Is Bernie Sanders a Democratic Socialist or a Social Democrat? What is social democracy? How democratic socialists, a CEO gifting a car and universal healthcare are connected
(08-02-2018) This happened a few weeks ago, when I was knee-deep in a new-blog-building bog. I believe it’s still relevant, though. A young black man was going to start a new job the next day when his car broke down in the evening. Not wanting to be late to work, and living 20 miles from his new job, he calculated that he had to start walking at midnight, which he did. In the early morning some police gave him a ride, some others took over, his new (white) boss heard about it and was so impressed with the young man’s determination to get to work on time that he gave him his own car. What looks like a pretty new Ford Escape. On video, so it immediately went viral. How cute is that?
Right now the media are abuzz with ‘socialism‘ and ‘democratic socialists‘. Bernie Sanders calls himself a Democratic Socialist. The headlines are full of the term: The Hyperbole of Socialism! Obama’s Welfare Socialism! Why Calling Obamacare Socialism Makes No Sense! … I’m pretty sure neither side means what they think they mean. Of course nobody wants socialism. Nobody wants a socialist economy like Venezuela or Cuba or the Soviet Union. Socialism is a form of government and economics in which all forms of making money — manufacturing, the service sector, everything — are owned and run by the government. The original idea was that factories would be run by the people who work in the factories. In reality ‘the people’ became a totalitarian government. In every case. And economically socialism doesn’t work either, as witnessed by the above-mentioned countries.
When Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez call themselves democratic socialists, technically they’re talking nonsense. A democratic socialist is an oxymoron–there’s no such person. So this needs to be established very clearly off the bat: when American politicians talk about socialism as a possibility for America, they’re not talking about actual socialism, they’re talking about what everyone else simply considers common sense social democracy. These folks don’t want the government to take over your business, nor do they want to run a totalitarian government. They aren’t democratic socialists, they are social democrats. They want what most Western-European countries have, to varying degrees: an economy that is based solidly in capitalism, combined with a government that keeps the downsides of capitalism in check, so that it works for everyone. Because pure capitalism leads to societal dysfunction, just as pure socialism and communism do. Western Europe is not socialist–the EU countries are social democracies.
Bernie Sanders’ social-democratic idea that pure capitalism doesn’t work is backed by an abundance of evidence. You are it. It’s called America.
I’ll use healthcare as an example to explain this so-called democratic socialism. You go to the doctor and he says: “Yes, I have some bad news for you, you have cancer; I’m so sorry. And that will be $500 for this visit, please and thank you.” Well, usually he has put a psychological barrier between himself and payments by leaving that up to his big office staff. Still, this is how it works in America–this is normal. And if you have cancer, this is just the beginning. For any non-affluent American family, if someone gets cancer and needs treatment, they have to make drastic life changes. Middle-class folks who own a home have to take a second mortgage or sell, move to an apartment, maybe in a cheaper part of town. Moving to a different part of town means the kids have to change schools. (To worse public schools, because in America the quality of public school depends on the income level of the area it’s in.) For families that don’t own homes it can even end up in homelessness. Even if you have health insurance, it might pay 60%, or if you have really good insurance it might pay 80% of your costs. But what if, from the diagnosis to possible operations to chemotherapy or other treatments and medicines, all in all you’re billed $500,000? The 80% doesn’t look so great anymore when you have to cough up $100,000. In America this is normal. And again, this is if you can afford ‘good’ insurance.
[I don’t know what we as a family pay, because I don’t want to know. I just went online and googled health insurance companies in Texas. The first company I came across had several plans. The very best plan included: hospital stays $2,000/day up to $100,000 a year; doctor’s office visits $100 each, up to 4 a year; Intensive Care Unit $2,000/day up to $100,000 a year; ER visits $500 each, up to 2/year; and an average 46% savings on meds. For my readers outside America, to put these numbers into perspective, first of all they don’t include the deductible (eigen risico for Dutch readers). I do know that ours is $500.- per family member. The last time I went to the emergency room, I had an earache. The doctor looked in my ear, walked away, came back 30 seconds later, gave me a free sample bottle of ear drops he had gotten from a pharmaceutical rep, and I was on my way again. Later I got a bill for $1,000. Also, in America doctors aren’t available in the evenings or on weekends, so for anything you need during those hours you have no choice but to go to the emergency room or a private equivalent which is less expensive but apparently not covered. So $500.- for two ER visits for a family of four is a joke. Everyone needs at least one annual checkup with the doctor, so that takes care of the four doctor’s office visits, which cost more than $75. This plan would cost us, a non-smoking family of four $1639. – a month. Their cheapest option was 145.- a month. It offered: hospital stays $200/day up to $7000; doctor’s office visits $75 up to 3 per year. That’s it. And again, this doesn’t include the deductibles. It’s simple math that you might as well put $145.- aside every month in a healthcare pot. You’d be better off.]
