There are two problems, frequently discussed on this blog, that are really distinct but are easy to confuse or intertwine, and earlier today, I was brooding about them and thought a short post might be appropriate.
The first problem is this: Why does America do so much worse a job of providing social services to its citizens than other advanced post-industrial capitalist countries? Why is America the only such country without some form of national health service? Why do other countries provide paid family leave? Why is it that only in America college graduates are burdened with crushing student loans? Why are unions so much weaker here than in other comparable countries? And so forth. These are the questions that motivate the Sanders and Warren campaigns, that consume so much of my time and attention and yours too, I imagine.
The second problem is really quite distinct and different. It is the question first posed by Marx more than 150 years ago and given dramatic statistical underpinning by the work of Piketty and his associates: Why do all advanced post-industrial economies exhibit grotesque inequalities of wealth and income, inequalities that are relentlessly growing ever greater?
These really are different questions. To see that this is so, simply imagine that America magically adopted the best health care system now in operation anywhere, made higher education free to all, built generous family leave into its employment practices, saw a rebirth of the union movement, and so on and on. It would still be the case that the distribution of wealth and income was wildly unequal, and was growing more unequal with each passing decade.
The use of the word “socialism” as applied to Sanders’ proposals is seriously misleading, for as I have often observed, the words “collective ownership of the means of production’ seem never to cross his lips. I do not criticize him for this. He is running for President of the United States, not, as a wag once said, for Chair of the Literature Department. But the most his proposals, or those of Warren, could achieve if adopted would be to bring America in line with France or Germany or Sweden, and if Piketty is right, as I believe he is, that would perhaps slow but not at all reverse the steady accumulation and intergenerational transmission of wealth by the wealthiest segment of society.
I find it helps to keep these questions separate in my mind.