George Pyle: Anything that isn’t welfare for the rich is now ‘socialism’

Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, left, U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, stand together on stage after a rally, Friday, July 20, 2018, in Wichita, Kan. (Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

A young Latina from the Bronx and an old white dude from New England are taking what may be a premature victory lap around the country, making the point that a philosophy of government that has come to be called “socialism" — or, to make it sound less menacing, “democratic socialism” — is an idea whose time has come.

The previously unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a lock to be elected in the bright blue 14th Congressional District of New York, having out-hustled a 10-term incumbent old-school Democrat in the primary. She’s had time to go on tour, getting rock-star welcomes at rallies from Kansas to California.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has openly identified as a socialist since he was the mayor of Burlington back in the 1980s, is riding shotgun. (That’s a really funny line because the fatal flaw in Sanders' history for many Democrats is that he’s supposedly soft on gun control.)

It is amazing to some folks, Republican and Democrat, that anyone would stand up and call themselves a socialist and, even more astounding, that they would win elections. Sanders notwithstanding, it is kind of a generational thing. Most older folks identify the word with things like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which actually was about as socialist as the Spanish Inquisition was Christian.

Didn’t expect that, did you?

A younger generation is more likely to associate the term with, well, the civilized world. The United Kingdom, France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, etc., etc. Nations where the democratically elected government serves its constituents by setting tax rates high and putting the money toward a wide range of public services, everything from clean and efficient public transit to extended paid maternity leave to universal health care provided through one or another pipeline.

If socialism sounds radical — pleasantly or not — it is because the U.S. is so much like a Third World kleptocracy where all is set to transferring income from the bottom to the top that anything that isn’t welfare for the rich has that label attached to it.

Governments come and go, coalitions assemble and fall apart, taxes go up and down and the level of public services provided wobbles around a bit. That’s the democratic part. But the idea that a society provides some level of those services is not questioned and the contest is between parties and leaders who claim to have found the right mix. That’s the socialist part.

They treat health care and other social supports the way we treat our defense budget. We argue about just how much money the Pentagon needs, whether it should be emphasizing aircraft carriers or missiles or special ops or cyberwar. But nobody expects to win an election by promising to do away with it.

The rich in these civilized nations put up with it, mostly, because they are outnumbered, because votes count more than campaign contributions, and because the affluent are mostly smart enough to see that they benefit from living in a country where they don’t have to pay their taxes and step over homeless people in the streets and have to come up with lots of money to put their kids through college and live in a nation where public health suffers because private health care isn’t up to the strain.

And because they have less fear of being the first ones up against the wall come the revolution. And less fear of what might happen to them, or their grandchildren, if they fall into the clutches of the Nordic version of Bernie Madoff and wind up depending on the social safety net they’ve been paying for all those years.

In this country, the new socialist push centers around health care, specifically the Medicare-for-All idea that is gaining ground in direct response to the Republican drive to destroy Obamacare despite its unappreciated attempt to keep private, for-profit providers and insurance carriers in the loop when, by all logic, they should have been thrown overboard from the outset.

You may have read that studies show that Medicare-for-All would cost a megaton of money, even by federal government standards. Maybe $32 trillion over 10 years. But that’s $2 trillion less than we are likely to spend — covering fewer people and paying for the worst outcomes in the First World — as a nation on our current track.

Neither Obamacare nor Medicare-for-All is socialist in the Marxist workers-control-the-means-of-production sense. That would be a system where the government owns the hospitals and hires the doctors. Like the jealously guarded British National Health Service, which even Margaret Thatcher dared not touch. Or the highly rated, if still too expensive, University of Utah Health System. (Ooops. I probably wasn’t supposed to tell you that. Never mind.)

Health care belongs in a more socialist model because it isn’t what the private sector is good at. Free marketeers are good, really good, scary good, at stuff. Cars, phones, TVs, mini-fridges, toothpaste, laptops, junk food, T-shirts, toys, scratching posts, novelty coffee cups. Stuff that can be thought up and test-marketed and focus-grouped and manufactured in such amazing bulk that the unit prices drop to a level that most people can afford. And if they can’t afford it they can do without. And if the company selling it goes out of business, it was a rational market decision.

Heath care is not stuff. It is life. It absolutely, positively has no place in a free market because the customer cannot walk away. If you can’t walk away, you aren’t a customer. You’re a victim.

That’s why the funding, if not the actual provision, of health care belongs in the same bucket as public safety, justice, due process, transportation infrastructure and the University of Utah. (Ooops. I did it again.)

Some people, both for and against, will call that socialism. The proper term for it is civilization.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, doesn’t think of himself as a socialist because it sounds like being social. Which he’s not very good at. Unless there’s ice cream. gpyle@sltrib.com