Economics, Minnesota, Politics, USA

Single-payer healthcare in the state of Minnesota

Constitutionally speaking, Americans do not have a right to healthcare.  We have a right to free speech, a right to bear arms, a right to freely practice religion or to be free from religious practice, but we do not have a constitutional right to be cared for when we are sick. Supporters of a single-payer system, myself being one of them, are hoping to change that.

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Legislation creating a single-payer healthcare system, aka “universal healthcare”, aka “Medicare for all”, would not change the Constitution, but it would guarantee all Americans publicly funded access to core medical services.  Obamacare is not an example of this system, but it is perhaps a move in that direction, in the sense that it uses the federal government as a tool to get healthcare in the hands of people that the private market had previously left behind.

Unfortunately, the American Healthcare Act, supported by Trump and currently being considered by the Republican-controlled Congress, threatens to undo a lot of that progress.  Needless to say, this is a pretty disheartening development for single-payer advocates who had viewed Obamacare as a significant step towards their ultimate goal.  That’s why Minnesotan supporters of a single-payer system should turn their attention away from Washington and towards creating a single-payer system here in Minnesota.

In the United States, our federalist system of government grants significant leeway to its semi-sovereign states in controlling their own affairs.  In terms of power, state governments may be inferior to the federal government, but they are not necessarily subordinate to it.  This means that, in the case of healthcare, even though conservative legislators in Washington are fighting for further privatization, progressive state legislators can still fight to enact something more public within their borders.  Even though the American Healthcare Act may have dire consequences for the poor, old, unlucky and underprivileged in other U.S. states, that doesn’t have to be the case for anyone in the state of Minnesota.

Trying to pass single-payer legislation at the state level would be an enormous challenge.  Aside from the politics, the practicality of such a system is pretty daunting.  First and foremost is the cost.  In California, the most recent state to seriously consider a single-payer system, a legislative analysis estimated a $400 billion per year price tag.  That is more than double the entire state budget proposed for next year.

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And what about the system that we already have in place?  As one write-up put it, a single-payer system “may be what any sane and progressive community would adopt if it was creating a health-care system from scratch,” but that is obviously not the case here in the U.S.  The massive systemic overhaul that it would take to transition from the entangled clusterfuck of deductibles and co-pays to a system in which the state government replaces insurance companies, employers, out-of-pocket patients, and the federal government as the “single payer” is head-spinning to say the least.

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And then there are the criticisms that we always hear of single-payer systems—the longer lines, the lower quality, and the lack of responsibility shown by citizens once they get start to get something for “free”.  Some of the criticisms may be exaggerated, but in spite of whatever benefits a single-payer system might bring, I don’t think that there is any doubt that, at least for some patients, these problems would become a reality.

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But in order to be a success, a single-payer system doesn’t need to be perfect.  It just needs to be better than what we currently got.

A single-payer system would be expensive, but the U.S. already pays more for healthcare than any other country in the world, including the myriad of countries that have already adopted single-payer systems.  Even though the California proposal has a price tag of $400 billion, Californians already paid $367 billion for healthcare in 2016, and that doesn’t include the nearly 3 million uninsured residents that didn’t receive coverage, but would under the state plan.  The real difference would be that, rather than paying a for-profit middleman like the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies that currently rake in all those dollars, Californians would be paying the government via taxes.  And while those estimated costs still leave the price tag of single-payer significantly higher ($33 billion according to the estimates), it would also provide core medical services to EVERYONE.

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With everyone being eligible to receive government-sponsored medical care, it would not be surprising to find lines that are a little longer or care that is of slightly lower quality for those accustomed to having the most prestigious of plans.  But if this is the case, then the only reason that those lines were so short in the first place is because some people were not allowed to wait in them, and I’m not okay with that.  Plus, one would imagine that, even under a single-payer system, the economically empowered would still be able to use their financial wherewithal to purchase goods and services not accessible to most.

