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The Choice Isn’t Between Capitalism or Socialism

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Americans are once again interested in debating economic systems. The 2016 presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, reignited a debate about capitalism and socialism that some believed had died with the Soviet Union. Younger Americans are now divided on which system they like best:

Unfortunately, the debate over what these terms actually mean has become hopelessly muddled.  Without a Soviet bloc to provide an official alternative to capitalism, people cast about for examples that fit their desired narrative. Self-appointed defenders of capitalism will point to the economic failures of the USSR, China and North Korea, or to the more recent economic disaster in Venezuela as proof positive of socialism’s defects

Socialism’s champions tend to rebut these charges by pointing to the successes of the Scandinavian countries. Sanders himself regularly praises Denmark, and occasionally Sweden, as examples of what he would like to achieve in the U.S., while others prefer Norway. But American socialists have, on occasion, received pushback from residents of those countries — in 2015, Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen stated bluntly that Denmark was a market economy rather than a socialist one.

So is Sanders right, or is Rasmussen? Are the Scandinavian countries socialist or capitalist? The truth, unfortunately, is much more nuanced and complex. There will never be a clear, simple definition of socialism or capitalism, because there are multiple ways that a government can try to intervene in markets.

Markets aren’t perfect. They generate unequal outcomes, and often unfair ones, and they are subject to numerous inefficiencies. Governments can try to remedy these problems in a number of ways. They can provide services directly, as with the U.K.’s National Health Service. They can own businesses, as China does with state-owned enterprises. They can write regulations to restrain or promote various forms of market activity. They can sanction and empower various institutions like unions that counter the power of business. And they can use taxes and spending to redistribute income and wealth.

But governments don’t have to do all of these things at once. In Scandinavia, for example, there are a lot of government-provided services, a lot of redistribution and strong unions, but a relatively light regulatory touch otherwise. In a recent report, J.P. Morgan Asset Management researcher Michael Cembalest breaks down the Nordic model using various indicators from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. As he notes, the Nordic countries (in which he includes the Netherlands) generally have fewer capital controls and trade barriers than the U.S. They also score quite highly on indexes of property rights and business freedom:

These indicators are compiled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that might have reason to want to give high rankings to rich countries in order to make business freedom look more attractive. But rankings from the OECD confirm the general picture of Scandinavia as a lightly regulated place. Interestingly, the indicators also show higher direct state control of industry in the U.S.:

Labor markets are a different matter, however; Scandinavian countries generally make it harder to fire workers than the U.S. does. Unions and collective bargaining are also stronger. Interestingly, though, Cembalest finds that labor in Nordic countries claims a slightly smaller share of national income than in the U.S., suggesting that the impact of pro-business policies in those countries might outweigh the impact of labor protections when measured in purely monetary terms.

The Scandinavian countries, of course, have much higher taxes and spend more on social services:

Whether these various policy differences are large enough to constitute different systems is open to debate. Some economists consider them all merely different varieties of capitalism. The picture is complicated by the fact that countries change their policies over time. For example, in the 1970s, Sweden had a very large amount of redistribution, but since the late 1990s its fiscal system has become much less progressive. American socialists like Bernie Sanders may be pining for a much more interventionist Scandinavian model like that of the mid-20th century that has since changed dramatically.

The spirited online debates about socialism and capitalism are, therefore, mostly useless. They ignore and obscure the multiple dimensions of policy, as well as changes over time, and thus make it harder rather than easier to think about concrete ways to fix the problems in the U.S. system. It would be helpful to have a new consensus terminology to describe the economic systems that various industrialized countries — the U.S., France, Japan, China, and the countries of Scandinavia — have developed over the last three decades. But one thing is for certain — the dichotomy of socialism versus capitalism, inherited from the ideological battles of the past two centuries, is badly out of date.

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Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism

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N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.

Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.

Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.

In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.

When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.

Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.

When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.

‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’ 

I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?

I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.

However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.

It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.

It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.

It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.

The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.

There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.

Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.

There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time. 

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Letter: Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness

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Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness. All Hanson offers is more of the same prescriptions that brought us to climate change, inequality, huge government, corporate and private debts, erosion of our infrastructure, a health care crisis, international turmoil, etc.

How about some ownership and something new? If we redefine the goal as sustainability instead of growth, universal equity in services and opportunity, building community instead of dominance, and building a world for the seventh generation in the future, then we must acknowledge that capitalism as we have known it is broken.

Rather than try to pigeonhole the opposition with a derogatory label, let’s find a way to utilize human character to fulfill the promise of a better world for all living creatures both now and in the future.

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Let’s restore our values, do away with capitalism

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One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures, the writer says.

In this past decade, we witnessed a degeneration of politics across the spectrum, with social media, notwithstanding its use, becoming the worst platform for corrosive politics.

We also witnessed moral degeneration and character assassination as influenced by capitalism.

The moral degeneration in SA is very high and that directly reflects the politics of our country.

This open letter is an invitation for us, more especially ANC and Alliance partners, to think critically about who we are as a society and perhaps champion ways in which we can restore some of the values that we have lost.

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One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures. And one of our loopholes as the ANC from 1994 onwards was not to restore our values of ubuntu and revive the black family unit.

Twenty-five years into democracy, it is in our hands as ANC to dissociate ourselves with capitalism because capitalism is an evil that causes the corruption we are seeing now.

It is capitalist ideas that are behind killings of our comrades.

Capitalism is an inherently evil system that thrives on hate, jealousy and inhumanity.

Viwe Sidali, Duncan Village, East London

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