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Countless times over the years, I’ve asked people exactly what they mean when they call someone a socialist. Invariably, there follows a long moment of silence, that culminates in an unintelligible and inarticulate reply, demonstrating beyond a doubt, that the person trying to answer the question had never given it much thought. 

They’d learned, as I did growing up, that you didn’t really need to know what socialism is, it was just bad—no, evil—all bound up with Communism, the Iron Curtain, and duck-and-cover drills under one’s schoolroom desk.

Dictionaries typically describe socialism as the means of production being owned collectively or controlled by the state. Capitalism is defined as a system in which the means of production are owned and controlled by individuals or corporations. Not exactly a clear divide of good and evil, as both imply advantage and disadvantage, depending on the type of organization, the desired outcome, and the character of the owners or managers. Taking this comparison further, one could conclude that these two competing systems can exist, and do in fact exist, more as a matter of degree than by absolute differences.

The U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration are overt examples of socialistic organizations, and so are the Armed Forces. The Post Office aims to earn its keep, even though its universal delivery service makes profitability both unlikely and unrealistic, if it is run the way it was envisioned. Social Security has capitalistic aspects in that the amount paid in affects the payout.

Military organizations can be bureaucratically dysfunctional, but they seldom get the bad rap attributed to the Post Office; they are more frequently referred to in a heroic sense. Yet, with only a fraction of what we spend on the military, a subsidy for the Post Office could radically promote commerce by making the shipment of small goods much more affordable. Instead, the Post Office is currently being run by a right-wing zealot, and he is doing the opposite of what should be his economic agenda.

One of the greatest fears frequently expressed about socialism and government control is the creeping spread of bureaucracy. My experience suggests this is a legitimate concern because of the restraints we apply to government organizations. It is often the case that government agencies are given little room for exercising commonsense judgment when circumstances require exceptions beyond their charter. Bureaucracy in government is partly due to operational restrictions, resulting from compromises negotiated between political parties with sharp ideological differences, but most large private organizations suffer bureaucracy as well.

I have worked for three major oil companies, a pipeline consortium, and a big city police department, and I’ve served as a U.S Marine. In all these workplaces, I experienced bureaucracy primarily from inattention to details. Look around your own workplace and you will find plenty of things that people do, not because they are productive, but simply because that is how they have gotten into a habit of doing them.

Bureaucracy is a virus-like entity that will fill any organizational vacuum where accountability is absent. To keep it from taking hold requires constant housekeeping. If you run up against a brain-dead form of bureaucracy in government, relief can sometimes be found through contacting a legislative office, but if the problem is with a private company, say an insurance company, you will likely need a lawyer and deep pockets.

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Another fear often expressed is that socialistic enterprises result in a loss of incentive. Again, I suspect there is some truth to this notion, but nowhere near as much as is commonly thought. For example, one of the biggest fallacies of contemporary economics, and right-wing propaganda, is that a progressive income tax is counterproductive because it dampens incentive. This simply is not true, and yet it is repeated as gospel truth ad nauseam. Some of the greatest periods of growth in America have occurred during times with extraordinarily high taxes. By comparison, taxes today are historically low, while our infrastructure is crumbling, and our national debt is stratospheric.

What all this boils down to politically is public versus private and the assumption that one is good beyond reproach and the other is evil beyond redemption. The virtue of private enterprise has been championed for so long and so loud in America that we have, in effect, drowned out common sense when it comes to attending to matters of the common good requiring a communal effort.

Psychologically, public versus private these days amounts to us versus them, because we readily exclude those who do not belong to our respective identity groups as deserving of anything we might be forced to share.

The word socialism can stop arguments dead in their tracks without further discussion. This nonsensical behavior is the primary reason our middle class is in danger of disappearing, not because of a global economic crisis, but because we are too afraid to act as if what we have and hold in common is more important than greed.

There are numerous examples of democracies that are more socialistic than we are, with measurable indices of quality of life far better than ours, and yet, we do little to make improvements in our lives if doing so requires a collective effort. Instead, we make vociferous claims about our being the greatest country on earth.

We talk the talk; we just don’t walk it. A middle-class society is a purposeful effort. How can we be the greatest country on earth when we are way down the list on quality of healthcare, even as we spend more money on healthcare per capita than anyone else?

At every opportunity, champions of everything private over everything public hype freedom as the ultimate benefit of their system. Indeed, it is true that many people earning Wal-Mart wages are free to quit and go to work at Target or McDonald’s. Alternatively, of course, they could start their own Google or Microsoft. It’s true they are free to do this, just as it’s true that rich people can sleep under a bridge if they want to.

A country with living wages and universal healthcare is not a radical idea, grotesque economic inequality is. Socialism and all things socialistic have been touted as the epitome of evil for as long as I can remember. Now nearing 80, in my view, it is time for the citizens of this country to wake the hell up and think the way forward to a more equitable economy, without any regard, whatsoever, to what it is called. Thoughts?