Implementing a single-payer system of healthcare in Minnesota would not be easy.  Even if the political will were there, inevitable setbacks and complications would surely make the transition process a frustrating one for many.  I don’t know if it would be best to try to implement that system in one fell swoop or in a series of steps, but I do know that these are the types of discussions that should be taking place in the halls of the Minnesota State Capitol.

States are the laboratories of democracy, and Minnesota should be the first to experiment with single-payer healthcare at the state level.  Minnesota may not be the economic powerhouse that California is, but smaller populations than us have made single-payer work, so there’s no reason that we can’t too.  If we can be successful in this endeavor—successful in building a workable, government-funded system that provides quality healthcare to all its citizens—then perhaps Minnesota can serve as a model to other states, and eventually, the federal government.  Healthcare is not a right in the United States, but in Minnesota, it can be and it should be.  We just need to make it happen.

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Economics, USA, World

Are we all monsters?:The connection between luxury and suffering

Imagine that one morning you are on your way to work when you walk by a shallow pond. In that pond you see a small child who is clearly drowning. You can easily save the child, but it will require that you get your clothes and shoes all wet and muddy. What is more, you are running behind schedule, and saving the child will surely make you late for work—perhaps quite late, as you will now need to go home and change your clothes. Do you still save the child?

Of course you do. You do it in a heartbeat. You do it without thinking. The thought of someone who would even stop to consider their shoes or schedule is itself disturbing, let alone the thought of someone that would willfully neglect to save the child for such selfish and petty reasons. That person would be considered a criminal, a sociopath, and a monster. But if you believe renowned ethicist Pete Singer, we may all have a little bit of monster in us.

We have all walked by that pond for exactly those reasons, and many of us do it every single day. We do it every time that we treat ourselves to an overpriced cappuccino, every time that we buy a pair of designer jeans, and every time that we go out to eat, attend a concert, or take a vacation…We do it every time that we choose to spend our spare dollars on our own unnecessary luxuries rather than helping the millions of suffering humans whose lives those dollars could easily help to save.

Of course, the pond in this case is metaphorical. In reality, the children whose lives we could be saving are dying from things like malnutrition, malaria, and civil war. Still, in the case of many of those children, their lives really are savable. There are organizations that are working to provide healthy meals, medicine, and new homes in safe locations, and if those organizations were to receive more money—our money—those dollars would LITERALLY save real humans lives that will not be saved otherwise.

But we don’t do that. I don’t do that.

Just the other night I went out with some friends to the new Surly Brewery in Minneapolis. It’s a fantastic establishment—some of the best beer and Brussels sprouts in town. All in all, I spent about $40 there, tip included, and another $5 on Pokémon GO egg incubators to make all the walking to and fro a little more worthwhile. I had a really great time that night, but if I had passed that shallow pond on my walk to the brewery, would I have jumped in and saved that drowning child, knowing full well that the money in my pocket would surely be lost, that my iPhone would be irreparably damaged, and that my lovely night out at Surly would be effectively ruined? God, I hope so.

So what’s the difference when that struggling child is on the other side of the world, thousands of miles away, but just as easily savable? The obvious answer is “out of sight, out of mind,” but while that is certainly an explanation, it is hardly an excuse.

But these thoughts have been on my mind lately. They’ve been on my mind ever since I first encountered ethical philosopher and all-around great person Will MacAskill on Sam Harris’s Waking Up Podcast. On the podcast, MacAskill describes a movement that he calls “effective altruism.” The movement is based on two assumptions: 1) That most people living in the developed world can and should do more with their time and money to help those who are less fortunate, and 2) that there are more and less effective ways to accomplish that goal. In other words, the good that we do should be strategic. If I am going to donate $50, I should seek out an organization that will use that money effectively and impactfully. Likewise, if I wish to donate my time, there is a cost-benefit analysis that should underlie how I choose to spend it.