A social democracy doesn’t allow pure capitalism to rule the healthcare system. Healthcare deals with people’s health, with life and death, which shouldn’t be for sale, only available to those who can pay. In Western Europe that’s considered unethical. distasteful. Hospitals, for instance, aren’t for-profit institutes. In social democracies getting cancer is bad enough–it doesn’t affect your pocketbook. In a social democracy everyone can afford health insurance and the insurance covers everything or close to everything 100%. If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because you’ve been told it’s too good to be true by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the like.
To let healthcare be purely driven by capitalism is also considered unethical because it’s the one product where the consumer has no choice. In America the medical world has you over a barrel. You can either pay through the nose for the cancer treatment, or the medicine, or the operation, or what-have-you, or die. Those are your choices. So they can charge whatever they want. The demand is always there, so there’s no limit to what the folks on the supply end can ask. It also means the rich have better access to healthcare than the poor. This isn’t considered fair in a social democracy. Also, if healthcare is driven by capitalism, the supplier will want to get as much money for a product that he has put as little possible money into producing, so his profit is as big as possible. You don’t want to rely on that system when people’s lives are at stake. According to everyone in social democracies.
Back to the high cost of American healthcare. Sure, American hospitals have explanations for their high bills. They charge ridiculous amounts for a visit because they have to pay ridiculously high prices for medical equipment and supplies and the huge staff needed for all the health insurance paperwork. The medicines are so ridiculously expensive because the research that went into creating them cost so much up front, and Europe is not paying its share. To top it all off: all of the above is why health insurance is also ridiculously expensive and why it can’t cover everything, or even almost anything in many cases.
However, none of this explains the billions of dollars the pharmaceutical companies spend each year on ads and commercials, and the other billions they spend on pharmaceutical reps who go from doctor to doctor promoting their stuff, wining and dining them, no expenses spared. They’re even offered cruises if they’ll only prescribe this particular brand of medicine to their patients instead of the other. That doesn’t exactly scream flat-broke pharmaceutical world to me. And it doesn’t explain why health insurance company CEOs make more than $20 million a year. And why are medical instruments, equipment and supplies so expensive? Could it be at least in part to compensate for the ridiculously high incomes of medical device company CEOs? The high cost of healthcare doesn’t explain the millions of dollars the medical world forks over on an annual basis to lobbyists who in turn pay the politicians to sabotage any progress toward a more affordable healthcare system, a system which would reduce all those costs that each sector of the healthcare system says force them to charge so much.
Not all medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs happen in America, by the way. To those who get the impression that America carries the burden of all the pharmaceutical research of the world this may come as news, but the Nobel prizes are handed out annually. All those years that you don’t see on the news that an American team got the Nobel Prize for Medicine, that’s when a team somewhere else got it. Somehow pharmaceutical companies in Europe do just fine as well. Take Novo Nordisk, headquartered in the very socially democratic country of Denmark.
So one reason universal healthcare works in a social democracy, the reason the monthly payments are so incredibly low (literally) to American standards and that the insurance companies pretty much have to pay 100% of everything, is that, yes, the government steps in. It sets limits on the costs of healthcare and everything related to it. For you, the consumer of said healthcare. I don’t know the particulars of how it works in each country. In the Netherlands the government, the public and private sectors and their unions get together and negotiate reasonable caps for prices for pharmaceuticals, medical instruments, band-aids and gauze, and a 15-minute visit with a specialist. No, the government doesn’t actually get down into the nitty gritty to that degree, but they do set limits. And all the hospital CEOs, pharmaceutical company CEOs, medical supply company CEOs and health insurance company CEOs still make a bundle. Just not at the expense of others.
