America has a history of caring socialism

Jim Shultz, father and grandfather.

LOCKPORT, N.Y. -- It happened again this morning. Just after dawn my youngest daughter was whisked away in a yellow bus to spend the day at one of the most socialist institutions on our city: Lockport High School. 

The school was built with public funds and all its employees are paid with tax dollars.  Every teenager has a right to study there, for free.  It is overseen by a board of education elected by the public.  There is nothing private sector about it. 

There is an even older socialist institution on our city’s main downtown street, the Lockport Public Library.  Built in 1936, its building and books were purchased with public dollars and its friendly staff receive their salaries from taxes as well.  And everyone who lives here is entitled to become a card-carrying member, at no cost other than their local tax payment.

“Socialist” has become the Republican 2020 label of choice to try to tarnish Democrats as some sort of crazy cult that wants to come and steal your dog, among other horrors.  Last month the National Republican Congressional Committee declared our local Democratic House candidate, Nate McMurray, to be a “deranged socialist loser.” You can bet that more socialist name calling is coming to every town and city across America.

The United States is not a socialist country and there aren’t many people who want it to be.  We don’t need government-produced pajamas, cars, greeting cards, or shoe laces.  The free market for all those things is working just fine. 

But then there are other things like getting an education from kindergarten to high school.  We decided as a nation long ago that education should be available to everyone, regardless of how much money they have. 

We do not simply say, “Hey, you want your child educated, go find a private school and good luck paying for it.”  Instead we built a system of nearly one hundred thousand public schools.  If you are fine with having five-year-olds toddle off in the morning to a public kindergarten, you’ve already bought into the idea that some things ought to be public.

The debate in America today is whether there are other fundamental things that we ought to be providing in some public way as well.  Two of the biggest are also about our children.

The first is child day care.  My eldest daughter just had a glorious, new baby daughter named Elena.  When her mother returns to work, the full-time cost of putting her two girls in day care will be nearly $2,000 a month. In the U.S. today working couples spend an average of 25% of their income on child care and every young family knows far too well the stress of that cost.

Other countries invest public resources into these programs to make them affordable.  Why not us?  Why is kindergarten the magic age for having our kids in a public system?

The same is true on the other end.  The price of college and technical education has now skyrocketed beyond the reach of many families.  In other countries higher education is treated the same way as high school, a public good available in an affordable way to everyone.  Is that devil socialism, or common sense?

There is also the fierce debate over whether more of our health care should be provided in some public way. The historic abuses of private health insurance are well-known – high premiums matched with high deductibles, denial of care for pre-existing conditions, and having to deal with a mind-numbing bureaucracy when things go wrong.

Obamacare helped a good deal, especially on coverage for pre-existing conditions.  But a huge portion of our health care dollars is still spent on private insurance marketing, bureaucracy and giant CEO salaries.  For that reason a wide movement is underway to expand public systems like Medicare to cover more people than just the elderly.

When politicians throw out the word “socialism” as a boogey man, they aim to conjure up visions of an all-controlling government telling us what to do, and none of us want that.  But making day care, college, or health care available through an affordable public system is not totalitarianism and it shouldn’t be.

It should be like the Lockport public library.  If you really want to buy your books on Amazon at $12.99 a copy, you can still do that, but you don’t have to.  You can also get your books at the library at no charge.  It’s not crazy to have other, similar public options for taking care of our children or getting medical care when we are sick.

Will public services like these require more funding?  Yes.  I personally favor the idea put forward by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, to institute a new and modest ‘wealth tax’ on the nation’s billionaires and invest a large portion of it in the nation’s children.

For forty years in the U.S., the real incomes of almost everyone have remained stagnant while the nation’s wealth has been driven upward into the accounts of a very few at the top (a good deal of that due to their manipulations of the tax system).  It seems completely reasonable to ask them to give back a small piece of that to invest in the country’s future.

The next time you hear someone start ranting about socialists trying to take over the country, ask them how they feel about the kindergarten classes at your local elementary school.  That’s a form of so-called socialism right there, and there are a whole lot of little ones wearing Elsa from Frozen backpacks who are just fine with it.  

Jim Shultz  is a resident of Lockport, New York, and the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center.  His column appears biweekly in the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal.  Follow him on Twitter @jimshultz.

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