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That latter part leads to some interesting considerations. For example, one might consider the donating of their Saturday to a charitable cause such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or a children’s hospital to be a greater act of altruism than, say, working eight hours of overtime and earning some extra dough on an upcoming paycheck. But in an “effective” sense, the time-and-a-half wage paid on those eight hours could probably do far more good if donated to the right cause than any one volunteer could do in a day of service. To put it another way, that day of service is not worth the opportunity cost of the money that one could make completing a different task that, in this case, is not itself altruistic. Using this philosophy, I have heard MacAskill argue that one of the most effectively altruistic career paths that one can pursue is actually banking and finance, assuming of course that the person is donating a large percentage of their lucrative earnings to help the world’s least fortunate people.

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You can go pretty far down the rabbit hole with this philosophizing about how to best maximize every spare minute and dollar, but while I’d like to get to that point someday, I’m not ready to go there now. Where I am ready to go, and where I think “we” in the developed world might be collectively ready to go, is accepting assumption number one—accepting the argument that we can and should be doing more to help those who are less fortunate than we are and that we should start doing those things now.

There are plenty of excuses that rationalize the pushing off of this responsibility. I know them well because I make them myself. While giving can certainly be intrinsically gratifying, online donations don’t offer the same euphoric spike as diving in that shallow pond and holding that living, breathing child in your arms—living and breathing thanks to you. In that scenario, you can feel the difference that you are making, but that fulfillment is hard to mimic with a credit card, especially when you do not get to witness the impact of your action.

What is more, the difference that your dollars make is, in reality, pretty microscopic when compared to the massive amount of global suffering that tragically plagues our planet. Even if you were to use every spare dollar over the next calendar year to buy bed nets for people in the developing world, there is no doubt that thousands upon thousands of people would still die from mosquito-born illnesses over that time. However, while that truth is sobering, those dollars still would make a difference, and it would be an enormous difference to the real human beings whose lives those bed nets would be saving—real human beings whose lives would not have been saved otherwise.

Another excuse is the burnout factor. Many of us already feel that we are struggling to make ends meet in our own lives. We live paycheck to paycheck, are saddled with mortgages and car payments and student loan debt, and don’t feel that we have a whole lot leftover to give at the end any given pay cycle. This is a real concern considering that, in order to give, people need to be motivated, and if their lives suck, that motivation will be lacking. But while the leaders of the effective altruism movement certainly would not discourage an immediate and dramatic change in lifestyle if someone were up to it, that does not seem to be what they are advocating. Instead, they are encouraging people to dip their toes in the proverbial pool. They are asking us to begin considering our own consumption habits—what’s necessary, what’s not, and where we could sacrifice small comforts and luxuries in order to make someone else’s life a little less terrible. As we begin to adjust to this mode of thought, Singer suggests that we may actually want to dip further into the pool. As one person cited in a Singer Ted Talk put it, he doesn’t even feel that what he is doing is altruistic…He feels that the life he is saving is his own.

With the publication of this blog post, I will simultaneously be dipping my toes in the pool for the first time. I will be donating $20 to the Against Malaria Foundation, which “works to prevent the spread of malaria by distributing long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito nets to susceptible populations in developing countries.” This donation is hardly a sacrifice for me. It may cost me some Poké-progress or a bottle of tequila, but I can and should be doing more. Hopefully, in the future, I will work up the willpower to do that, but for now I’m going to allow myself the humble self-satisfaction of taking the first step. Below is a link to Peter Singer’s website, “The Life You Can Save.” This site allows you to identify credible, impactful organizations that will help your dollars to do the most amount of good possible in areas of your choosing, be it children, women and girls, hunger and nutrition, or education. Click around, check stuff out, and if you want to dip your toes in the pool too, consider this your invitation to do so. The water’s warm.

https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org

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Economics, USA

Minimum Wage: Living wages are the only wages

2016 brought minimum wage hikes to 14 states. These increases mean that more than half of U.S. states now have minimum wages that exceed the federal minimum of $7.25. Washington D.C. leads the pack with a minimum wage of $10.50. Not far behind are California and Massachusetts, each with minimum wages of $10. On a city level, Seattle made headlines last year by increasing its minimum wage to $15, and it appears that in 2016 New York City plans to follow suit.

