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Which “ism” is it?

March 9, 2009
By Rob Lafferty

Rush Limbaugh continues to make national news as he speaks out strongly in defense of his right to freedom of speech. After being criticized for publicly stating that he hopes President Obama fails in his attempt to revive the American economy, Limbaugh chooses to justify his obstructionist position as a patriotic defense of the American Way

I support his right to vent as much rhetoric and anger and weird personal philosophy as he wants on his radio show. If he chooses to defend the unregulated free market policies that unquestionably caused another global economic crisis, then he can rant away for all I care. He’s preaching to a fast-diminishing choir of believers whose song fades from our hearing as they shuffle off towards the junkyard of history.

And I don’t think the stations that carry his show should be required to offer an opposing viewpoint, because enough venues exist for anyone to make their voice heard if they choose. Also, the last thing we need is another talk radio host who thrives on social division and political harangue.

I just wish Limbaugh would have supported my same free speech rights back in 2003 when I – accurately – described George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as war criminals in a Haleakala Times editorial. I didn’t support the administration so I was placed on a “Selectee” watch list at all airports here in the Home of the Not-As-Brave-As-We-Once-Were.

But enough of all that. Limbaugh can entertain his audience and proclaim that he’s the voice of the Republican party; I can board a plane if I jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops first. That’s how the First Amendment works these days. We have more pressing issues to confront...

We could start with the tendency for Americans to ignore the true nature of our own political system. There’s lots of fear being expressed that we’re about to become socialists, but an interesting blind spot becomes apparent when people talk about socialism these days. I’ve heard a few folks say that Obama is a socialist, and each time I asked them to define “socialist” for me, as they see it.

I never got the same answer twice. I seldom got a coherent answer at all.

What I got were usually comments about socialism as an extension of national economic policy, where hordes of unworking poor are supported by the state with taxes paid by those who work for a living. But given the decline of wealth over the past 30 years for the middle class and the poor, the need for a variety of social programs has increased.

In 1979, for every $1 earned by a poor person, a rich person received $23. For every $1 earned by a middle-class worker, that same rich person received $8.

Those are very different numbers now. Each poor man’s dollar is now matched by $70 for that rich fellow; every hard-working taxpayer’s dollar brings $21 into that same wealthy pocket.

As that imbalance tripled, the amount of dollars earned by the poor and middle class also diminished. Using some broad comparative values, today’s worker earns the equivalent of 15 percent less in wages than those folks in 1979 earned.

But that’s Free Market Capitalism in action for you, repeating its own history as it triggers its second global collapse in less than a century. Why anyone would vigorously defend that economic model at the moment is hard to understand, but economics is almost as mysterious as religion and both practices have true believers.

It’s easier to understand why well-indoctrinated Americans have a negative reaction to the idea of socialism, despite the existence of a whole lot of clearly socialistic programs kept in place through a dozen different administrations. Only programs designed to help ordinary folks get labeled as extensions of a socialist policy; taxpayer-funded programs that benefit business and national defense spending are never linked to socialism.

Recent history proves that to be true. The largest government agency ever created was authorized by two staunch Reaganites, Bush and Cheney. It was given the name “Department of Homeland Security” and given authority over virtually every federal, state or county agency. It was also provided with the legal cover to torture prisoners, intercept emails and phone calls of ordinary Americans, search anyone’s home or business without a warrant – and, as noted before, prevent newspaper editors from using the public/private transportation system.

That kind of behavior goes way beyond socialism. It would quickly be labeled by most Americans as communist or fascist – if it happened in a different country, of course. But we believe that such things could never happen in our Free Democracy, so we don’t really see these things happening all around us until they affect someone we know.

Most of us know someone who’s been sick enough to need a hospital, so we know about our broken health care system. It’s no surprise that a lot of people want reform, but most reject anything that sounds like “socialized medicine” to their ears. Very few have any idea what should evolve out of our expensive public/private system with its dozens of socialistic components, led by the huge duo of Medicare and Medicaid.

The arguments rage on while the infant mortality rate in America keeps going up, now higher than the rate in 40 other countries. The conditions in many emergency rooms would be an embarrassment in any civilized society. Only about half of all workers can afford heath insurance; only a wealthy few can afford to see a doctor without it.

Since we already have a hybrid socialist/capitalist health care system, we could stop being hypocrites about political labels and let reality drive the decision-making process. And the argument that every working adult should pay for their own heath insurance is a valid one, as long as affordable insurance that offers decent coverage is available.

But children aren’t socialists or capitalists or fascists; that division comes later in life. In a civilized society there’s no excuse when a sick child can’t get fast and effective medical treatment, anywhere, anytime, regardless of cost. It’s a moral imperative, one that rises far above whichever “ism” holds power at any given moment.

We are a society that cares for the health of its children – or we don’t care. There’s no political position in between.

Rob Lafferty is a former editor of the Haleakala Times. He can be reached via email at rob@moonvalleypress.com