[Marxism] Socialism, American-Style (not really)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 23 07:50:11 MDT 2015

(I was persuaded by Michael Lebowitz that the term socialism was 
preferable to communism since Marx used them interchangeably and since 
the latter term has been tarnished by Stalinism even if Jodi Dean is 
trying to rehabilitate it. An article like this and Bernie Sanders 
constant reference to Swedish-style welfare states as "socialist" might 
persuade me otherwise. I have deep respect for Gar Alperovitz but the 
idea that the Alaska Permanent Fund is in any way "socialist" strikes me 
as absurd.)

NY Times Op-Ed, July 23 2015
Socialism, American-Style

THE great 20th-century conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter thought 
the left had overlooked a major selling point in pressing the case for 
public — i.e., government — control over productive capital. “One of the 
most significant titles to superiority,” he suggested, was that public 
ownership produced profits, which means not having to depend on taxes to 
raise money.

The bulk of the left never took up Schumpeter’s argument. But in an 
oddly fitting twist, these days the mantra of public control in exchange 
for lower taxes has been embraced by a surprising quarter of the 
American political leadership: conservatives.

The most well-known case is Alaska. The Alaska Permanent Fund, 
established by a Republican governor in 1976, combines not one, but two 
socialist principles: public ownership and the provision of a basic 
income for all residents. The fund collects and invests proceeds from 
the extraction of oil and minerals in the state. Dividends are paid out 
annually to all state residents.

Texas is another example of conservative socialism in practice. Almost 
150 years ago the Texas Permanent School Fund took control of roughly 
half of all the land and associated mineral rights still in the public 
domain. In 1953, coastal “submerged lands” were added after being 
relinquished by the federal government. Each year distributions from the 
fund go to support education; in 2014 alone it gave $838.7 million to 
state schools. Another fund, the $17.5 billion Permanent University 
Fund, owns more than two million acres of land, the proceeds of which 
help underwrite the state’s public university system.

Similar socialized funds — sometimes called sovereign wealth funds — are 
common in other conservative states. The Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust 
Fund, with a market value of more than $7 billion accumulated from 
mineral extraction, is almost a direct expression of Schumpeter’s 
doctrine: Socialized ownership has helped to eliminate income taxes in 
the state.

Such “socialism, American style,” can produce odd reversals of 
conservative-liberal political alignments. One of the largest 
“socialist” enterprises in the nation is the Tennessee Valley Authority, 
a publicly owned company with $11 billion in sales revenue, nine million 
customers and 11,260 employees that produces electricity and helps 
manage the Tennessee River system. In 2013 President Obama proposed 
privatizing the T.V.A., but local Republican politicians, concerned with 
the prospect of higher prices for consumers and less money for their 
states, successfully opposed the idea.

Although state forms of public ownership have not been a major goal of 
the modern left, activists have begun to pick up on the idea that owning 
wealth in ways that benefit local communities is important. In Boulder, 
Colo., climate-change activists have helped win two major victories at 
the polls in a fight to municipalize the current utility owned by Xcel 
Energy. Publicly owned utilities also commonly return a portion of their 
profits, socialist style, to the city or county to help supplement local 
budgets, easing the pressure on taxpayers.

There are, in fact, already more than 2,000 publicly owned electric 
utilities that, along with cooperatives, supply more than 25 percent of 
the country’s electricity, now operating throughout the United States.

In one of the most conservative states, Nebraska, every single resident 
and business receives electricity from publicly owned utilities, 
cooperatives or public power districts. Partly as a result, Nebraskans 
pay one of the lowest rates for electricity in the nation.

The list goes on. More than 450 communities have also built partial or 
full public Internet systems, some after significant political battles. 
Roughly one-fifth of all hospitals are also currently publicly owned. 
Many cities own hotels, including Dallas — where the project was 
championed by the former Republican mayor Tom Leppert. Some 30 states 
directly invest public funds in promising start-up companies.

Moreover, contrary to conventional opinion, studies of the comparative 
efficiency of modern public enterprise show rough equivalency to private 
firms in many cases. (They aren’t perfect, of course: Many public 
agencies, boards and corporations that control enterprises are not fully 
accountable or transparent in their operations.)

With skepticism about capitalism growing among minorities and young 
voters, will we see more such endeavors in the future? Pendulums have a 
way of swinging, sometimes very sharply, when big economic tsunamis hit. 
It is possible that in the next big crisis, both sides might see the 
wisdom and practical benefits of public ownership, and embrace Joseph 
Schumpeter’s point even more boldly than they do today.

Gar Alperovitz is ­the author of “What Then Must We Do?” and a founder 
of the Democracy Collaborative, a community development organization, 
where Thomas M. Hanna is the research director.

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