Best If Argued By: Socialism Edition

Socialism is the reason that Venezuela is a hellbasket? Capitalism caused the 2008 recession? Maybe if the groundhog saw it shadow, it’s sixty more years of arguing about Socialism/Communism/Capitalism, and if the groundhog did a Fortnite dance, moving on to something useful is just around the corner.

Socialism versus Capitalism was best-if-argued-by 1969, at the latest.

Some people never grow out of the phase of thought that dictates that “my -ism is better than your -ism,” failing to recognize the inherent framework-as-map-is-not-the-territory-reality of the thing.

If you’re socialist, but you think that people aren’t going to want a medium of exchange and therefore some level of commerce, shame on you. If you’re a wallet-toting capitalist, but you believe that victims should pay jails to hold their assailants, I nod and smile and look for the nearest exit.

Socialism, writ-large, is a non-starter for the USA. That’s not the point. Unfettered capitalism is also a non-starter. But cries of “Socialism!” are worthless. They avoid the policy discussion.


We keep having the same silly arguments that have no impact on anything. They are often stand-ins for the real arguments we should be having (anybody whose interacted with humans should recognize that phenomena). Arguments about tax rates, improving regulation while lowering regulatory burdens, about different structures that hold corporations accountable through insurance requirements rather than per-se regulation.

Of course, the anti-tax folks don’t want to have a reasoned argument about tax rates. They want to kill the discussion with a cliche reference to socialism. But the rest of the world doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring reality in favor of a soundbite. The same goes for climate issues, where the GOP has no policy, hasn’t begun to formulate a policy, and rejects the very existence of climate policy.

The pattern is there, of one party either adopting a wholly inadequate solution or simply ignoring the problem. Immigration is the same thing. Until there’s a spaceship-style airlock on the southern border, passing immigration reform is impossible for the GOP. Good luck with that.


And that’s the problem with American politics. The conservatives still think we’re having an argument about these things. The liberals know we’re past that, and we’re on to finding the right policy to address the issues. Climate, healthcare, taxes, paid family leave, take your pick. Society has recognized the need, but one party is still back at the starting line arguing about whether the go-shot has been fired.

Sure, you can bait a liberal into arguing about capitalism versus socialism, but if you ask them about an actual policy position, they won’t start with, “Socialism dictates the correct choice is …” They aren’t dyed-in-the-wool about it. They want a better society, not one that adheres to some fantasy government league regime. They aren’t beholden to the meta-game. They just want sick people to get better, poor people to have a fair shake, and for the oceans not to engulf all of Florida.

Employment Immigration Needs

The bulk of unauthorized immigration is for work. The immigration laws allow for lots of family to come in, either family of permanent residents or of citizens. There are allowances for diversity and asylum and refugees. There are slots for employer preference, but only on some categories.

Unauthorized immigrant employment:

  • 1/3 Service
  • 1/6 Construction
  • 1/6 Production
  • 1/8 Sales, Support
  • 1/8 Professional, Management
  • 1/12 Transportation
  • 1/24 Farming, fishing

The fact of their employment shows the need for these workers. Employers don’t hire people unless they need them. Thus, the immigration law needs to be changed to recognize these workers.

One of the principles of immigration and border security is that an orderly system is preferable to one that criminalizes labor. We are more secure when we recognize the economic fact of workers and don’t lie to ourselves about how they broke the law to:

  • Cook food
  • Build a house
  • Make a table

Those are the sorts of service, construction, and production jobs that about two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants do.

Are unauthorized workers more attractive to employers because they are unauthorized? In some cases. But to be clear, these employers must break the law and undertake other steps to employ these workers, so there is a logical middle-ground to making them authorized workers.

The question of amnesty comes up. But the law failing to contemplate workers it knew would exist is unpunished negligence. The law that was broken was a broken law. But from an economic standpoint, the immutable laws of demand held firm and overcame the obvious fault of the law.

So, sure. Give amnesty. But fix the law. Recognize that the table, the house, and the meal were all made of valuable labor. That the law should have recognized that labor all along.

The Meaning of Efficiency

Every year we as a species get more efficient. For some meaning of efficient. There is a view of dealing with climate change, that it is fundamentally opposed to capitalism, full stop. That is, that capitalism causes climate change, as efficiency of extracting and using carbon-based fuels increases every year.

But that’s only one type of efficiency. Similar in the software world to increasing the speed of the hardware and memory available. Oldtimers of computing often lament that modern computing is so wasteful, when they were able to get so much out of so little. That’s another type of efficiency.

The environmental movement has its Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, and sometimes others, like refuse. But capitalism is focused on its paycheck. An oil company doesn’t care about reducing oil use, as it won’t make them more money. They might care about not wasting oil, but only insofar as they make their employees care. If the CEO’s bonus stays the same whether waste is 1% or 5%, it will stay under 6%, but won’t be minimized.

Capitalism is predicated on every year being bigger. It’s built on the idea that corporations should last forever. The bank is not made out of biodegradable materials, because it expects to long endure. But nature doesn’t work that way. There are highs and lows, natural cycles. Technology can improve, but volumes, they must reach some physical limits.

We’ve had a glut of resources. It’s been cheaper to use more than to figure out how to get by with less. More land to grow and farm, chop down some forests. More ocean to dump trash. Bigger nets to fish with and more boats. And so on. We have seen modest gains in real efficiency, but mostly we have seen gains through more resource use.

Critics of capitalism claim the problem is capitalism itself. That it cannot be but a resource-hungry ever-growing beast. Proponents of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade believe, as do I, that the issue is realigning the monetary costs to reflect environmental reality. To think otherwise, those calling out capitalism might as well call out democracy, which I haven’t heard them do.