All this has led to an increased national dialogue about the merits surrounding such minimum wage increases. Obviously they increase wages, but do they really help? If they help, do they help enough? Or do they actually do more harm than good?

The critics of higher minimum wages would answer the third question with a resounding “Yes.” Hard core capitalists correctly argue that minimum wages violate free market principles. By setting an artificial floor for the price of labor, they fail to obey the laws of supply and demand, interfering with the invisible hand’s ability to wave its economic wand. This means that employers are paying an inflated price for labor. If a potential worker is willing to work for $5 an hour, but the minimum wage demands that the employer pay $10, than that employer is essentially paying twice as much for that labor than what the free market says it is worth.

The cost of labor is not the only thing that becomes inflated as a result of minimum wages. Increased cost of labor means increased cost of whatever it is that that labor is producing. If a restaurant owner needs to increase the hourly wage of his or her workers, you better believe that the prices on the menu will be going up as well.

But while these criticisms are economically accurate, I still think that they ring hollow—hollow because they attempt to place the principles of capitalism and free-market economics above the quality of the human condition.

Minimum wages can kill jobs, but the jobs that they kill shouldn’t exist anyway. They shouldn’t exist because those jobs don’t pay living wages. A living wage is a wage that allows a full-time worker to obtain a normal standard of living. It provides the worker an ability to afford all the basic necessities, things like rent, bills, food, gas, medical care, etc. In other words, a living wage is something that allows a full-time worker the ability to live.

$7.25 is not a living wage. Working a 40-hour week at $7.25 an hour amounts to a pre-tax take-home of $290. That adds up to about $500 a paycheck, $1,000 a month, or just barely over $15,000 a year. Have fun making a decent living out of that. In the United States, those wages might be living in the sense that they’re enough to keep you alive, but you’re certainly not doing much living beyond that.

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Minimum wage increases often get cast as “bad for business,” but really they are only bad for bad businesses. If the success of a business and its ability to generate profits directly depends on its ability to exploit its workforce and pay them poverty-level wages, than that is not a good business model—that is not a business worth saving or protecting.

Furthermore, when businesses don’t pay their workers living wages, you know who makes up the difference between what those workers need and what those workers are able to afford? We do. Workers who don’t receive healthcare from their employers and can’t afford their own plan are much more likely to need and qualify for a taxpayer-funded plan from the government. Workers that can’t afford to make rent, to pay bills, or to put food on the table, are much more likely to receive and qualify for taxpayer funded government assistance in order to do so. But if the government just passes a law that makes the minimum wage a living wage, the onerous flips from the government to the employers, saving the government, and its taxpayers, a lot of money.

But if minimum wages work so well, why stop at $10 or $15? Why not make it $50 or $100 or $100,000? This ridiculous question is always mockingly proposed by some free-market fuckface looking to score a few condescending chuckles from his or her conservative counterparts.  It’s also a question with an easy rebuttal, as Jon Stewart so eloquently demonstrated back when he was hosting the Daily Show:

“The reason you don’t raise the minimum wage to $100,000 an hour,” says Stewart with a sigh, “is because it would be unreasonable, economically, for someone working the drive-thru to make $4 million a week…But I feel like there might be a reasonable place in between the $290 a week they make now, and the $4 million a week you suggest.” (Click here for links to the highly-recommended full segment)

That reasonable place to which Stewart refers is the living wage, a wage that allows full-time working people a reasonable degree of comfort and security. I don’t know if that wage is $15, I don’t know that a magic number really exists, but I do know that $7.25 doesn’t seem to be cutting it for most people. And even though $15 an hour may seem pretty high for a minimum, what does that really buy you? That’s barely over $30,000 a year, which is certainly living, but hardly living it up.

One argument I’ve yet to address which has some validity is the negative effects a high minimum wage could have on small businesses, particularly those just starting out. I think most living wage advocates would agree that certain small businesses should be able to play by a slightly different set of rules, that perhaps the size of your company and the amount of profits it generates are factors worthy of consideration in determining the minimum salary a company needs to pay its employees. That being said, when we talk about inadequate minimum wages, small businesses are normally not the problem.

