Is the U.S. Capitalist, Socialist or Something In-between?


During the Presidential campaign, then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama inartfully described his proposed federal income tax cuts for the middle class as “sharing the wealth.” His more strident right-wing opponents – including Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin – almost immediately labeled Obama “a socialist,” adding to a litany of alleged infirmities as a presidential candidate that included lacking executive experience; being a closet Muslim; and “someone who pals around with terrorists.”

Yet in reality Obama’s middle class tax proposal may have been the least “socialist” concept that has been floated and acted upon by a broad array of elected officials and senior-level appointees since four weeks before and four weeks after the Presidential election. This includes not only the huge federal financial bailout and taking of ownership of major investment and commercial banks – something embraced by the establishments of both political parties and the putative ‘capitalist’ business elites – but a series of other proposals, including the bailout of the Big Three American automakers, that are far more socialistic than a tax cut.

Of course, effective campaigning, like good television advertising, tends to have at least two fundamental characteristics in common – oversimplification and hyperbole – so one might forgive or ignore the campaigns for taking liberties with such terms. Yet the ready and frequent use of the term “socialist” by a variety of sources does raise serious questions as to whether anyone out there really understands either capitalism or socialism as concepts or political constructs. This might help us know how much we should apply either label to the U.S. given the prevailing economic malady and the series of palliatives being offered up by the current and future Administrations, respectively.

Socialism, of course, places primary ownership of the means of production in the hands of the state, or in some cases, corporate entities controlled by the state. In its extreme cases, such as in North Korea, this reality is absolute; in many other countries, state control is predominant and preeminent but pockets of private enterprise, usually small-scale and concentrated in agriculture or business services, still exist.

Capitalism is a much more vague idea but essentially reverses priorities, putting the predominant role in the hands of private interests such as investors and corporations. State power in a capitalist country usually focuses on the creation of standards, public health, safety, and welfare, such things as regulating the currency, protecting the environment, and assuring the health of the populace.

In contrast to the 19th Century, the US already operates on a much-diluted form of capitalism. Our markets are not free; they are highly regulated (and yet many would today argue they are not highly regulated enough). The exchange rates and values of our currency do not float freely but are heavily manipulated through federal government rate-setting activities. Investment decisions are not driven purely by return expectations or classic risk/reward analyses; rather they are incentivized or discouraged by a byzantine system of rewards and penalties affectionately known as the Internal Revenue Code. In other words, the federal government – under both Democrat and Republican Administrations and supported by both Houses of Congress – intervenes routinely in how markets operate and how capital is deployed. In this sense the federal tax code is fundamentally a mechanism for wealth redistribution, so candidate Obama’s statement about his proposed middle-class tax cut simply represented a shift to one set of priorities, much as the Bush Administration’s tax cuts represented another.

If you accept the premise above that the U.S. already had one foot out the doorway between a more pure form of capitalism and socialism as it is widely practiced in other Westernized countries, it now appears that the U.S. is being pulled at warp speed through that doorway, as a consequence of the myriad plans (schemes would be a more accurate description, given how little thought appears to be devoted to them before rolling them out at press conference after press conference) for bailing out various classically capitalistic institutions.

Bailing out a completely broken mortgage finance system that rewarded handsomely (some would say shamelessly) myriad private-sector entities and the mortgage industry represents a shift towards socialism. Providing over $100 billion in taxpayer support for AIG is socialism, not capitalism. Providing $200 billion of taxpayer support to prop up consumer credit, so that Americans can return to a false economy predicated upon unbridled, conspicuous consumption, is socialism not capitalism.

The fact that these and other extraordinary moves by the federal government are undertaken in the name of saving our capitalistic economy and staving off a severe economic depression does not change the fact that we are experiencing – first under Bush and soon under Obama – a powerful drift towards extended state control of the economy. Free-wheeling and unfettered profit-making and corporate greed on the way up, backstopped by enormous government bailouts on the way down, represents in some ways the worst of both worlds .

We now add to this series of attempts to solve our economic crisis the so-called “New, New Deal” proposed by President-elect Obama the week before Thanksgiving. Focused on fixing America’s infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, and education – as well as the creation of 2.5 million new jobs in the process – the New, New Deal basically supplants a failed, quasi-capitalistic economy with one that is driven primarily by government spending on government projects, in part for the purpose of creating new government jobs.

There will be two silver linings if all of these government bail-out strategies and the implementation of Obama’s New, New Deal succeed: The U.S. could emerge from this economic abyss in which we find ourselves; and pass, at last, a comprehensive, universal healthcare reform that will not look nearly as socialistic as it may have appeared only six months ago.

Yet there are some real dangers as well. A massive government program that extends more and more into every aspect of the economy could bring enormous inefficiencies as political decisions overtake market-based decision-making. It is not beyond the pale, for example, that banks may make loans to customers not based on their fundamental ability to pay but their ability to shift their risks to the government. Land use and other decisions once left to markets and localities could be placed in the hands of federal regulators, where the influence of well-connected developers and special interests (including such laudable causes as environmental protection) could be profound.

Of course, this is a situation that could also change our national geography in profound ways. Parts of the country well-plugged into the new ruling party – the Northeast, coastal California, and most of all Chicago – could be huge beneficiaries. But the real winner, as I have argued before, may be the Nation’s Capital and its environs, whose power over the private economy would be greater than at any time since the Second World War.

Of course, it may perhaps be both overly simplistic and somewhat hyperbolic to suggest that Washington, D.C. is morphing into "Pyongyang on the Potomac." However, unless the federal rescue of our fundamentally capitalistic economy and society is not very carefully orchestrated, we may see greater similarities with another centrally planned economy – the one run from Paris. In that case, similarities between Paris and Washington, D.C. may extend well beyond the boulevarded street network and classical scale bestowed upon us by Pierre L'Enfant; we could also end up with something more akin to France's centrally controlled dirigiste system than anyone could have expected.

Peter Smirniotopoulos, Vice President – Development of UniDev, LLC, is based in the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, and works throughout the U.S. He is on the faculty of the Masters in Science in Real Estate program at Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed herein are solely his own.

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