The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What's the Problem with Socialism?

In the United States today, there are many people who viscerally rail against socialism. There are many others who viscerally defend it. Many of the detractors offer soundbite notions of why it's bad, such as references to Stalinist gulags or mockery of European nations.

While the Soviet regime's actions speak for themselves, the idea that one can group the Stalinist Soviet era into the same category as modern France or Germany shows how little thought people have actually given the question. It's also worth noting that while France, Germany, and Britain are regularly mocked by American conservatives for their various socialist programs and policies, they are the also among the top-ten richest nations in the world. Given both their physical sizes and populations, that's saying something.

To dig into the problem with socialism, we can examine one of the longest-running historical examples of that philosophy in practice: the Western military tradition.

Rank and File
Western militaries for centuries have been organized according to a strict regimental model. These days, troops no longer fight in the fashion of close-order drill, but they still learn it, and it lies at the core of why the military is and has always been a bastion of socialism.

Warrior cultures are founded on bravery. Professional armies are not. Oh, troops may well be plenty brave; certainly, modern soldiers pretty much have to be in order to deal with the way that wars are now fought. But what makes someone a soldier is discipline, not courage or bravado. Ancient and more recent warrior cultures hinge on the idea of heroic death. Professional soldiers prefer to live but must be willing to die to hold the line, carry out the diversion, storm the beachhead -- not for their own sake, but for the sake of the collective.

To instill that socialist ideal, instructors have long drilled troops in a manner designed to erase their individual identities, ostracize them from their fellow citizens, and bind them together into cohesive units that work in sync. Troops learn to stand, pivot, and step at the same time; for many years, they learned to hold their fire except and until when everyone else fired. They also learned to do their drill so well that they could maintain that stoic discipline even as men to the left and right of them were struck or ripped apart in horrific fashion.

Don't be lured into the Hollywood notion of endless vulnerability to ambushes and so-called "Indian tactics." There were shortcomings to the disciplined model of warfare in heavy lines, but when the effective range of a weapon is a hundred feet with reload times of a minute or more and the troops number in the thousands, firing from treelines is only so useful when each shot sends up a huge plume of smoke and your enemies have bayonets. In those days, the ability to stand one's ground and continue on literally meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Strict adherence to lines eroded over time as weapons improved -- for instance, with the advent of smokeless gunpowder, and then again with the introduction of modern repeating arms. But even as late as the landing at Inchon, a forceful move en masse against enemy positions was how a nation won wars, while the ability to hold against such a move was how a nation wore down its opponents. In these strength-on-strength contests, the more disciplined side was likely to prevail.  Counter-insurgency operations work differently, but discipline still plays a role, and the combined-arms operations of yesterday are not so much obsolete as they are rare for the moment

Discipline is still the essence of the profession of arms.

Peacetime Socialism

Because discipline is so important, when not engaged in combat, soldiers historically nonetheless needed to maintain their unit cohesion. For that reason, they were quartered, fed, clothed, and provided for as units. In the mid-twentieth century, when the advent of nuclear weapons made major wars less likely but the need to deter aggression required large numbers of troops, countries like the United States began to offer longer-term arrangements for career soldiers and officers, things like on-base housing and family medical services.

Over time, the model of supply also changed, moving away from government appropriation in favor of a series of private nonprofit arrangements.

Today, U.S. military personnel draw either free base housing or a tax-free housing allowance. Meal cards have been largely eliminated in favor of subsistence allowances, also provided tax-free. Medical care is delivered through on-base, uniformed-staff hospitals where available, and when troops or their families must go to off-base providers, their expenses are covered under TRICARE Prime, an insurance program that works like an HMO with no out-of-pocket expense for military personnel or their families. Troops shop for groceries at stores operated by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), which sets prices at government cost plus a small surcharge, or buy other items at Exchanges whose net earnings are used to fund base activities; they pay no sales tax on these purchases.  Military families also often have access to subsidized daycare.

Civilians don't have equivalents to these benefits. While civilians very often make more money for certain jobs, they have to pay their rent, food, and clothing expenses out of their (taxable) paychecks, not out of allowances. They also pay sales tax on everything in most locales. And, of course, we all know that access to private health insurance comes with hefty premiums, even under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (which pays about 78% of premium costs for Federal employees).

The point of this commentary is not to suggest that troops don't "deserve" the benefits that they get. It's to point out that these are benefits extended at the expense of taxpayers to all troops regardless of need. Some of those troops go to war, and others don't, but they all get the benefits.

That's socialism, and it works very well when it comes to delivering a minimum standard.

The Minimum Standard

The military excels at getting people to meet the minimum standard, to hold the line or pivot on cue or wait to fire. It's far worse at encouraging people to go above and beyond. Why?

It comes back to the drill. A soldier who doesn't keep up endangers the unit, but so does one who gets ahead. Everyone has to keep pace and think about the collective. There's some room for individual performance, but by and large, the military wants people to stay in step. Even promotions, ostensibly based on merit, fall into this pattern, with someone at a particular rank expected to receive a particular medal or award in order to be competitive for advancement to the next rank. No matter that one soldier may have gotten that medal for charging an enemy position and another got it for leading an inspection; it's a box that has to be checked.

Because of that model, the peacetime military in particular has a great deal of difficulty retaining people with specialized skills. It is no surprise that many of the technical positions in the U.S. military have been outsourced to contractors. The model of identical, standards-based performance works when going down the checklist for aircraft maintenance but doesn't work nearly as well when designing a strategy for computer network defense or engineering a missile guidance system.  Those tasks are best accomplished through individual incentive.  (Combat is distinct in that the incentive is survival, but most daily military duties are not conducted under live fire even for infantrymen.)

The military creates equality of outcome only by holding back those whose aptitude would otherwise allow them to do more than the minimum requires.  That's the problem with socialism. 

Social Capitalism
Imagine if instead of having stigmatized assistance for the poor, we agreed to just give everyone a basic allowance for housing and another for subsistence -- in essence, that everyone drew something like a housing voucher and food stamps.  The same thing goes for healthcare: we could all have access to minimum benefits with the option to buy something more expensive for an additional premium.

We all acknowledge that these ideas are good enough for the troops who we regularly venerate for their service to the country. What is "the country" except the ideals held by its citizens?
The benefits I'm talking about wouldn't be enough to live life to the fullest, but they'd be enough to live life at all, and anyone who wanted to could make do with the minimum and save the extra expense.  Whatever we want beyond the allowances, we could buy from money we earn, but we'd all have the ability to buy those basics, and all of the buying would be from free-market sources.

What a difference it would make!  Replacing the social safety net with a social foundation would restore the equality of opportunity that has slowly been squeezed out of our system.  These would not be second-rate, inferior goods.  No more "hand-outs!"  We'd have prepaid benefits to cover the minimum of things that we already buy anyway, things we need to stay afloat.  And by having that guarantee, we could afford to take the risks that drive a competitive meritocracy.  It's just a different sort of accounting.

Social capitalism.  What do you think?

No comments:

Post a Comment