According to the National Employment Law Project, 66% of low-wage employers in 2011 were not small business owners, but large corporations that employed more than 100 workers. These companies, companies like Wal-mart, McDonald’s, and other food service industries, generate enormous profits while paying millions of employees poverty-level wages. The suggestion that these companies can’t afford higher pay for their employees is especially insulting when considering how much they pay the people running the show. In 2011, McDonald’s CEO James Skinner made $8.75 million. Assuming that he works 40 hours a week, that would amount to $4,200 an hour, 580 times more than the average McDonald’s worker. At that salary, James Skinner makes twice as much in one day than most of his full-time employees make in an entire year.

And that is what the minimum wage conversation should be about. Not its non-existent agenda to destroy the American economy or its efforts to provide lazy people with government handouts, but its ability to help address the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in this country—about knocking down the richest among us a peg or two in order to lift up the working poor.

An anti-minimum wage group out of NYC recently purchased some billboard space in the heart of Times Square. Their ad shows a young, white male in basic-bro attire taking a break between jams to incredulously asking the following: “What? I get $30,000 a year with no experience or skills? Who needs an education or hard work when Gov. Cuomo is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour?” The young man has obviously been cast to portray the stoned, slacker, teet-suckling sector of society that will supposedly benefit from this purportedly senseless piece of legislation.

But despite the billboards’ mocking tone, the answers to its questions are less than obvious. The billboard suggests that someone without “experience or skills” does not deserve $30,000 a year, but why not? Why shouldn’t a full-time worker who shows up to work everyday and has maintained the same employer for a full 12 months be entitled to $30,000 over the course of that year? Isn’t this the attitude we want from “low-skilled,” “undereducated” workers—an attitude to work hard, excel, and contribute despite their lack of opportunities or advantages? These aren’t even the homeless, jobless, welfare queens that people usually bitch about. These are FULL-TIME WORKERS!

Also, the idea that such wage increases will deprive most people of the motivation to go to school, work hard, and better themselves is absolutely ludicrous. $30,000 a year is not a lot of money, especially when you are living in New York-Fucking-City. Making $30,000 just to work at a downtown KFC and live in Brooklyn’s shittiest apartment complex is hardly the endgame for most people. What is more, if you show up to work and don’t work hard, whether you’re a financial advisor or a fry-cook, you’re going to get fired.

What exactly is this billboard trying to say? “Yeah they work 40 hours a week, but do they really deserve to make a living off of that work? I mean, they have no experience, no education, and no skills. Fuck them, right?” No, billboard-makers, fuck you. Fuck you for the suggestion that some people in your imagined occupational hierarchy do not deserve life’s most basic comforts.

But can you really blame the group behind this billboard? Anyone who can afford to buy billboard space in Times Square probably cannot relate all-that well to the daily problems confronted by the working poor. From them we can’t expect more, but for our workers we should.

Living wages are the only wages that we should tolerate for American workers, especially for the essential services the workers in question provide. These are the workers who allow us to get a hot meal in under five minutes without ever leaving our cars. These are the workers that allow us to get groceries and gas at any hour of the day. These are the workers that bring comfort and convenience to so many aspects of American life. Living wages will likely mean that those goods and services will go up a few bucks in price, that $5 footlongs may now cost $6, and that you may get a few less chicken nuggets for $1.49, but those are sacrifices that Americans, especially those at the top of the income brackets, should be willing to make. These are the workers that make our lives a little more easy, and for those who are full-time, who depend on these jobs to make a living, to pay rent and put food on the table and oftentimes raise a family, a living wage is the least we can do for them to hopefully make their lives a little less hard.

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Economics, USA

The street corner conundrum: To give or not to give?

We all know these people. Many of us see them everyday. They don’t have a particular race, gender, or age, but we all know them when we see them, usually due to the cardboard signs that they hold in their hands.

