Unserious meme politics

Two millennial authors sounding the alarm about their generation’s flirtation with democratic socialism.

First up – Celina Durgin writing at NRO

“Bernie isn’t a socialist, he’s a democratic socialist!” Millennials explain, with an eye roll. “It’s about the people retaking control from greedy corporations and working together as equals. It’s about ‘togetherness.’” That’s basically how a baby-faced twentysomething with a lot of product in his hair describes it on the “Democratic Socialist” Facebook page. His three-and-half-minute explanatory video titled “A Pretty Good Intro to Democratic Socialism” has had more than 3 million views…

Emily Ekins and Joy Pullmann at The Federalist have laid out a comprehensive look of Millennial views on socialism, including their distance from its Soviet connotations and their misunderstandings. For instance, significantly more approve of socialism than approve of government’s running businesses such as Apple and Uber.

Whether the glib qualifier “democratic” fixes the problems of socialist economies turns on whether “democratic socialism” is a coherent concept or an oxymoron. Moreover, my peers tend to conflate democratic socialists and social democrats. Scandinavian countries, contrary to popular assumption, are probably better described as social democracies, and these distinctions matter. In fairness, Bernie seems to confuse the two as well. His rhetoric evokes socialism, but the details of many of his actual policy proposals resemble a more banal welfare-state expansion.

Now, I’m not an old fogey trying to patronize the youngsters. And I believe I apprehend the reasons for their support that go deeper than his “free-stuff” policies. What I am is a Millennial pleading with my peers: Please resist jejunely embracing the notion of “justice” that conceals radical political and economic transformation. Millennials suppose that the qualifier “democratic” refutes worries about socialism. To them, worries about growing government, higher taxes, and unfeasible policies are only so much condescension from older generations who have a phobia of things they don’t understand. My peers think democratic socialism is a happy idea embraced by blond, bike-riding Scandinavians, not a concrete system requiring a byzantine, tyrannical bureaucratic apparatus and potentially radical lifestyle changes.

Sanders’s sunnily vague portrayal of democratic socialism and the average young person’s approach to politics have created the perfect storm. He has inspired a litany of memes overlaid with catchy quips. …  It’s possible that some young Bernie supporters have done their research and know exactly what they’re getting into. But I’m disgusted with the largely unserious meme politics among members of my generation; with their cultlike insistence that they know something about socialism their elders don’t or even can’t; with their naïve belief that the arc of history bends toward income equality, or that history has a predetermined arc at all (even though you probably couldn’t pay most of us to read the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel).

…But my generation’s desire for justice has an often-misguided intensity. Social-justice warriors seem to be in the business of infinitely lengthening their list of grievances, but they probably do so because the human yearning for ultimate justice is unsatisfied and ineradicable. And maybe they haven’t been taught that achieving any justice requires the slow, steadfast, unsexy work of individuals on one small part of one problem at a time, and that the achievement will be imperfect and perhaps impermanent…

Most simply, Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism appeals to the desire for a system that produces comprehensive social, political, and economic justice. The reality, however, is that while there are good systems and bad systems, we cannot factor individual humans out of our political equation. We, you and I, are the variables. Some young people aren’t taught this. Older people who weren’t taught this are more likely to have discovered it by now.

That is why conservatives continually emphasize individual liberty and responsibility, local-community involvement, and the centrality of the family. A purportedly just system that makes no moral demands of all individuals is an illusion. This illusion is the shiny, hollow core of what Bernie is selling, and it is attractive indeed.

Next up – Daniel Arbess, writing in the WSJ:

These young voters seem not to realize that the economic policies they find so resonant are the least likely to promote the growth and the social mobility they desire. They deserve to be lead from the discredited backwater of equalizing outcomes, forward with policies that instead help eliminate barriers frustrating their access to opportunities.

The millennials can’t be faulted for being anxious about their economic prospects. They are coming of age in the weakest economy in generations. The underemployment rate (measuring those working a job for which they’re overqualified and underpaid) for young adults below age 30 is 60%. The overall employment-to-population ratio of 77.4% for those in the prime-of-working-life 25-54 age bracket translates into 1.5 million jobs below the 20-year average.

The college graduate living in his parents’ basement and working a marginal job to service a student loan is by now an archetype of the Obama era. And while the headline unemployment numbers are down, and the administration congratulates itself on a tepid “recovery” that was almost exclusively dependent on Fed-engineered financial-asset inflation, there is every reason to be skeptical about the health of the labor market. The labor-participation rate languishes at its lowest level in 40 years, and credit creation, government and private investment aren’t faring much better.

Both Democrats and some Republicans keep blaming it all on “Wall Street” (Bernie Sanders’s all-purpose boogeyman) for “getting away with murder” (Donald Trump on hedge funds). Don’t they realize that the financial markets are the lubricant of the entire economy—that Wall Street’s capacity to provide liquidity and to broker capital is the lifeblood of American companies? History will probably judge the misguided post-crisis regulations like Dodd-Frank and retribution against Wall Street to have sown the seeds of the next financial crisis. For now, the vilification of Wall Street in the presidential campaign is irresponsible…

Why wouldn’t young voters want “free stuff” paid for by the rich, as the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton narrative promises? Because the no-free-lunch axiom is still true: Mr. Sanders’s socialized education, health care and other policies would cost up to $20 trillion, according to analysts, requiring tax collections to increase up to 47%. And have we not at least learned from the collapse and dismantling of socialism over the past quarter century that governments lack the incentives and resources to effectively allocate and manage capital in the microeconomy? The eldest of the millennials were in elementary school when the Soviet Union collapsed, so they might be forgiven for their unfamiliarity with the failure of socialist economics. But Bernie Sanders was the mayor of Burlington, Vt., and Hillary Clinton the first lady of Arkansas—what’s their excuse for revanchist economics?

The economic culture of the U.S. is different than that of any country in the world. Americans have always admired each other’s economic success and striven for the chance to achieve it for themselves—by building, not taking the wealth from their neighbors’ pockets. Donald Trump is unabashedly proud of his success—no wonder he’s so popular. As a political leader, though, he needs to up his economic game quickly from “There’s going to be a bubble popping” and “Nobody can solve it like me.”

Real solutions demand real leadership, not polarizing Twitter-length rhetoric. An America-appropriate policy response to the inequality challenge needs to be focused on equalizing opportunities, not outcomes. At the very least, removing barriers to social mobility will require tax, regulatory and educational reforms to give people the qualifications and liberty to improve their lives in the new economy.

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One Response to Unserious meme politics

  1. Paul Marks says:

    This is what decades of propaganda against “the rich” and “big business” have led to – the United States has some of the highest taxation (and most extreme regulation) of corporations in the Western World. Yet the young have been taught to believe that “the corporations” and “the rich” control everything – and that this is a “bad thing”. The view of the world taught by the schools and universities is crude Hollywood Marxism.

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