What is Democratic Socialism?

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What is Democratic Socialism?

One of the dynamics animating the Democratic presidential primary — yes, it’s already started — is a clash between Democratic Socialists and more traditional elements of the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Socialists had a strong showing in 2016, with Senator Bernie Sanders collecting 13.2 million votes. More recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, pulled off a stunning upset of Congressman Joe Crowley, who was climbing the ranks of House leadership.

Sanders is expected to run again and will face off against more mainstream Democratic figures — some possibilities include Vice President Joe Biden, Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Cory Booker.

The lines between the two camps are blurry. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, popular in traditional Democratic circles, recently announced she supports abolishing ICE, a key priority of Democratic Socialists. Gillibrand, Booker and Senator Elizabeth Warren, another potential presidential candidate, signed on as co-sponsors to Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation.

So Democratic Socialism is gaining increasing importance in national politics. But what is Democratic Socialism, exactly?

To help answer that question, I spoke with Ian Samuel, a Harvard Law professor, former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Q: What is Democratic Socialism?

SAMUEL: On the one hand, it expresses agreement with a set of policy ideas, some of which comes out of the Sanders' 2016 campaign and some of which postdates that, like abolishing ICE. That's the policy component. It's the idiomatic way to express your agreement with those series of ideas.

Almost equally important, it expresses an attitude about the present leadership and especially present financing methods of the Democratic Party. It connotes a deliberately confrontational sort of style with the party's present leadership that is deliberately trouble-making. So, it conveys an attitude as much as a set of policy ideas.

That idiomatic meaning is quite unconnected to formal ideas about socialism or even the programs of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America. It's developing — in the way the Tea Party did after 2008 — as a way of expressing not only certain policy ideas but also certain attitudes.

Q: What are the core policy ideas?

SAMUEL: Number one, you've got Medicare for All. I think that would achieve 100% consensus. Tuition free public college. The abolition or at least significant restructuring, but probably abolition, of ICE. I think that those are the real core of it.

There is less of a specific ask on climate but a willingness to be very bold and ambitious on climate change, whether that's cap and trade or a carbon tax.

That's where the core consensus starts to run out. Then you've got a lot things that are of different significance to different people.

Q: Do you think the idiomatic meaning of Democratic Socialism as a critique of Democratic leadership is a positive force? And how do you see it ideally playing out in the political world?

SAMUEL: I do think that it's a positive force because at a minimum it represents an alternative to a party that clearly has not had a lot of success -- other than the 2 days that Barack Obama was personally on the ballot -- over the last 10 years. So at least it represents an idea to try something different.

It has a theory about why something different would work where things haven't before. So, ideally, the best case scenario, is that it would have enough success in its idiomatic sense to become the governing ideology of the entire party which would presumably require a change in a lot of leadership but would also just require some people to convert.

We've seen that this is possible for political parties to change quite dramatically on a dime with Trump and the Republicans. So the dream is that this idiomatic concept out competes what we have in the status quo and becomes the governing ideology of the whole party.

Q: Is there a conflict between Democratic Socialism and capitalism? Is Democratic Socialism ultimately trying to dispense with the capitalist system or is it something the is compatible with the capitalist system?

SAMUEL: It depends on what you mean by capitalism. I think it's completely compatible with a world in which there is still markets in various things. The United States is so far from what you could conceivably describe as an economy that is organized on anything like socialist principles that it's true that a lot of things I've described are really social democratic policies that would be completely at home in many Western European countries that no one would describe as socialist. Which is why I think it has a somewhat idiomatic meaning in the United States.

I don't think it is compatible with capitalism if what you mean is that there should be markets in everything and there should not be significant public ownership of important stuff. So it depends on the meaning. It's true that when people say, “I'm a Democratic Socialist,” I don't understand them to be advocating for the immediate seizure of the means of production.

Q: At Democratic Socialist protests there are signs that say “Abolish Private Property.” How do those views fit into the organization overall?

SAMUEL: Look, I think there are clearly plenty of self-identified Marxists who clearly believe that should be done. I don't think that represents what is being communicated by politicians who are competing for elected office, especially within Democratic primaries. Not because they don’t have skepticism to the extent to we live in a totalized system of private property, where anything is ownable. But because they have to compete in the environment as it presently exists.

There are Marxist in the United States. They always existed. They have views. I don't understand those to be the views expressed when Ocasio-Cortez describes herself as a Democratic Socialist.

That is a source of frustration to those people who are self-identified Marxists.

Q: The Democratic Socialists of America is not organized as a political party. It's a non-profit group. The candidates, for the most part, are running as Democrats. What's behind that strategy? Why not start a new party?

SAMUEL: Ballot access in the United States are deliberately set up so, if you are not the Democratic or Republican party, just getting ballot access will consume so much of your resources. And then you are frequently in the position of playing spoiler because we have a first-past-the-post system.

So the thinking is: Don't worry so much about the ballot line. Qualify for the ballot line that makes sense in your particular circumstances. I do think that the DSA has ambitions to run candidates — not just endorse them — at some point in the future. But what that would look like is not an organization that would compete for ballot access on its own line. I could even imagine them trying grab a Republican ballot line in the right circumstances.

Q: What do you think about more establishment politicians, especially some of those thinking about running for President, adopting Democratic Socialist policies? Is that success or a cooption?

