Monday, June 11, 2007

Will Socialism Make a Rebound?

When I was a first year grad student at Northwestern, 1976-77, each day during the school week I would drive up from my apartment in Rogers Park and spend most of the day on campus. Northwestern was on the quarter system and I believe most of my classmates took 3 courses per quarter. I took 4, initially because I didn’t understand the difference between the quarter system and the semester system and 4 courses didn’t seem like such a heavy load, and later so I could try out some things other than the prescribed curriculum and take some classes with students who were past their first year. Aside from attending classes, I put in a lot of time in the reserve room doing the required reading and working through the economic models – you read economic papers with a pencil and a pad of paper and you show yourself you understand by deriving the equations/model.

I had hardly taken any economics as an undergrad and I didn’t know whether I’d be any good at it nor, and more important for me at the time, whether I’d like it. I told myself to suspend judgment on that, give it my best shot for a quarter or so, and then see where I was. During the first quarter I was quite certain I had never worked that hard before, especially over an extended period of time. It’s funny. After a while just from putting in the effort the subject matter co-opts you, your speech becomes laden with the jargon of the discipline, and then almost subliminally you ask how is it possible that you’re putting in all that time if you don’t like it?

Even with all the classes and the time in the Library I still had some free time on hand and I needed some release from the regular studies simply to keep my wits about me. Frequently at the end of the day a particular classmate and I (and sometimes his girlfriend) would go out for desert. There was a pie place in Skokie, as I recall on Dempster, that we went to often and as an alternative we’d go to a deli that had a wide variety of cheesecakes located on Sheridan Road across from Loyola. But it didn’t make sense to go off campus during the day and since I didn’t have office space (I may have had a carrel in the Library but that was even more spartan than the Reserve Room; starting in my second year I got a desk in the Math Center) I’d hang out in public spaces on campus. The two main ones that I’d frequent were the Cafeteria at the Norris Center (which is still there today) and the Library Lounge (which I believe has since been repurposed for other Library use).

Many of the other grad students on campus, particularly those in their first year, were more or less in the same boat as I was. So there was a tendency to see the same faces in these spots. That classmate with whom I frequently had desert with had been a bit of a Marxist as an undergrad (he went to the U of Colorado in Boulder, came from a well to do family in Philadelphia, and had some sort of authority thing for his old man). This classmate introduced me to some sociology students, one of whom also was a Marxist. We had interesting discussions, if a little bit on the b.s. side of the spectrum as compared to what I was getting in my classes, and I believe I read the Communist Manifesto just to feel comfortable in those conversations. Since I took a Linear Programming class in my first quarter there, I was able to appreciate the Labor Theory of Value on a technical level, though I don’t believe it came up much in my courses (we did spend a lot of time on National Income Accounting in the first quarter of Macro and I recall that the underlying model was a general Leontief System) so could give back in these conversations on the technical side of things. These conversations plus one course as an undergrad on economic models of politics where we read Schumpeter was essentially my entire education about Socialism. The bulk of my formal training was on neoclassical economics.

This little lead in is my mea culpa in talking about Socialism when really, I’m not expert in this at all and so maybe I’m saying things in an awkward way or perhaps even incorrectly. But it seems to me that in a lot of what I’m reading these days or watching in film there is lurking behind the scenes the question of whether some version of Socialism is where we are (should be?) headed. Let me give some examples so you can see what I mean.

Last week I saw Freedom Writers on Pay Per View. The first half hour or so was horrible, a lot of senseless violence and utter despair, and I was getting pretty disgusted with the picture and ready to turn off the TV when the tone of the film changed. I understood that they were trying to set up the situation, give the viewer a sense of the accomplishment of the teacher and the students by noting the brutality of what had come before. What I didn’t understand till after the film was over that you the viewer actually need to have the feeling of being assaulted in order to make an emotional connection with what the teacher does in getting through to her students. And the only way to create that sensation was to have the first part of the film seem to drag on forever. That created a sense of the abyss, with no way out.