Having universal healthcare is only socialist if you consider having a birthday pot at your office socialist. If you have such a thing. Most workplaces in the Netherlands have a fund that everyone contributes a small set amount to every month. Whoever has a birthday at any given time gets birthday pastries. It’s voluntary, but everyone participates, because why be a dick about it? Sure, if you start paying into the monthly pot in January and your birthday is in December, you see a whole lot of people get delicious pastries that you have paid toward, but eventually you get the pastries as well. Besides, whoever gets the pastries shares them with all their colleagues, so everyone has lots of pastries each month anyway. Many more pastries than they paid for.
That’s part of how universal healthcare works. Everyone pays a relatively small amount each month, knowing that everyone needs healthcare sooner or later. Since everybody pays each month and not everyone is sick at the same time, there is always enough money in the pot to pay for whoever needs it at any given moment. And yes, if you’re young and healthy and never sick, if you’re clairvoyant and know that will never even have appendicitis or a broken leg, for a while your money will go toward paying for others who need it at that moment. But sooner or later you will need it, too. Suddenly you’re in your forties or fifties and lo and behold, despite your healthy lifestyle you have a rare form of cancer. Or all that boot-camp fitness has worn out your knees and now you need physical therapy, or a knee replacement. When that time comes, instead of having to take out a second mortgage on your house — if you have a house — you can get your problems taken care of without paying a dime more than the same old small monthly amount. Financially nothing changes in your life, because the big communal pot has your back, just like your tiny portion of the pot helped millions of others before you needed help yourself.
In a social democracy folks can stay home when they’re sick because they have paid sick leave for as long as their illness lasts. So they aren’t forced to go to work sick, thus getting everyone else sick as well. Such a society is healthier, and a healthy society is a happy society. Sound corny? It’s still true. The Netherlands and other Western-European countries have universal healthcare; paid sick leave for the duration of an illness; long, paid vacations; and they have a mandatory retirement age which everyone wants because nobody needs to keep earning money after they’re 65. They’ve saved up and paid into the various pots and now they get to sit back and relax. Despite having much more vacation and other days off, as well as sick leave and parental leave, Dutch productivity rivals that of America, where everyone is overworked, popping Dayquil to get through the day when you have the flu, and drinking Monster drinks to stay awake because you stayed late at the office the night before, or because you need two jobs to make ends meet. And after all that you’re lucky if you can take one two-week vacation a year. Am I right?
Also, if money doesn’t factor into going to the doctor, people don’t put it off, so more serious illnesses can be prevented or stopped on time, saving the communal pot money in the long run. And if all you folks who are not insured right now, either because you can’t afford hundreds of dollars per month for insurance that pays as little as the company can get away with, or because you simply don’t think you need health insurance because you’re not sick — if all of you folks also contribute to the pot with payments you can easily afford, the costs are spread even more, meaning everyone’s personal contribution goes down.
More pastries for everyone! Nobody’s business gets taken over by the government. Because it’s not socialism. It’s merely acknowledging that living in a society means that you take care of one another, that that benefits everyone in the long run, that sooner or later you will be the one being taken care of, so you always get back what you put in and then some. And then much more, even. Consider the absence of financial stress. In a social democracy healthcare and money have nothing to do with each other in people’s minds. Whether you’re healthy or sick, that doesn’t affect your finances. You don’t have to worry whether you’ve saved enough for old age, with all its healthcare costs, because that’s taken care of. Rather than getting more stressed as you get older, worrying about money, by the time you’re 65, you get to retire. Okay, the Netherlands has an aging population, so at the moment everyone retires at 67 there. But that’s still not bad. Because I do mean everyone. Whether you’re a ditch digger or a lawyer, at 67 you retire.
So, what on earth does this have to do with Walter Carr getting a new car from his boss because he walked 20 miles to work? Everything!
Like I mentioned, I just used universal healthcare as an example to show how a social democracy works. It works that way for everything. People know that some of their taxes will go toward public transportation, even if they never use it. However, it is a good alternative for many folks, for all sorts of reasons. If you have a business and your employee can’t be at work on time because his car broke down and there is no public transportation, his company won’t perform at its best that day, and that will hurt him in the long run. So it’s in this business owner’s interest to have a good public transportation system, even if he never uses it himself.
The same goes for education, to name another example. Only one of my kids has gone to public school, and only for three years, but I will happily continue to pay taxes that go toward public education for the rest of my life, because I can’t stand ignorance. How that money is spent within the education budget is a different matter, and that’s what elections should be for. They should be about what a society should do with the communal money pot. They shouldn’t be about how we can get out of paying into it.