The messages on the signs vary. Sometimes they’re simple.

Sometimes they’re more situational.

Sometimes they’re honest.

Sometimes they’re philosophical.

Sometimes they’re a just strange.

But regardless of how they’re worded, the vast majority of these messages all say the same thing: I need money.

And I’m torn about whether or not to give it to them.

I used to never give these people money. I always told myself that if I really wanted to help those in need, and if I really wanted to ensure that my money was going towards the cause that I intended, I could make a tally every time I felt compelled to give, and instead donate that money to a legitimate charity or non-profit organization at a later date.

I still think that this idea holds water, but in my experience, it had a few fatal flaws. The first was that it was intellectual argument. It made sense in my head, but it did little to address the sympathetic urges that I felt every time I was confronted with a real person on a real corner. The second fatal flaw was that I never did it. I never kept a tally, and I never donated a penny to address the plight of the people who so frequently tugged at my heartstrings during my daily commutes.

So I opened up the billfold. I don’t want to make myself sound like Fat Joe at a nightclub, but I was dishing out at least a few dollars a week: a buck to the gal off the 11th Avenue Exit, a buck to the revolving door of faces above the Lowry Tunnel…and it felt good. But while self-fulfilling, this “humanitarian” act also came with its own set of ethical considerations that definitely challenge the notion that my actions were unambiguously good.

I would be an asshole if I assumed that everyone I saw begging on the corner was looking for money to buy drugs and alcohol, but I would also be naïve if I did not acknowledge that drugs and alcohol are exactly what some of those people are looking for. If that were ever the case, my money would not be going towards elevating that person out of their dire situation, but instead would be working to further cement their place in it, lending them money to buy the very substances that are keeping them down. That being said, when it comes to that line of reasoning for denying people a dollar, I also share many of the sentiments of the late Greg Giraldo (who, full-disclosure, died of a drug overdose):

There are also perhaps more troubling situations in which my money could have the reverse effect of that which is desired. One specific example is the case of children, particularly those of school age. The presence of children creates a sympathy spike that make many people feel more compelled to give, and some exploitative parents unfortunately know that. Hence, increased dollars to those parents could lead to increased days spent on the streets for their children, rather than being in school where they belong.

There is also the fear that it could be a scam, that many of these beggars are no more than wolves in sheep’s clothing, looking to cheat us out of our hard-earned cash with a manufactured sob story. A quick Google search will confirm that these fears are not completely unfounded, that there are indeed situations where scams of this nature have been uncovered. Still, most of the folks that I personally see begging on street corners don’t seem to pass the eye test for an elaborate con artist. They’re too normal. Too humble. Too real.

And then there’s me, in my car, my new-used 2013 Ford Fiesta, waiting for the light to turn from red to green. Maybe I’m on my way home from work, a well-paying job that blesses me with a life of relative comfort and stability. Maybe I’m on my way to my martial arts gym. The membership fees are steep, but it’s a lifelong dream that I finally have the ability and opportunity to pursue. Maybe it’s Friday or Saturday, and I’m on my way to blow some money spending time with people that I care about. But even if I’m having a shitty day, if I received an ill-timed parking ticket that will put the squeeze on that week’s budget, or if I’m damn near broke on Tuesday afternoon still three days away from Friday’s paycheck, chances are that things are still far better for me than they are for the person standing outside my car.

And to me that’s the biggest point. There’s a chance that the person is a junkie or a scammer, but there’s also a chance that they’re just a fellow human being in need.  I think that most people that stand out begging on street corners don’t want to be there. Some of them are there as a result of bad luck. Many are there as a result of bad choices. Most of them are probably there due to a combination of both. But they all wish that they weren’t.

That’s the reason that I sometimes choose to give. It’s possible that I’m being naïve, that I have a little too much faith in humanity, a little too much faith in the laws of karma and kindness and the truth in paying it forward. But perhaps the fact that I’m in my car and they’re on the corner is a good enough reason in and of itself to give every once in awhile, a good enough reason to roll the dice on a person, to take a buck out of my pocket and release it back out into the world. Because at the end of the day, that world has probably treated me a whole lot nicer than it has treated the person on the other side of my window, and for that I’ve got to owe something to somebody.