The teacher goes through a period of disconnect and distrust with her students. You the viewer have a sense of hopelessness but the teacher remains optimistic and determined. Eventually she figures out a way for them to open up with each other by acknowledging the common horrors they’ve experienced – friends and relatives being shot to death – and she does this in a clever pedagogic way where the students not only indicate their own circumstance but see the circumstance of their classmates at the same time. This was the bond they needed to accept her as a teacher and to cross racial lines and accept their classmates as human beings. Once the bond was formed the teacher was able to get remarkable communication and depth of expression from the students because it was the first time in their lives where they could talk on an emotional level about the realities of their own existence. They had a need to get this out. The teacher filled that need and taught them how to right at the same time.

The teacher goes through a remarkable amount of self-sacrifice to achieve a quality learning environment for her students. The supplies at school are inadequate – the department head wouldn’t let this class use the books that were in the school warehouse for fear that the students would ruin them and because she had a pejorative view of the students’ ability to read – so the teacher worked additional jobs after school in order to earn enough money to pay for books and other supplies out of her own pocket. This was another demonstration to her students that she cared and that demonstration extracted a strong response in kind from the students. But the teacher paid a high price for her own dedication. Her husband felt neglected and they end up separating before the end of the film. It also seemed that she was more of an achiever than her husband and he couldn’t deal with her drive and ambition for her class. She couldn’t reconcile her work life and her family life. So the message seems to be that wonderful things happen at school, even at a tough school like this one, but there is indeed a big price to pay to get those wonderful things. The teacher pays the price willingly, as if to say her kids are human beings and they deserve the attention, don’t they?

Ultimately, the picture turns into a tear jerker in part because this outcome is so exceptional, though the student needs for personal dignity and to tell someone what they are going through seem so basic and so ordinary. And precisely for that reason I started asking myself whether something like this could be done on a large scale --- in other words, socialism.

Let me turn next to Health Care Plans that the candidates are advancing and how those are entering into the Presidential Campaign. Atul Gwande had an interesting piece on the Obama plan, noting that the particulars of the announced plan may mean less than the ability to shepherd a modified and renegotiated plan through an inevitably difficult and painful process with Congress to come to something that can both get the necessary votes and yet solves the mess we’re in now with so many uninsured and premiums skyrocketing.

I started to ask myself how Obama and indeed how any of the other candidates might work their way through such a negotiation – what will inform them on those subsidiary issues where they can be flexible and those principles where they need to make their own personal line in the sand. And in thinking through that question I thought to myself that the candidates need some personal ideology to serve as a guide for hashing all this out. For the Republican candidates, perhaps it’s enough to think of health care primarily as an issue about the cost of doing business, and containing such costs so we can maintain our competitiveness. But Democratic candidates, of necessity, have to consider health care from the perspective of the well being of those unemployed (and uninsured) as well as those who have jobs and insurance but are fearful of losing both. What other principle is there to advocate for a system where all get insurance regardless of employment status unless it is Socialism, though some may prefer other euphemisms (Social Safety Net?).

Health care, though clearly an important issue (health care costs have been rising faster than the rate of inflation and in the U.S. we have the highest health care expenditure as a fraction of GDP, see this table) is still just one issue. Perhaps a more fundamental concern is income inequality. This afternoon I found a current version of USA Today at the coffee place and while I normally don’t read that paper for some reason I went to their Op-Ed page and found this piece. Income inequality is front and center there, something for us as a nation to be ashamed about. That column is about the pious nature of our public religious face; if we really believed in the Golden Rule how could we possibly endure so much poverty in a land with so much plenty? But many of us, brought up with a strong notion of the benefit from the separation of Church and State may look for a non-religious argument for reducing income inequality. How about this essay by Albert Einstein? It’s called, “Why Socialism?”

USA Today certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the income inequality issue. The New York Times Magazine devoted the entirety of its most recent issue to the income inequality question. It looks at this question through many lenses: the candidacy of John Edwards is the feature, but there is also a stimulating if a bit disconcerting piece on the preaching of Ruby Payne and getting insight into attitudinal and behavior differences attributable to class differences and in particular why middle class teachers have such a hard time teaching the children of the poor, a discussion of how to manage promoting growth of the economy on the one hand where a superstar approach gives the right incentives to create new ideas and new product with providing a decent quality of life for those who are less fortunate on the other hand.