We have done it before. With chlorofluorocarbons, with lead, with the food additives that caused cancer, with meat packing, with child labor, and on. Capitalism, while rigid, can be made to care. The notion that this time is different, when we have successfully redressed our past problems without upending capitalism, does not follow.

We cannot have endless growth. We cannot pull all the carbon out of the ground. It will kill us. Indeed, we will need to shrink our population over time. But we can become more efficient, we can continue technological progress. We can do so responsibly. We can pick the right meaning of efficiency.

There may be other reasons to see more serious overhauls to capitalism (or democracy as we know it, for that matter) than simply making it care about carbon pollution. Some of the coming efficiencies via robotics may disrupt labor markets to a grave extent. If we do need to move on from capitalism, or retool it at a deeper level, so be it. In the mean time we need to work on facing the political realities that keep the status quo’s harms alive.

Making Capitalism Care

People often lament the capitalist view of economics (which itself is a corruption of the underlying mechanics, but still a better explanation than any other yet writ), claiming it imposes certain dire outcomes upon the world. These harms include social parasitism by the dominant cohort, wage slavery, ecocide, and advertising.

Indeed, Upton Sinclair, the famous socialist muckraker, said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” To expect a coal company or a Koch-head to understand the risks of pollutive terraforming (also called climate change) is like expecting a mailman to understand the Internet. Once we establish the problem, willful blindness caused by an insensitive incentive scheme, the solution seems to present itself: change the incentive scheme.

How do we make capitalism care? Or first, can we or should we? Many liberal people believe it is a lost cause. Indeed, some of their own paychecks depend on them believing that abolishing capitalism is the ticket. But for the majority, we can see both the good and bad in capitalism. We can see it in the relatively cheap foodstuffs and relatively short lines to buy them. We can travel coast to coast mostly unmolested by the state or privateers (depending on our mode of transport).

And the downside is equally apparent. Many services are encumbered with adroit legalese that burdens us with high prices for anything from mere entertainment to life-sustaining medical care. To quote the Tao Te Ching, “The more legal affairs are given prominence, the more numerous bandits and thieves.” And yet we are a legalistic society, where the capitalist aesthetic has invaded even the criminal justice system; the rich are free to go, the poor charged to stay.

(It is entirely common to see Internet discussions devolve to the bare legal issues and seem settled from these alone. The legality is never the whole story, though. Legal discussions are an appropriate subdiscussion, but such threads should acknowledge there is a bigger picture.)

So, it seems, we should make capitalism care about the pain it exacts from us. There is every reason to think the system can be improved in this way. After all, the care of capitalism, the sensitivity that makes it effective at all, is already fictive. Adding more lies upon the existing successful lies can improve it, if they are the right lies.

Lies is not the precise word. We already care, truthfully. But to make capitalism budge, it requires formally telling capitalism that some value now exists where capitalism did not see it before. And we have been very successful in this maneuver in the past. We, at one time, cared not for clean rivers or streams. Not even to drink from. And then we told capitalism we did.

Capitalism may develop something akin to antibiotic resistance over time, as the sensitivities we try to impose on it erode. Our waterways became somewhat less adulterated, at least for a time. Some are worse now than ever before. But only because capitalism became insensitive again, or because it was never sensitive to the particular pollution form.

The question arises, can we make capitalism care without resorting to the sorts of artificial constraints it may desensitize itself to?

Why the Large Don’t Lead

Big companies in the technology sector have apparently decided to stand against the N.S.A.’s overreach. Once it began to harm or threaten their profits and reputations, that is. They could have moved years ago, though. Why not?

Hollywood calls out against social problems of various sorts, such as the soon-to-screen The Wolf of Wall Street, but they stand fast as ever to their antiquated distribution model.

The big companies don’t take big risks. They fear losing their primacy. This reflects, once again, the exceptionalism bug. The notion that we are the ones, the only ones who can do what we do, we do it better, we do it right. Or else why would we be here? Why aren’t cockroaches the dominant species?

That seems to be at least one explanation for the U.S.’s decline in certain areas. Why we are playing catch-up in healthcare (again, the health insurance industry could have spearheaded reform efforts decades ago, but failed to bother), haven’t upgraded our train systems, and, yes, why our credit cards (see recent news on the Target store breaches) still use half-century-old technology (magnetic strips instead of smart cards).

When things seem to be going so well, we are awfully reluctant to change. What if it makes things worse? What if that worsening leads to systemic decline? What if we have to eat the grandkids just to stay afloat?

Worse, a dominant force may suppress up-and-coming competitors through anti-capitalist activities. It may prevent competitors from gaining a foothold long enough to displace the dominant institutions.

It took Mozilla to change the browser marketplace for the better. Internet Explorer might as well have been the tombstone of the web, and look at the relative vibrancy of the web today! We need these disruptive forces, at least so long as market leaders cannot lead.

We see the same trends in politics. The head of the party, as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “How we gonna run reform when we’re the damn incumbent?” We’ve seen a shift in House Majority Leader John Boehner of late. But only because he is facing his political future. He is not sitting pretty, but must make some waves to stay afloat.

We saw the same thing with Microsoft’s browser. Only after they were behind could they actually move ahead. Much of Apple’s innovation comes because of their market position (strong, but not the lead). They have a loyal customer base (not every iThing owner, of course) that supports their vision. But even Apple follows on things where they are leaders, such as removing anti-consumer locks from music.

It’s amazing how twisted our language is. Leader seldom means that. It mostly means the king of the hill, too large to easily be pushed off. But the leaders remain. They go find new hills, they carry scars and blisters.

The renewable energy sector today leads us to a better tomorrow, while the entrenched energy interests (who could make major investments, both speeding the process along and positioning themselves for the next generation) sit atop the hill. Sure, they might buy some wind or solar on their way down. But they seem too scared to lead, just like the rest of the “leaders.”