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Economics, Politics, USA

The case for some socialism

I’m not a Bernie Sanders guy. It’s not that I don’t like Bernie. I like him a lot. He’s refreshingly unrefined and seems to be speaking my language on a lot of issues. Although I think it’s highly unlikely that it happens, I’m passionately rooting for him to win the nomination over current Democratic front-runner and political robot Hilary Clinton.

That being said, I tend to subscribe to the Bill Maher notion of political allegiance, of being loyal to political ideals, not political people. Although I haven’t done much research on Bernie to know how closely he does or does not align with my own personal political convictions, the research that I have done through my uber-commie news networks tells me to be skeptical. Although Bernie embraces the label of socialist, which is a big deal, he is still running as a cog of the Democratic, and consequently capitalistic, machine.

the revolution will not be televised

But as a guy who has a lot of socialist sympathies, I love that Bernie is in this race. Even if he’s not a dream candidate for the reddest of socialists, Bernie has presented socialism with a tremendous opportunity, a chance to make its case to the American people, to gain some mainstream understanding, and hopefully acceptance.

If my history is correct, this is the first time socialism has had such an opportunity in nearly a century, at least since 1918 when perennial presidential candidate Eugene Debs was tossed in the slammer for speaking out against U.S. participation in WWI. Shortly thereafter, the brutal brand of communism established by Joseph Stalin and the ensuing decades-long Cold War that followed transformed the idea of communism, and consequently socialism, into a four-letter word here in the United States, a word unfit for serious political discourse.

This legacy remains in American politics today. The word “socialism” is loaded with negative assumptions. With the way that some politicians use it, you would think that it was some sort of fucked-up brand of Orwellian autocracy, coined to describe a dystopian future where we all sport one-piece gray jumpsuits, eat flavorless rations, and work menial jobs maintaining the King Obama estate.

The fact that this remains the state of conversation about socialism in many corners of this country is both unintellectual and unfair. You can disagree with socialist principles and ideas, but first you have to acknowledge what those ideas actually are.

Ironically, the United States already has a quasi-socialistic society. Anything provided by the government and paid for with tax dollars is, in essence, socialism. Americans, for the most part, love these things—things like Medicare and Medicaid, minimum wages and 40-hour workweeks, public education, roads, parks, and bridges—things that an unregulated capitalistic market does not and cannot provide.

There are also many other ideas that, while socialistic in nature, are nowhere close to evil, nor even all that radical. The idea that the minimum wage should be a livable wage, or in other words, that your full-time job should pay the rent and put food on the table, is a great example of socialist thinking. Another is the idea that healthcare should not be a commodity to be purchased, but a human right that all people deserve access to, regardless of how much money they make. One more is the idea that vital things like schools, hospitals, and banks should not be businesses established to create profits, but collectively-owned institutions established to provide essential services to human beings who need them.

Many Americans also associate socialism with big government. This is partially true considering that certain human rights need to be enforced on a national level. Discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation should not be tolerated no matter what city or state you call home. But many socialists also advocate for increased authority at the state and local level, a notion that many states-rights republicans can probably identify with. It makes sense, after all, that the aforementioned schools, hospitals, and banks would be better run by the communities that they serve as opposed to some distant federal government. What is more, even if government has proven time and time again that it has an uncanny ability to mix inefficiency and incompetence, I’ll take the democratically elected leaders over the conquering corporate elites any day.

A trend towards socialism would also by definition mean a willingness to depart with capitalism. Just like socialism still exists in a capitalist America, capitalism would still exist in a more socialist America, but to a much lesser degree. Competition and profit-based motives do undoubtedly have power to inspire innovation and create economic prosperity, but they also cause people to do a lot of harm to one another, and that’s a trade-off that most forms of socialism will not accept.

