October 23, 2018; New York Times

A White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) 72-page report published earlier this week seeks to link the policies advocated by democratic socialists such as US Senator Bernie Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with failed economic programs of 20th-century communist governments. The report, note Binyamin Appelbaum and Jim Tankersley in the New York Times, manages to use the word “socialism” 144 times—or two times per page. Even Karl Marx might have been surprised to see socialism denounced with such fervor.

The Council’s report begins, in fact, with a reference to the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. The specter of Marx, it would appear, is still very much with us. But Marx was born in May, not October. Might the October release of a White House report be electorally motivated? One hint: a White House press release about the report carries the headline “Congressional Democrats Want to Take Money From Hardworking Americans to Fund Failed Socialist Policies.”

As Appelbaum and Tankersley write, “The report does not shy away from lumping in liberal politicians and their policy proposals, such as Medicare for All and tuition-free college, with the atrocities committed by authoritarian regimes. For example, it compares Lenin’s demonization of kulaks, or yeoman farmers, to [US Senator Elizabeth] Warren’s critiques of the behavior of some large corporations.”

Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business who chaired the CEA under President Barack Obama, remarks to the Times that, “It feels like the CEA has a lot of free time on its hands. Normally, the CEA’s time is spent as a think tank for the president, adding up numbers. There’s not time to be contemplating Karl Marx.”

The report finds that pickup trucks are more expensive in Norway than in the US—American workers have to spend 4.4 hours of work a week to pay for their trucks compared to 7.1 hours in Norway. But is this the most insightful comparison to draw? Notably, the United Nations (UN) in its 2018 Human Development Report gives Norway top billing—the US ranks thirteenth. Sweden, which lacks Norway’s oil wealth, ranks below Norway, but still comes in above the US at seventh, despite the fact that pickup trucks in Sweden are even more expensive than in Norway. Perhaps the UN found it more significant that the average Swede lives three years longer than the average American.

What is the report’s definition of socialism? The definition offered is “the degree to which (a) the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned or regulated by the state; and (b) the state uses its control to distribute the economic output without regard for final consumers’ willingness to pay or exchange (i.e., giving resources away ‘for free’).”

But as Appelbaum and Tankersley observe, the report authors assiduously avoid applying that definition to current US government activity, even though “The federal government has long embraced important elements of a socialist agenda, such as providing retirement benefits and health care for poor children and older people.” Also, direct government ownership in the US economy—everything from the US Post Office to municipally owned power—is actually quite extensive. But for the CEA, all of this is unimportant. For example, Medicare for all seniors is not socialism, but the same program, if available to all Americans, is definitely socialism.

NPQ readers might also find it interesting to note that the CEA report casts a critical eye on holiday gifts, since “the recipients of Christmas gifts sometimes value the gifts less than they cost the giver.” You see, the inefficiency of gift-giving shows why socialism is inefficient. Also, maybe a fifth column in the war on Christmas has entered the White House.

And what do actual democratic socialists have to say? Ocasio-Cortez defines democratic socialism as being less about means and more about organizing economics around the principle that “in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no American should be too poor to live.” Ocasio-Cortez adds that, “To me, that means every working-class American in this country should have access to dignified health care—should actually be able to see a doctor without going broke. It means you should be able to send your kids to college and trade school if they so choose, and no person should feel precarious or unstable in their access to housing as our economy develops.”—Steve Dubb