11 October 2010

Ted McLaughlin : Our Fear of the 'S' Word

Graphic from gapingvoid.

Do the American people like socialism
as long as we don't call it that?

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / October 11, 2010

There is little doubt that for most Americans, "socialist" would be about the worst thing they could be called. Americans seem convinced that having a socialist system of economics (and it is an economic system -- not a type of government) would be against everything America stands for. They feel this way because the word has been demonized for decades in this country by right-wingers and corporate interests.

Most Americans equate socialism with communism (a different economic system) and dictatorship (a type of government). The truth is that socialism has little to do with either one. I don't think most Americans even know what socialism is. To them it is just an evil lurking in the shadows waiting to steal our freedom, something akin to slavery or tyranny.

But there is an interesting survey that tends to show we, as Americans, may be more afraid of the word than the reality. There's no doubt Americans are afraid of the word, but the survey by Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University shows that a huge majority of Americans may actually think socialism produces a fairer and better result than our own biased-toward-the-rich capitalist system.

Their survey, which included a large group of 5,522 American citizens, showed a couple of very interesting things. The first is that most Americans don't realize just how out-of-whack the distribution of wealth is in America.

Survey respondents believed that the richest 20% of Americans control about 59% of the country's wealth. The truth is much worse. In 2005, the richest 20% actually controlled about 84% of the wealth in America (and that percentage has undoubtedly grown in the last five years).

The authors of the survey then presented the respondents with three unmarked pie charts. The first showed an even 20% of wealth for each fifth of the population. The second showed the distribution of wealth in the United States. The third showed the distribution of wealth in Sweden (definitely a socialist country, where the richest 20% controls 36% of the country's wealth). They were asked to choose which pie chart showed the most appropriate (fairest) distribution of wealth. Here are the results:

When asked to choose among all three charts
United States...............10%
Equal portions...............43%

When asked to chose between Equal and Swedish charts

When asked to choose between Equal and U.S. charts
United States...............23%

When asked to choose between U.S. and Swedish charts
United States...............8%

It is interesting that a small majority of Americans chose the Swedish distribution of wealth over an exactly equal distribution of wealth. They were quite willing to accept that there will be some inequality in an economic system and thought the Swedish (socialist) distribution of wealth was the best possible outcome. But very few (8%) of the respondents thought the distribution of wealth created in the United States was fair or appropriate.

And even more amazing is that the preference for the Swedish distribution of wealth over the U.S. distribution of wealth cut across gender, party and income lines. Here is that breakdown:

Preferred the Swedish (socialist) distribution of wealth
Democratic voters...............93.5%
Republican voters...............90.2%
Make under $50,000...............92.1%
Make $50,000-$100,000...............91.7%
Make over $100,000...............89.1%

These lop-sided figures bring into question the supposed American hatred of socialism. It turns out that at least 90% of Americans would prefer the distribution of wealth created by a socialist system to the distribution our own capitalist system has created.

They may be afraid of the word "socialism," but they believe the results of socialism are better -- as long as you don't use the "S" word to describe it. In other words, years of propaganda and scare tactics have frightened them into accepting a system they know is fair only for the richest few Americans.

Now I know that some will be screaming that socialism involves "income redistribution" -- another term Americans have been convinced is a bad thing. But the truth is that there is income redistribution in all economic systems. In our form of rich-biased capitalism, that redistribution is to the richest citizens in the country from everyone else. In socialism, the redistribution is much fairer and more even.

Americans are really socialists at heart and believe in a fairer system of wealth distribution. They have just been convinced by decades of propaganda to vote against the their best interests of those of their fellow citizens, and that's just sad.

[Rag Blog contributor Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger.]

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