On the heels of Congress voting to spend another $1.9 trillion on an assortment of relief programs related to the Covid pandemic, I thought it might be a good time to mention the dirtiest word in American politics: socialism. Before you race to the sink to wash your mouth out with soap, it’s time for a closer look.
While the word may conjure images of bread lines, cultural revolutions and the dour military parades of an authoritarian state, the truth is that socialism can’t be summed up in one simple anti-capitalist declaration. The globally regarded Scandinavian model is proof positive that democratic socialism, where benefits like education and health care coexist with free enterprise, can be highly successful.
Here at home, Republicans have been able to cast socialism as a dark and sinister ideology on par with Stalin’s gulags. Most every progressive policy with a goal to offer a modest boost to someone’s quality of life is roundly attacked and denigrated by conservatives as wasteful spending or just another handout to lazy welfare queens. Never mind that these same politicos would never turn away an extra dollar earmarked for their states, and they’re certainly guilty of big spending—theirs on the relentless growth of the military industrial complex and a raft of other corporate welfare projects.
The hypocrisy has been around for decades. In 1977, it encouraged New York’s Senator Patrick Moynihan to begin reporting annually on a calculation called the balance of payments. His work consistently showed that New York sent more money to the federal government than it received in return. Moynihan spurred a national reckoning around each state’s balance of payments that continues to this day. Worst off is New Jersey, which receives only 74 cents back from every dollar it sends to Washington. Mississippi, on the other hand, receives $2.13 for every dollar it sends east. It doesn’t make much sense based on what you hear from Republicans on the steps of the Capitol building, but trust that the states giving the most vote blue. Those that get the most vote red.
Just last year, during the height of the Covid crisis, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed his reluctance to fund coronavirus relief for hard-hit cities and states. He called them “blue state bailouts.” To that, New York’s governor reminded the Kentuckian that, in the past four years, New York put $116 billion more into the federal pot than it received. Meanwhile, Kentucky took out $148 billion more than it put in. The governor asked, “Senator McConnell, who’s getting bailed out here?" By one measure, of the initial money that was earmarked in the spring of 2020 for Covid relief, New York received about $12,000 per positive case. Nebraska received $379,000 per positive case.
The balance of payments is a good gauge to see which states rely more heavily on government, but it’s not the only one. Industry subsidies are another way to see where welfare is flowing. You may not have been aware the last time you slathered your hot dog that mustard seed subsidies totaled $13.7 million over the last 25 years, with Montana and North Dakota the biggest winners. Over that same period, Riceland Foods and their farmer members in Arkansas and Missouri reaped a whopping $554 million windfall in U.S.D.A. subsidies. Including money from Covid relief, direct government payments in 2020 to the farming industry were forecast at over $51 billion, making these handouts an astounding 43 percent of net national farm income.
If socialism is going to be defined as production, distribution and exchange owned or regulated by a community as a whole, should we be concerned that red states are routinely relying on socialist entities to the benefit of their residents? Nebraska’s electric grid and utilities are publicly owned. “There are no stockholders, and thus no profit motive,” the Nebraska Power Association says proudly. “Our customers, not big investors in New York and Chicago, own Nebraska’s utilities.”
The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority is another example. When asked about the future of their socialist enterprise in such a deeply red part of the country, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said, “This loony idea of selling T.V.A.’s transmission lines seems to keep popping up. It has zero chance of becoming law.”
Tennessee also has the honor of being the first state to offer two years of free college tuition to its high school graduates regardless of family income. That’s not criticism you’re reading. It’s jealousy.
When talk turns to a universal basic income, Republicans quickly cry foul. But what about Alaska? Since 1982, the Alaska Permanent Fund, a state-owned investment corporation funded by oil revenues, has paid out an annual dividend to every man, woman and child in Alaska. I’ve yet to see any Republicans in that state tearing up their annual checks—or their Covid relief checks, for that matter—on principle.
If you look closely, it’s not hard to find a wealth of successful socialist programs in this, our cradle of capitalism. What’s interesting isn’t what you find, it’s where you find it.
Amos Klausner lives in San Geronimo and serves on the local school board.