Who decides what your labor is worth?

The means of the distribution of wealth is an important factor in any society, and the “redistribution” of wealth isn’t just a socialist or communist agenda, as some would have you believe. Redistribution of wealth works both ways – downward and upward. We have a finite pie (wealth) to distribute. What portion goes to the rich, and how much is left for the rest of us to distribute? Who decides?

When the rich get richer relative to the rest of us, that’s a redistribution of wealth. In the past thirty years , we’ve seen the most massive redistribution of wealth in our history. Upward. The rich have taken more and more of the pie, leaving less for the middle- and lower-class to share. Executive pay continues to rise, while the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised in ten years. Some very wealthy people advocate a flat tax on income as the fairest way to tax. That may seem logical – if you’re rich – but the flat tax is a regressive tax that would result in even more of a redistribution of wealth to the rich. Progressive taxation (i.e. the more you make, the higher your tax bracket) shares the wealth more fairly. It can be used to create economic democracy in America.

The free market, we’re told, determines salaries. But the deck is stacked by the dealer in the casino of the American economy. In the private sector, the relative worth of a person’s labor is decided by the very people who stand to benefit most from having that power. They’ve created and sustained an inflationary spiral of executive salaries with the aid of an army of corporate lawyers and lobbyists, whose job it is to shape fiscal policy to the benefit of their employers.

It’s no accident that the rich in our country continue to prosper at the expense of the lower- and middle-classes, and top executives are frequently given bonuses on top of their exorbitant salaries. In 1978, CEOs might earn 38x more than their average employee’s salary. Today, CEOs have been estimated to “earn” over 300x the salary of their average employee. Even CEOs who have to resign in disgrace often get “golden parachutes” of millions of dollars – a reward for incompetence or malfeasance.

The perception managers of the Right have found that labeling someone with the L-word -liberal – doesn’t have the punch it once did. So now they use the S-word – socialist – to describe all people who don’t unquestioningly worship at the altar of laissez faire capitalism. It’s a continuation of their politics of fear, where liberal equals socialist equals closet communist.

In my opinion, Soviet communism inevitably collapsed because it was an unworkable system. It operated on the idealistic but false assumption that the one-party State, owning the means of production, would distribute the wealth fairly, because it’s an embodiment of the collective will of the people. It didn’t work out that way. Laissez faire capitalists, on the other hand, contend that the free market shouldn’t be regulated at all by the State, as supply-and-demand is an economic Law of Nature that shouldn’t be tampered with by governments. Socialists believe that the people should have a say in determining the relative worth of labor. Sure, some people should get more than others for their labor; but how much more? We needn’t leave it to the plutocrats to decide what is fair. We’re supposed to be a democracy.

A fairer distribution of wealth can be achieved within a democracy by a combination of effective government regulation of the market, and fair progressive taxation. Our current crisis came about because politicians – many of whom are themselves rich – decided that they could trust the richest capitalists to regulate themselves. Congress is a partially-owned subsidiary of the corporate state.

If we raise the highest tax brackets sufficiently, there would no longer be an incentive for a CEO to make hundreds of times more than the salary of his average employee, because most of the excessive remuneration would only generate revenue for the IRS. The capitalists who benefit most from being American citizens should be required to pay their fair share.

I believe than an important part of true democracy is economic democracy, which means that all workers get fair wages for their labor – a living wage. This means increasing the minimum wage substantially, and indexing it to inflation (i.e. it goes up automatically to keep up with inflation). Every full-time American worker deserves a living wage. Without a living wage, many workers are virtual wage slaves, sometimes forced to work two or more jobs to support their families, often one paycheck from homelessness. We can’t afford to let the rich get ever richer.

