Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Privatizing Gains, Socializing Losses vs Socializing Gains, Privatizing Losses

I thought, like most Americans, that the president gave a very effective speech last night to congress and the nation. But something struck me this morning as I listened to the chattering heads the morning after. Much of the argument from Republicans is the direct inverse of the argument Democrats have been making for several years, namely: it's all about whether we privatize or socialize gains and losses.

The progressive argument states that corporations and their private shareholders/owners aim to privatize gains through profit as much as they can, while shifting "costs" or losses onto society in general. A clear example is pollution. If a company profits by manufacturing something that creates severe pollution that the company is allowed to dump into the air and water, then society bears a significant cost associated with the production of that product, and the company profits by not having to pay all the expenses associated with their production.

So then the pollutants often lead to higher incidents of asthma in children and adults near chemical plants, or higher rates of cancer, etc. -- and so social health programs (with public taxes, not at the company's expense) or individuals suffering then carry the burden of the "socialized cost." This is why Democrats often push for tighter regulations of private enterprise, to minimize the degree of socializing costs, shifting costs to the general public, in order to increase private profits.

The conservative argument postulates that a great economic danger is in privatizing losses while socializing gains, the exact inverse of the progressive argument - this is how we can tell now that we are on ideological terra firma with both arguments. The conservative argument is almost always made as an argument against the perils of taxes, and it's why progressives often accuse conservatives of thinking tax cuts are the solution to every problem.

In the conservative view, the nation does far greater harm to itself by privatizing losses and costs through excessive taxation in order to create socialized benefits. This is, however, the basic dynamic behind any taxation, whether it is to build roads and schools (albeit most conservatives do not oppose this) or to build and operate a "common defense" in the military. Conservatives, however, think there is danger in over-extending this dynamic to include what they feel are other ineffective social and other programs.

Neither position is absolutist of course, but they often stand on slippery slopes.

But here in this moment, in this time of great challenge, we need to be careful not to retreat to these easy diametric ideological positions and thereby miss the most practical circumstances and solutions that are key to our collective recovery.

The most salient question is the one posed by the president in another speech: the question is not, "Is government too big or too small?" as it was in the 80's and 90's. Rather, the question is, "Is government being effective." That's the question today. That's our question right now as a nation facing great challenge.

Reasonable people will disagree on that question. But make no mistake, that is the conversation we must be having.