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In 1961, America faced what conservatives considered a mortal threat: calls for a national health insurance program covering senior citizens. In an attempt to avert this awful fate, the American Medical Association launched what it called Operation Coffee Cup, a pioneering attempt at viral marketing.

Here's how it worked: Doctors' wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite their friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives in turn were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare.

Obviously the strategy didn't work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program's funding. But the strategy--claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism--endures.

And so it was that Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, briefly turned from his usual warnings about scary brown people to warnings about the threat from socialism.

What do Trump's people, or conservatives in general, mean by "socialism"? The answer: it depends.

Sometimes it means any kind of economic liberalism. Thus after the SOTU, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, lauded the Trump economy and declared that "we're not going back to socialism"--i.e., apparently America itself was a socialist hellhole as recently as 2016. Who knew?

Other times, however, it means Soviet-style central planning, or Venezuela-style nationalization of industry, never mind the reality that there is essentially nobody in American political life who advocates such things.

The trick--and trick is the right word--involves shuttling between these utterly different meanings and hoping that people don't notice. You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine! And no, this isn't a caricature: Read the strange smarmy report on socialism that Trump's economists released last fall; that's pretty much how its argument goes.

So let's talk about what's really on the table.

Some progressive U.S. politicians now describe themselves as socialists, and a significant number of voters, including a majority of voters under 30, say they approve of socialism. But neither the politicians nor the voters are clamoring for government seizure of the means of production. Instead they've taken on board conservative rhetoric that describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism and in effect said, "Well, in that case, I'm a socialist."

What Americans who support "socialism" actually want is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: a market economy but with extreme hardship limited by a strong social safety net and extreme inequality limited by progressive taxation. They want us to look like Denmark or Norway, not Venezuela.

And in case you haven't been there, the Nordic countries are not in fact hellholes. They have somewhat lower gross domestic product per capita than we do, but that's largely because they take more vacations. Compared with America, they have higher life expectancy, much less poverty and significantly higher overall life satisfaction. Oh, and they have high levels of entrepreneurship--because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know that they won't lose their health care or plunge into abject poverty if they fail.

Trump's economists clearly had a hard time fitting the reality of Nordic societies into their anti-socialist manifesto. In some places they say that the Nordics aren't really socialist; in others they try desperately to show that despite appearances, Danes and Swedes are suffering--for example, it's expensive for them to operate a pickup. I am not making this up.

What about the slippery slope from liberalism to totalitarianism? There's absolutely no evidence that it exists. Medicare didn't destroy freedom. Stalinist Russia and Maoist China didn't evolve out of social democracies. Venezuela was a corrupt petrostate long before Hugo Chávez came along. If there's a road to serfdom, I can't think of any nation that took it.

So scaremongering over socialism is both silly and dishonest. But will it be politically effective?

Probably not. After all, voters overwhelmingly support most of the policies proposed by American "socialists," including higher taxes on the wealthy and making Medicare available to everyone (although they don't support plans that would force people to give up private insurance--a warning to Democrats not to make single-payer purity a litmus test).

On the other hand, we should never discount the power of dishonesty. Right-wing media will portray whomever the Democrats nominate for president as the second coming of Leon Trotsky, and millions of people will believe them. Let's just hope that the rest of the media report the clean little secret of American socialism, which is that it isn't radical at all.


Paul Krugman, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, writes for the New York Times.

Editorial on 02/09/2019

Print Headline: The Socialist menace


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  • JIMBOB47
    February 9, 2019 at 5:03 a.m.

    What Krugman fails to mention is that the population of Denmark and Norway are each about 5.5 million of which 83-87% of the inhabitants are 'native'. In other words, their 'diversity' in the population is NIL and their population WORKS! The US's 330M+ people has everything from soup to nuts and must deal with MILLIONS of immigrants and 'non-workers/non-contributors' to society. This is what will destroy our economy should these idiot Demwits get their way. There is only so much 'excess' to steal from working folks, so what happens when they burn thru someone else's funds?? (of course not the elites in gov't)..

  • RBear
    February 9, 2019 at 6:08 a.m.

    Jimbo you have any facts to support your assertion that immigrants don't work? Last I checked, millions of them DO work based on many studies AND pay taxes where they can. They contribute as much as you do and usually receive far fewer benefits. Your claims need data to be considered credible. I'm guessing you don't have any.
    An ITEP study conducted last year pointed out that 11 million "undocumented immigrants are taxpayers too and collectively contribute an estimated $11.74 billion to state and local coffers each year via a combination of sales and excise, personal income, and property taxes."

  • BoudinMan
    February 9, 2019 at 9:39 a.m.

    Yes, RBear, immigrants do work. Especially the "illegal" immigrants who were hired to work on trump's properties.

  • JIMBOB47
    February 9, 2019 at 10:12 a.m.

    Both of you missed the statement (you only read what you WANT to read).. I said immigrants AND non-workers -- I did not say immigrants are non-contributors. I said immigrants and NON-CONTRIBUTORS are at the fore-front of our problems. Yes, millions of illegal and legal immigrants work and the same applies to citizens - it's the MILLIONS that don't work that are the problem. Ever notice the number of people on 'disability' (VERY large increase since 2000)? Having it your way just lets millions more come into our country and forces our society to support them in one way or another. The smaller countries of the world (like Denmark and Norway) face NONE of the issues we face in the US.

  • mrcharles
    February 9, 2019 at 10:16 a.m.

    Jimbib, a clone of the W wing of the GOP, the gut thinking [ guess you could say the large intestine thinking] , which ignores the higher functions. Watch fox & friends to see it is better to just talk and gripe than to think.

    Perhaps when the immigrants who work on farms become farmers they too can share in the $$$ the gubermint hands out for ???? to farmers to go pheasant hunting out of state.

    Maybe jimbo is really attacking the early church ss described in the acts of the apostles and their holy socialist ideas. I would ask jimmynybub why it hates early christians.

  • RBear
    February 9, 2019 at 1:41 p.m.

    Jimbo now you’re implying that immigrants claim disability with NO facts to prove it. Maybe you need to figure out the English language. Using the word AND combines two components.

  • Packman
    February 9, 2019 at 3:06 p.m.

    American socialism isn’t radical? BWHAAAAHAAAAAAAHAAAAAA! The Green New Deal supported by American socialists includes taxpayers paying people “unwilling” to work and stopping cows from farting. Radical? Maybe not. Perhaps lunacy is a better word.

    February 9, 2019 at 3:35 p.m.

    We had that Reagan recording. It's every bit as hilarious as one would hope. Sort of an audio "Reefer Madness" for the Sego/Metrecal Set.

  • joebub61yahoocom
    February 9, 2019 at 3:47 p.m.

    Just more proof that Krugman’s Nobel was wasted on a loon.

  • LRCrookAtty
    February 9, 2019 at 4:08 p.m.

    Rbear..."...$11.74 billion to state and local coffers each year via a combination of sales and excise, personal income, and property taxes."
    I have a little problem with these numbers as this comes to about $11,000 each per year. First off, how do they pay any income tax without breaking another law and having an illegal Social Security Number. Second, to buy property, they either need to declare it as a foreign purchase or a local purchase. Either they are committing yet another crime by lying on the form and saying they are a citizen, or by lying on the form and saying they are a foreign purchaser and not living within or on the property. The net cost to the American tax payer per year is in the 10s of billions of dollars, so, if these numbers are correct (which I highly doubt) then they eat up everything they pay in by getting benefits. These numbers are normally skewed by including all immigrants, including the visa overstays, and they are normally working under another visa (normally work visa) and the student visa overstay is inaccurately added to statistics.