But the piece that got me most thinking about this, even if it was a bit of fluff, was the article about Larry Summers, where apparently Summers is reconsidering the views he had during the Clinton-Rubin years where he was pretty much a free trader and government’s role was to make trade as unfettered from regulation as possible, to considering a latter day “Industrial Policy” so that workers would not suffer so much from the inevitable dislocations that have resulted from Globalization. Summers, for all the hoopla surrounding his leaving the Presidency of Harvard, is a serious thinker and someone who probably would prefer to couch his own arguments within a broader framework. And if his big issue is how to tame the beast of competition in global markets, will he go so far as to embrace Socialism? He’s not there yet, clearly, but has reached his final resting place on this? My guess is that he is still in intellectual transition.

So far in this piece, I’ve considered Socialism as a kind of income insurance. That is certainly an aspect but it’s far from the whole picture. There is a different type of question to ask, one that is not yet getting as much press, but a question I think that may be more fundamental. Consider the Robin Hood type of income distribution but coming not through banditry but rather through volunteerism. Think of the Peace Corps, of Teach For America, even of the United Way. These programs matter. They matter to the recipients of the services and they matter to the providers. But ask yourself whether these programs are enough, taken altogether. Do they matter in a macroeconomic sense? Or are they a drop in the bucket?

Consider volunteerism as a coordination problem – it’s a lot easier to get people to do the volunteer work if friends and peers are also doing the volunteer work. This means if you want the volunteerism to matter in a macroeconomic sense you need government to play some role to encourage participation. That role is not social insurance. It’s more like instilling social responsibility and encouraging the resulting behavior (something Einstein argued in the essay linked above). The government does play this type of role with military service. Why is that the only way that young people can show responsibility for their country? Given the issues we face, does that make sense?

It’s my sense that we need to advocate for a kind of social responsibility on our campuses and make that real to our students, giving them opportunities to do the equivalent of volunteer work while they are pursuing their studies and making that part of the fabric of their education. How else can we combat the cheating, the nihilism, the disengagement? And how else can we give meaning to their education in the here and now, education for itself, not only a deferred gratification, as a gateway to good jobs.

Yet socialism is a dirty word. We think of Red Scares, of the Iron Curtain, of cumbersome state sponsored bureaucracy. We’ve embraced the rhetoric of Milton Friedman. Friedman’s key word was freedom, individual freedom. His TV show with his wife Rose was called Free to Choose. Socialism, even Social Democracy of the type practiced in Sweden and not just the Scientific Socialism we associate with Marx and Lenin, clearly has elements that restrict freedom. As long as it stays a dirty word, the ideas can’t make a comeback, though if one looks at the issues we’re focusing on now, the ideas should be front and center. So I don’t know how this will play out. But I know what my heart tells me.


Norma said...

Your comments made me think on the 'technology (Internet) revolution' and how does Friedman's flat world or the horizontal management of information contribute or has an impact on social responsibilities and socialism. New movements have started to influence thought and economy, such as the collaboration that occurs in open source movements where volunteerism is key, and the overall ideal is to improve a product for the 'common good'. It is hard to avoid being skeptical to the "socially constructed" networks, and feel that they are 'finite', 'too good to be truth', or think 'those that build them will get a real job and stop playing around'... We are facing new and unexpected trends such as the positive and public acceptance of the web 2.0 applications, the important contributions that anonymous individuals have made to open source applications, and the growing availability and acceptance of software that allow and encourage social networks.
Now I am asking myself these questions: How much does technology have to do with a rebound of social ideas or socialism? How much can technology facilitate students' volunteerism in different disciplines as they pursue their studies? How can technology help campuses to form more 'socially responsible' individuals?

Lanny Arvan said...

Norma - I was thinking less about the technology and more about ideology when I wrote this post. But it is worth noting that most of the volunteer programs are face to face. It might be possible to get many more people involved if there were some online aspect. On the other hand, perhaps online is harder to put together that makes sense for the locals.