So living in a social democracy also requires a very different mindset than many Americans have–most Republicans, at the least. You need to be okay with your taxes going toward helping others as well as yourself, knowing that it all indirectly helps you, too, if your taxes are used well.
So here’s the thing: [Finally! She’s worse than Rachel Maddow!]
These farmers in flyover country, ‘the real America‘, with its ‘real Americans‘ who feed America, mostly voted for Trump, is my wild guess. And now Trump’s trade wars are destroying their markets. Predictably, if they had done a little less rah-rah-ing and had actually listened to what he said on the campaign trail. So now he’s using 12 billion dollars of our taxes to compensate them for
their losses all the winning, in the hope they will still re-elect him in 2020. It’s frustrating to me, but I don’t begrudge the farmers their compensation. After all, we can’t have our farmers going out of business. I just hope they’ve learned from this experience. The infuriating part of it is where the 12 billion dollar farmer handout will be taken from. Probably not from anything that most white Trump supporters benefit from.
Okay, so here’s really the thing:
I don’t hear much complaining about the 12-billion-dollar handout from those folks who are usually so stridently against ‘handouts’. What makes this different? When the right-wing talk show hosts talk about ‘your’ tax dollars going toward ‘handouts’, they’re only talking to white listeners, and they are incorrectly suggesting that those ‘handouts’ largely go to people of color. That’s when many white folks, many white Republicans, probably most Trump supporters have a problem with helping others. But the farmers in ‘middle America’ are white, so yeah, here’s 12 billion, we won’t blink an eye.
Sure, Americans can be generous. You’re always beating your chests about American generosity, humanity, community spirit, benevolence–what have you. but for a lot of you it’s selective generosity; it comes only on your own terms, and on top of that, for a large part of the population those terms are racist. If we didn’t know that for sure before, we know it since the last presidential election.
Take the case of this young black man, Walter Carr, who was going to start a new job the next day when his car broke down in the evening. He didn’t want to be late on his first day (who does). In fact, he wanted to be there early (also not unheard of) and, having no other alternative to his car, that meant he had to start walking at midnight. Some cops helped him out by giving him rides (cops helping people out, which is their job, wow) and eventually his new boss heard about it. This white guy was so impressed that this young black man was determined to get to his job on time (again, why is that surprising?) that he gave him his $24,000 car. (I googled the price of a new Ford Escape. The boss’s car looked brand new.)
Don’t get me wrong, it is quite something that Walter Carr started walking at midnight, and I don’t begrudge him his new car. It’s like winning the lottery. Well, actually not really, because if he had won a brand-new car in the lottery he could turn around and sell it, buy a second-hand car and use the other $20,000 for college or to help family members or the million other things I’m sure he could think of. But he got this car from his new boss, so he has to keep it out of politeness. Maybe he can be an Über driver at night, if he has time for that between his college classes and his job, and get some use out of it that way.
Still, he got a car. Wonderful. What I’d like to know is what that boss would say to having his taxes raised by even half the value of his car if it meant a thousand people of color could take a bus to work if their car broke down. Or just so they could get to any work at all if they’re too poor to even own a car. Or if it meant that a thousand people of color could make the choice between using public transport and taking on the expenses of a car. Because in no other industrialized country is starting to walk at midnight the only alternative if your car breaks down! Of course it wouldn’t take a $10,000 tax hike to get a decent public transport system anywhere. It just takes everyone being okay with maybe $10. And doing math magic so that poor people pay nothing and that boss pays maybe $20. You get my drift. But obviously not everybody in his community is okay with that. They don’t want their taxes to help others, but they’re all touched that a white boss gave his new black employee his car. In fact, the perfectly planned video immediately went viral because the entire country is touched. All that being touched is touching and all, but if his $24,000 car breaks down tonight, Walter Carr still has to start walking at midnight to get to work on time tomorrow.
Again, I don’t begrudge this young man his car and I don’t deny that his boss was very generous in giving it to him. My point is that for every Walter Carr who has to go to extraordinary lengths just to get to work and happens to get noticed while doing it, there are a thousand other people of color who are struggling just as hard and who also do things nobody should have to do just to keep their head above water who go unnoticed. They don’t benefit from that touching American generosity. Walter Carr just had the pure good luck that he got on his new boss’s radar this way. For the boss it was the perfect story. His new recruit was determined to get to work on time the first day on the job, and he was so impressed that he gave him the keys to his expensive car. As long as he was seen being impressed and subsequently generous on camera. It was damn good advertising.