Why I’m a socialist

Not that kind of socialist! I don’t believe in the abolition of private property or in state ownership of the means of production. Like most American socialists (or social democrats, or democratic socialists) that I know, I believe in democracy, and believe that the people should have some say in how wealth is distributed in our society. Economic democracy means fair compensation for work: a living wage for all. The growing income gap between the rich and the poor can be brought under democratic control simply by establishing a fairer system of progressive taxation. (The more money you make, the higher your tax bracket.) In the fifties – a time of thriving prosperity for our economy – the top tax bracket for the very wealthy was over 90%. Now it’s 37%, but many of our richest citizens complain that even that is an unfair tax burden.

Like most European nations, the U.S. is already semi-socialist, and that’s the way most Americans seem to like it. If it weren’t for American socialists and labor unions, we wouldn’t have many things we take for granted these days: the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, paid vacations and sick leave, overtime pay and the minimum wage, as well as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t have universal health care. Every attempt to establish a system of affordable health care, from Franklin D. Roosevelt on, has been attacked by those who profit from the current system as “socialized medicine.” The great majority of family bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to medical emergencies. It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody should have to go broke in order to keep a family member alive.

I grew up knowing what it’s like to live in a socialist society, because I was an Army brat, and later a soldier. Being in the American military means guaranteed employment and salary. It means that you and your dependents get free medical care. (I was treated for kidney disease, my brother had an appendectomy, and my mother was treated for breast cancer, at no cost to our family.) Your military branch either provides housing or a housing allowance. It either provides you with food or gives you a food allowance. Occupational training (and graduate school, if you’re a qualified officer) is free, and if you serve for twenty years or more you get a pension, whether or not you ever serve in a combat zone. When you serve in the military, all of your basic needs are met by the State.

I’ve seen socialism demonized by rich conservatives all of my life. I doubt that the average American could tell you the difference between socialism and communism; but we’ve all been told, over and over, that they’re both BAD, and that they inevitably lead to tyranny. Tell that to the members of the European Union. Right-wing pundits and propagandists have pushed the notion that “liberal” is actually code for “progressive,” progressive is code for “socialist,” and socialist is code for “closet Commie.”

I’ve lived in other semi-socialist democracies for a total of nine years. Austria (where I lived for four years) has multiple political parties, one of the most popular being the Social Democratic Party. One of the most popular parties in Germany (where I lived for three years) is also a Social Democratic Party. Jamaica (where I lived for two years)  doesn’t have a Social Democratic Party; but one of the two parties, the Jamaican Labour Party, is socialistic. The citizens of all these countries have the same basic freedoms that we enjoy.

Austria and Germany both have progressive taxation. The highest tax bracket in Austria is 50%, in Germany 45%. Some citizens of these countries might pay higher taxes than American counterparts, but most find this acceptable because of the benefits, which include affordable health care and housing, fair wages, and free college and university education for students who get passing grades.

Despite decades of smear campaigns by capitalist propagandists, more Americans are coming to realize that socialism is nothing to fear, compared to unregulated laissez faire capitalism. Given the popularity of the Affordable Care Act, it appears that more and more people are realizing that “socialized medicine” isn’t so bad, after all. Recent polls indicate that a growing number of millennials favor democratic socialism over the current dominant model of capitalistic rule. Those who try to conflate socialism with tyranny and economic ruin are blowing smoke. Most socialistic nations are democracies, and tyrants are as likely to come from the Right as from the Left.

It seems to me that democratic socialism is a marriage of the best parts of laissez faire capitalism, with its incentives for innovation and productivity, and socialism, which gives the people a say in what each person’s labor is worth. Most rich capitalists hate progressive taxation and government regulation. Under-regulated corporations often care more about short-term profitability than about people. Under democratic socialism the people have more control over the excesses of greedy plutocrats.

Most (all?) democracies hold that certain things belong, not to any individual or corporate entity, but to all citizens. In the U.S. “the Commons” include public schools, libraries, roads and other infrastructure, public lands and national parks, as well as the air we breathe and the water we need to sustain life. Unlike the other democracies, the Commons in this country does not include medical care or higher education. It’s time to de-stigmatize “the S-word” and educate the electorate about the benefits of democratic socialism.