a bit clearer when I read an opinion piece by Gary MacDougal in the May 6 edition of The Wall Street Journal. Mr. MacDougal advocates phasing out, not bailing out the Postal Service. Mr. MacDougal is a director of UPS. No conflict of interest there. Nope. None at all. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.
            So why does Trump want to make it more expensive for us to ship Christmas packages to Grandma? He wants to get back at Jeff Bezos, who is a verifiable billionaire (as opposed to Trump whose claims to billionaire status have never been substantiated) and who owns The Washington Post, which is one of Trump’s many critics. What Trump evidently fails to comprehend is if Amazon’s costs go up, Amazon will pass these costs along. Or, to paraphrase the late unlamented Al Capp, what’s bad for General Amazon is bad for the USA.
            Robinson has chapters on how to respond to criticisms of socialism and how to get things done. He warns that every time “a socialist opens her mouth, the first thing you’ll hear in reply is ‘Venezuela.’” He points out that Venezuela is a right-wing bourgeois kleptocracy posing as a socialist government. We don’t have to go too far in history to see similar misnomers. Nazis claimed to be national socialists and could not have been more right-wing. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a totalitarian autocracy. The German Democratic Republic was neither. He describes himself as a libertarian socialist, which is never fully defined, but as I mentioned above, he suggests we not be too concerned about ideologies when implementing solutions.
            Fortunately, that seems to be the approach both parties are taking during this crisis—so far.
            The book has many interesting ideas including a guaranteed income or a universal basic income and Medicare for All. Given the current crisis, when many jobs are not coming back (and, frankly many companies are not letting the crisis go to waste and are using it as an opportunity to eliminate higher paid and older staff, leaving these former employees high and dry and without health insurance), how obvious does the need for universal health care and some sort of income guarantee have to be before Congress does something about it? Just last week Harvesters handed out 8,000 boxes of food at Kaufman Stadium. This crisis is too big to hide.
            The libraries should be open again soon. I’d suggest you check the book out and read it with an open mind.     

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