Socialism 2.0

Former Clinton-era Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argues in the TPMCafe that the bailout culture is “lemon socialism”:

America has embraced Lemon Socialism.

The federal government — that is, you and I and every other taxpayer — has taken ownership of giant home mortgagors Fannie and Freddie, which are by now basket cases. We’ve also put hundreds of millions into Wall Street banks, which are still flowing red ink and seem everyday to be in worse shape. We’ve bailed out the giant insurer AIG, which is failing. We’ve given GM and Chrysler the first installments of what are likely to turn into big bailouts. It’s hard to find anyone who will place a big bet on the future of these two. …

Put it all together and at this rate, the government — that is, taxpayers — will own much of the housing, auto, and financial sectors of the economy, those sectors that are failing fastest.

He’s right. With the Obama Administration seriously considering the nationalization of a large swath of the banking industry, the government is rapidly heading for a new kind of socialism. Call it “socialism 2.0”, in which the government takes failing industries and buys them out in order to artificially prop up a faltering economy. Injecting capital in a frozen market is not a bad idea. Nationalizing failing industries is not. What the Bush Administration did and the Obama Administration is continuing amounts to little more than throwing good money after bad.

US Debt to GDP Chart
US Debt to GDP Chart

Our economic problem is structural. We have too much debt. This chart says it all: America’s level of debt has simply skyrocketed. That is not only personal debt (mortgages, credit cards), that is government debt (Social Security liabilities, Medicare, government bonds). The current strategy has been to prop up that unsustainable level of debt. In the case of President Obama’s “stimulus” package, the effect is to dramatically increase federal debt in the hopes that we can spend our way out of recession.

The short version is that our strategy is to massively increase our debt to solve the problems created by our massive debt. That hardly seems like the most sane strategy.

If the United States were another country (say Argentina) and we were seeking IMF aid, we’d immediately be put on an austerity plan. Government spending would have to be cut to get the level of debt down. Nationalizing industries would be completely out of the question. Inflation would have to be kept in check to ensure that it didn’t spiral out of control.

The IMF has put other countries on such plans before, with the approval of the U.S. government. Now is a time for a taste of our own medicine. As hard is it is for some to imagine cutting government spending in a recession, we’ve made others do exactly that before. A problem caused by an unsustainable level of spending is not going to get better by spending even more. Getting our government under control is crucial to the long-term success of this country.

Reich is ultimately right on his point: we’re trying a half-assed form of socialism that will simply not work. By incentivizing failure at the same time we punish success with high corporate tax rates, the government is sending exactly the wrong signals. What this country needs is a stronger business climate, and that won’t come about unless there’s a shakeup in the business world.

Every dollar that goes to GM is a dollar that props up a failing regime. If we are to have a 21st Century economy, we cannot be in the business of making sure nobody fails. The process of “creative destruction” is crucial to a healthy economy. Socialism 2.0 is unlikely to be any more successful than Socialism 1.0 was—and until policymakers in Washington realize that, our economic problems are likely to only get worse.