Capitalism in America has failed. With the Dow Jones Industrial Average reaching a record high recently, many would argue that the United States has rebounded from the economic recession and is now well along the path to full recovery, and that the previous assertion is far from truth. Failed economic policies and pandering to corporate-supported lobbyists over the past several decades resulted in a housing bubble and subsequent burst that catalyzed a recession larger than any since the Great Depression in the early 20th century. Though the country is indeed on the upswing again, the abhorrent mismanagement of our economy, our society, and our political structure will unfortunately continue as long as policymakers with poor understandings of the mechanisms that drive them continue to be elected and supported.
Every election cycle in America brings with it a host of tired, poorly-reasoned methodologies. Politicians continue to implement failed fiscal ideologies like trickle-down economics and lower taxes for higher earners, ever tighter government control over our civil liberties with the odious Defense of Marriage and Patriot Acts, and political grandstanding with repeated filibusters against every piece of legislation to circulate through the House of Representatives and the Senate. Despite every indication to the contrary, a significant portion of the American government pushes poorly-reasoned positions, promising a better America but ultimately only causing damage to the financial underpinnings of the entire planet, reduced freedoms through laws of dubious legality, and unreasonable inefficiency of Congressional proceedings. Were the people able to more directly shape policy in this nation, many of these issues would be resolved, at least in part.
In “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert explores the concept of “super-replicators” – anything capable of multiplying or being transmitted more effectively or much faster than would normally be expected – through the lens of genetic replication and idea transfer, to explain the misguided belief that having children makes people happier, and its persistence through time across our entire society. More-so than any other argument presented in Gilbert’s essay, this one struck a deep chord. What is it about bad ideas that causes their superior comparative uptake with respect to good ideas? More generally, how do we decide what bad ideas are? Why do ideas that we know are bad continue to resurface even after being cast aside or fading away? Specifically in the context of social and economic politics, how do ideas we already know are bad continue to exist?
The actions of the United States government have resulted in the gradual stripping of American freedoms and the imperilment of the American Dream. Most recently, this has been done through obscene systematic judicial overreach via the broken plea bargain system, levying extreme sentences against political dissidents ending in the death of a young man with a bright, promising future. Also symptomatic of the decline of the nation is the absurd, disproportionate violence by militarized police forces throughout the country; the current system arms officers well beyond what is necessary to carry out their duties, to the detriment of the people as a whole. Similarly, on a global scale, America has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in two unfunded and poorly overseen wars that this and the previous administration were lax in pushing to take care of. Aggression by the United States against other sovereign nations, both friend and foe, is not confined wholly to paramilitary activities, however; the capitalist perpetual greed machine has endangered the entire planet’s future through willful violations of financial procedures and laws by the banking system, it has directly contributed to the wholesale destruction of the ecosystem through lax environmental regulations, and stripped funding and thereby efficacy from the educational system, reducing our chances of maintaining, protecting, and improving the planet we call home.
Yet through it all, the American people have continued to vote along party lines and vehemently resist any real meaningful change. The commonly held belief in this country is that the hard-capitalism and pseudo-representative democracy economic and political systems in place here are the best in the world, but this is an unfounded belief, and in many ways quite wrong. The United States consistently ranks well behind the social-democracies in northern Europe in happiness, education, and life expectancy, to name a few metrics. Despite this, many Americans have remained resistant to the socialist label; the Republican Party went as far as passing a resolution derisively referring to the Democratic Party as the Democratic Socialist Party. Truly, the anti-socialist sentiment is a super-replicator: this behavior in the United States originated with the First Red Scare following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Things settled down until the Second Red Scare, pushed primarily by Senator Joseph McCarthy, after the Second World War. McCarthyism never fully left the country after the Second Red Scare, and has most recently been popping up in political rhetoric, targeted at President Barack Obama and the modern Democratic Party. But would a Democratic Socialist Party really be a bad thing?
In the face of evidence showing the superiority of the modern socialist democracies, the anti-socialist diatribe has not ceased. Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act spearheaded by President Obama, many pundits and political commentators around the country decried the new “socialist” policies, though they were actually corporatist in nature. The Republican Party bills itself as the party of smaller government, claiming that larger governments with more employees are inefficient and to be avoided. That position seems strange: the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development has compiled a database of statistics regarding the economies of the world, and this database shows quite plainly that twelve countries are ahead of the United States in total employment as of the third fiscal quarter of 2012, and the Nordic countries specifically employ roughly 30% of their population in the public sector. The 2009 bailout of the financial and automotive industries was widely regarded in America as a very socialist move, despite the fact that, following the bailout, the United States government still owned only about one twentieth of one percent of American companies. This last opinion makes even less sense when juxtaposed with the reality of the social democracies of the Nordic sphere: Sweden allowed Saab to go bankrupt and Volvo is now owned entirely by Geely, a Chinese company. When it was discovered that the major banks in Iceland held assets worth nine times the country’s economy, the financial structure was destabilized and every other bank folded up and collapsed. In response, Iceland eased consumer debt by amending loan repayment laws, raised taxes, and seized control of the largest lending firms in the nation, even eschewing America’s tradition of ignoring financial executives’ responsibility for the economic disaster and jailing at least two for fraud. Most of the northern European countries are strongly in favor of free trade too, and to a greater extent than has been seen in America in over a century. Democratic socialist countries in Europe are living the American dream while America itself is not.
Sweden learned over a decade ago how to cope with an economic recession and the effects of bad government, and they emerged a much stronger social democracy because of it. Iceland recovered from a then-terrifying financial crisis a short while ago where their foreign debts were over eleven times larger than the entire Icelandic gross domestic product, and their economy is fantastically strong after strict regulation and oversights helped get them back on track. Other countries in the region have dealt with and resolved economic issues of their own, and all have proven consistently to be the most socially progressive nations on the planet. The major differentiating factor between those populations and any of the regional populations of the United States is the adoption of socialism in some form or another, and America would be quite foolish indeed to continue ignoring that fact. Free market, laissez-faire capitalism in the United States has failed the American people, and tried-and-true socialist ideas can provide the answer we so desperately need. Daniel Gilbert was spot-on when he described the spread of certain ideas as super-replicators: poor ideas do spread and persist, specifically in politics and economics, though this does not have to remain the case; with the proper education and public relations efforts, the ideals held by the successful socialist democracies throughout the rest of the planet could become super-replicators in this country as well.