I don’t know if the United States is realistically ready for such a dramatic shift in paradigm, but I do think that we are ready to talk about it.  Socialism deserves to be treated as the viable belief set that it indeed is. It deserves a voice in American politics, in the discourse that drives decision-making in this country and in the world. I’m not convinced that Bernie Sanders is that voice, but even if he’s not, maybe he will lend voice to those who are.

SNL: The Inaugural Democratic Presidential Debate

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Economics, USA

Voting with the dollar

Some people are political junkies. They watch the political process with all the fervor and rabidity with which a Vikings fan watches a Teddy touchdown pass. Then there are those who are apolitical. The political process at best disinterests them, and for some even disgusts them. The apoliticians don’t watch CNN, they don’t listen to NPR, and they don’t follow campaigns. Many of them don’t even vote.

I don’t blame the disgusted for their desire to be politically abstinent. Washington is a slimy place. To choose between Republicans and Democrats can feel like choosing between the lesser of two evils—the proverbial Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich.  No one makes this point better than the current Democratic frontrunner herself, whose best advice to liberals whom are less-than excited about the prospects of having to support her seemingly inevitable anointment as the Democratic nominee was to just “be pragmatic and do it anyway.”

But no matter how politically abstinent a person may claim to be, I don’t agree that their apolitical agenda automatically extracts them from the political process. I challenge the notion that political abstinence allows someone to absolve themselves from the actions of their country. What is more, I challenge the notion that disengagement from what we typically think of as political behavior, things likes voting, signifies political abstinence at all.

Everything is political. We make political decisions every single day, decisions that have significant effects on others whether we choose to think about those effects or not. We also vote everyday, not with ballots, but with dollars.

What we eat, what we wear, where we go for entertainment—these are all political decisions, political decisions that we make with the dollars that we spend. We are voting with our dollars for competing entities in a competitive market, just like we vote between competing candidates for a political office. Every dollar we spend is a vote for what that entity is, what it does, and what it stands for.

Unfortunately, if you choose to trace your dollars back to their roots, to the people and practices they ultimately support, the truth of what we are voting for is pretty unsettling. We vote for fruits and vegetables picked by poor and mistreated migrant workers, meat from animals that live in absolute misery and suffer horrifying deaths, shirts and shoes manufactured by the hands of overworked and underpaid peoples in developing nations, many of them children, and for corporate giants who carelessly cause immeasurable and irreparable harm to both the planet and the people who live on it.

The links attached to the above examples are hardly the tip of the iceberg. The shelves of the Walmarts and Targets of the world are stocked front-to-back with human rights violations and environmental catastrophes. But rarely do we think about this when plucking something off of them for purchase.

I’m as guilty of this as anybody. I wonder if I’d even be able to afford the MacBook Pro that I’m typing on right now if it wasn’t produced by cheap, Chinese labor and shipped to me on the fumes of government subsidized, dictator-sponsoring oil.

But even if I were to try to wean myself off these luxuries of privilege, it would take some economic acrobatics. $90 is a lot to pay for a pair of new jeans at American Apparel when I can get two pairs of Wranglers for $30 at Kohl’s. $6 is a lot to pay at my local co-op for a liter of milk from grass-fed, drug fee, happy-go-lucky cattle, when I can get a gallon of the more questionable stuff for half that price at any mainstream gas station or super market.

But then again, maybe that’s just how much this stuff actually costs when so much of the price is not externalized, when we pay people living wages and treat animals with dignity and take care of the environment, when we as consumers actually pay the real price of what it takes to make shit. Maybe that’s just how much it costs when we cast monetary votes that match our values and beliefs, and reflect the vision that we claim to have for what we want our world to look like.

Nevertheless, I know that I’ll continue to use my votes to support things I abhor. I’ll provide funding and support for child labor, animal mistreatment, environmental degradation, and oppressive dictatorships as long as they continue to pump out cheap goods that make my life easier and more enjoyable. Comfort is the greatest benefit of privilege, after all. I just hate that my comfort continues to depend on the discomfort and misery of others.

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