Many Americans, especially white Americans who always grouch about their taxes going toward stuff they don’t personally use, are benevolent like a man might be who has a whole loaf of bread and wants to share just one slice with the ducks at the pond. So he stands there, looking our over the feathered crowd at the edge of the pond, and randomly throws a crumb to whichever duck happens to catch his attention for whatever reason. It’s fine to do that with ducks, but it’s fricking patronizing, to say the least, to treat people that way.
Now, I don’t know the first thing about Walter Carr’s new boss. I don’t know if he’s a Republican, if he voted for Trump, if he usually votes for the guy who promises lower taxes or whether he’s a bleeding-heart Democrat who actually bugs the town council at every meeting to get better public transportation. The point is that he very well could be the former. I also don’t actually know if Walter Carr is financially strapped. Halfway this article I realized that I automatically assumed it, because he didn’t have a reliable car and he’s a black college student who’s getting a job. And I had the statistics from this post on my mind. He could be from a filthy rich family and his car could be a Lexus. (They’re notorious for breaking down.) He might be getting a job while in college because he wants a taste of how the other 99% lives. The point is that he very well could be typical of the statistics in my other post. I’m using this event for the sake of argument.
A little aside about poor white people: I’m aware that there are many poor white folks as well. Not nearly as many as poor people of color, though; they have easier access to various forms of financial aid, such as they are; less of them are disenfranchised; and when they vote, many poor whites vote Republican, and currently they’re Trump supporters, so they are poor in no small part because they consistently vote against their own interests. Always have. They’d rather not get any social services themselves than see people of color get them as well.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” — President Lyndon B. Johnson,
White poverty is definitely a problem. I just think it’s a different problem, with different causes and, to some degree, different solutions.
Finally, I wonder how viral the video had gone, or if the boss had even given his car to the young man if he was white. Because, yes, it would still show determination if a white guy did whatever it takes to get to work on time, but it wouldn’t be considered quite as surprising, and the donation wouldn’t be quite as cute. Is my guess.
I know I’m being a party pooper by saying all this, and that in many folks’ eyes I’m cheapening a perfectly beautiful moment by making it into a negative race issue. But I don’t see it that way. It is a negative race issue; I don’t have to make it into one. Even if it made a lot of people feel good, including the two people directly involved, Walter Carr and his boss. Even if none of what I’m interpreting has entered their minds, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And yes, you can argue that I’m being patronizing now, myself. I never pretended not to be. On this blog I hold a mirror up for America, and in this post I want to explain how a social democracy works and what it takes, and how far many Americans are from having the mindset required for it to work here.
Because again, that’s fundamental. In order to have a social-democratic society, Americans, you need to change your mindset. If you’re a liberal reading this, you need to figure out how to change the mindset of the white working class. They need to ask themselves if it’s okay for the medical world to enrich itself at the cost op people’s health and lives, and they need to understand that taxes, if well-spent on community services like healthcare, education, public transportation, infrastructure, etc, benefit them as well as others, that it’s not a zero-sum game. The racist let’s-say-40% of white Americans who simply don’t want their taxes helping people of color, except in certain instances of their choosing, will either have to change their mind or you will have to vote them into irrelevance and hope their children are better.
No other industrialized country is as underdeveloped in terms of social services. In no other industrialized country are folks so rabidly against the idea of any of their money helping other people unless it’s on their terms. That rugged individualism Americans romanticize is fine if you live in a cabin in Alaska and you’re literally on your own. When you’re part of a society, it’s just plain stupid because it holds everyone back. It’s like trying to play basketball when everyone wants to be the one who scores instead of playing like a team.
If all the money that rich Americans fork out to politicians and lobbyists to prevent having to pay higher taxes, and all the money they pay in advertising on things that shouldn’t be for sale, and if all the money middle-class Americans fork over any time they hear a good sob story (and they are plentiful and good!) — if all that money was collected by the IRS instead, this country could have universal healthcare, a great country-wide public transportation system with electric buses and trains that run on wind energy, a wonderful education system, college with affordable tuition for all… In short, America could catch up to Western Europe.
There wouldn’t be so many sob stories. The Walter Carrs of America wouldn’t have to start walking at midnight to get to work if their car broke down. They would simply take a short walk in the morning, because nobody would live more than a 15-minute walk from a bus stop, like in every other industrialized country!
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