SAMUEL: I would regard it as a success. This is not a romantic business. I am willing to take converts to an idea for whatever reason. It's important that a person really believes it in their heart in the sense that, I need an indication you are really willing to work for it. But if that's really true then it's fine with me if you are adopting this as a matter of political survival because people go to the doctor either way.

Realistically, any movement on the American left that has ambitions to transform the way the party works has to be willing to take people on board who thought Hillary Clinton was pretty good. That's a lot people. And you have to be willing to accept some converts because otherwise, where are the votes coming from?

Q: What is your response to people who say that, by putting pressure on Democratic candidates in more moderate districts to adopt positions like the abolition of ICE, Democratic Socialists could keep more Republicans in power?

SAMUEL: I think it represents a mental model of those kinds of districts that is incorrect. We tend to think of North Dakota as a very deep red state. But it's actually pretty hard to tell a story about people in North Dakota who are itching to have financiers control the American political system, who are incredibly hostile to the idea of being able to send their kids to college without having to save up literally their entire lives or go into debt.

The theory that these districts are inherently conservative is just not right. West Virginia has produced some very progressive politicians over the years. It has a strong tradition of trade unionism.

People don't actually position themselves on idealized left/right political spectrum and choose the politician that is closest to them. That's a very simplified model that I don't think is right. I don't think it would have hurt Conor Lamb [who recently won a special election in a moderate district near Pittsburgh] if he had really believed in Medicare for All and talked about that.

Q: If you look forward 20 years and the Democratic Socialists are successful, what does America look like?

SAMUEL: In a lot of ways, if you are a relatively affluent person or an educated professional, your life looks the same. Maybe you don't have to worry so much about saving for college. You already probably had pretty good health insurance — now it's maybe a bit better.

The difference is that the lives of less affluent people also look like that. The vision of the world is that everyone gets to live a life like the life you get to live if right now you make $150,000 and work at a nice law firm or a think tank. All the good stuff that is kind of enjoyed at the top -- everyone gets to enjoy that. That I think would be the principal difference.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


Trump’s big new idea for the 0.1%

Tax cuts passed in 2017 have created a massive windfall for corporations which, as detailed in Monday’s Popular Information, companies are using to buy back shares to juice stock prices. While this has benefited wealthy investors and CEOs, who derive most of their income from stock-based compensation, workers have seen their real wages decline.

Now the Trump administration is considering a new proposal to benefit the wealthiest 0.1%. Ordinarily, investors pay capital gains taxes on the sale price of the stock, minus the initial cost. So if an investor buys stock for $50,000 and then sells it 10 years later after the value increases to $150,000, capital gains tax is applied to the $100,000 difference.

The Trump administration is considering a change which would adjust the initial price of the stock for inflation before the capital gains tax is applied. Overall, that would shield about one-third of long-term capital gains from taxation.

The change would cost the government $102 billion over 10 years. More than two-thirds of the benefit would go to the richest 0.1% of Americans and 97% of the benefit would go to the richest 10%.

Who needs Congress

The proposal has almost no chance of passing Congress but the Trump administration has a solution: just do it anyway. The administration is considering simply issuing a new regulation that would change how capital gains taxes are calculated without Congress.

A similar move was considered by the George H. W. Bush administration in 1992. They dropped the idea after the Department of the Treasury determined it would be illegal.

Koch-backed study finds ‘Medicare for All’ would save trillions

The libertarian Mercatus Center, a think tank backed by the right-wing Koch brothers, produced a report that looks at the costs of the aforementioned Medicare for All legislation.

The study found it would save $2 trillion dollars.

Why the Mercatus Center produced the study

The Mercatus Center produced the study to generate scary-sounding headlines like this:

But this headline misses the point. Changing health care from something that most people pay for through premiums and co-pays to something that the government pays for through taxes will, obviously, increase government spending.

A more interesting question is: Will a Medicare for All plan cost more than the status quo?

Burying the lede

The real headline news is that the study finds that Medicare for All will actually cost $2 trillion less than the current system over the first 10 years, the period covered by the Mercatus study. The key figure in the study is called “National Health Expenditures.” This accounts for all U.S. spending on health care, regardless of source.

The study finds that, in every single year, Medicare for All costs less than the current system. Savings increase over time, topping out at $303 billion in the final year of the study, 2031.

The source of the savings

Where do the savings come from? There are two main categories. The first is direct savings on health care costs. These include reduced payments to providers under the Medicare system and reduced drug costs through consolidated purchasing. The second major category of savings is administrative costs.

The administrative costs could actually be significantly greater than the study estimates. Mercatus assumes that administrative costs for people who are currently privately insured will drop from 13% to 6%. Medicare’s actual administrative costs, however, have consistently been below 2%.

Remember, everyone gets health care

Currently, there are still 30 million Americans without health insurance. Medicare for All would automatically insure all of them. Mercatus notes, reasonably, that the previously uninsured population would greatly increase their “utilization of health care services.”

The savings, however, are so substantial in transitioning from the status quo to Medicare for All that insuring 30 million additional people still brings overall health costs down by $2 trillion.

At a minimum, it’s a striking demonstration of the inefficiencies inherent in the private American medical system.


Watch: John Oliver on Facebook

HBO’s John Oliver takes on Facebook’s glitzy public relations campaign. "Facebook was doing exactly what it was built for, that’s why it was worth $600 billion. You didn’t build history’s most profitable data harvesting machine by accident,” Oliver said.


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