SEATTLE — A specter is haunting America — the specter of socialism.
Ask the president. In his State of the Union address, Donald Trump said, “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country.”
A Gallup poll this past August found that Democrats had a more positive view of socialism than of capitalism (by 57 percent to 47 percent). The favorable views are especially high among younger respondents.
New York’s popular Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t shy from the label “Democratic socialist.” Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who just announced his presidential bid, describes himself the same way.
The Democratic Party is undeniably moving left. For many, this is a reaction to Trump. Others see no future in middle-of-the-road politics after the defeat of Hillary Clinton (even though she won the popular vote).
But what do we mean when we say “socialism”?
Even few democratic socialists would advocate wholesale public ownership of “the commanding heights” of the economy, much less want a Marxist-Leninist revolution where socialism is a historical phase on the (murderous) way to communism. In general, these democratic socialists admire the northern European model where people pay high taxes and get major government services, while capitalism thrives.
But many of their proposals are not from Denmark.
Ocasio-Cortez’s idea of a marginal income tax as high as 70 percent was actual policy in the United States before 1981. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, the richest paid 91 percent. (For that and other sins such as keeping Social Security, the Republican former five-star general and liberator of Western Europe was branded a “communist” by the right-wing John Birch Society.)
Medicare-for-all, another policy being floated by Democratic presidential candidates, traces its origins to such commies as Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.
The Green New Deal, an aggressive plan to “de-carbonize” the economy (which I’ll write about Sunday), is ambitious but hardly unprecedented or unachievable. We sent men to the moon.
When Republicans say socialism, it’s a scare word used to suggest the gub’ment is coming for your SUV as well as your guns. Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann said of Democrats’ environmental agenda, “They want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, (and) take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.”
Don’t forget that Barack Obama, who was about as far left as Gerry Ford, was labeled a socialist, too.
When many millennials say they like socialism, I suspect they are frustrated with record levels of student debt, low-paying entry jobs except for the tech elite, and looking around at a nation with growing inequality and shrinking opportunity.
This opening for the S word didn’t travel the Atlantic from such hellholes as Stockholm or Copenhagen.
Rather, it’s the natural backlash against big changes in American capitalism. Checks and balances such as antitrust enforcement, regulation of major industries, progressive taxation and unions have been gutted since the 1980s.
In place of these mediating institutions, we have highly consolidated industries; giant companies with overwhelming market power; captured regulators that do the bidding for the likes of the big banks; tax cuts for the rich (hurting federal investments, too), and, in many states, workers’ power diminished to levels not seen in decades.
Big business gained unprecedented power in politics thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. What for most of the republic’s history was corruption is now business as usual.
Finally, capitalism is seen by its critics as the chief culprit behind climate change. And today’s quick-buck mentality is in a hurry to extract and burn as much carbon as possible, devil take the hindmost.
Real socialism never gained much traction in America. Eugene Debs hit the high-water mark in his 1912 presidential run, winning 6 percent of the vote. Even populist and left-wing Democrats, from William Jennings Bryan to George McGovern, lost badly.
But Debs and Bryan were part of a Progressive wave at the turn of the 20th century, which Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson used as presidents to throttle the Gilded Age. That era, too, was marked by big-business abuses, monopolies, workers with few protections, and inequality on a level not seen again until recently.
Our Digital Gilded Age shouldn’t assume its power is forever.
• As the United States and China continue negotiations, with a March 1 deadline from the Trump administration, a new report highlights the stakes for Washington state. The Washington Council on International Trade offers a county- and congressional district-level look at trade to and from China.
“While a few industries, such as lumber and aerospace, have been relatively isolated from U.S.-China tariffs, the overall effect on Washington trade could be damaging,” the report states. “Iconic and important exports like apples, cherries and seafood have all been targeted. In addition, two of the products at the center of the conflict are soybeans and autos, which pass through Washington’s ports in large amounts and support various shipping and logistics jobs.”
• Seattle and the Puget Sound region figure in the 10 American industrial markets to watch in 2019, according to a report from Colliers International, the real estate services organization.
“Situated in the economic powerhouse of the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, making it a popular industrial market for both regional and final-mile distribution,” the report reads.
“The Seattle/Puget Sound industrial market boasts low vacancy rates and a short supply of large, close-in industrial sites. With insatiable demand, the Seattle/Puget Sound market is poised to continue its current pace and see an increase in re-developments and be an epicenter of multi-story warehouse development in the coming year.”
• The Seattle software outfit Outreach was listed among by CB Insights as among the 50 companies likely to be the “next unicorns” (with valuations of $1 billion or more), as reported in the New York Times.
Jon Talton comments on economic news, issues and trends for The Seattle Times, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest. Email him at email@example.com.