Thursday, December 3, 2009

SORTING OUT THE RHETORIC

To even begin to progress in the political/economic arena, the populist labels are, at best, unhelpful. Do a sort of Rorschach-test for yourself in words instead of ink-blots. What do you immediately think of the following?

Liberal
Conservative
Atheist
Believer
Socialism
Communism
Capitalism
Left
Right
And that’s just the smallest segment of what divides us. Homeless, jobless and bankrupt all have entirely different meanings, depending on whether you are out of a job, on the streets or drowning in debt.
They say as people get older they become more intolerant of both the mistakes and intentions of those younger than themselves, but I‘ve found it not to be the case. Experience is the word for having known, gone through and survived the ups and downs of a lived life. Wisdom sometimes, but not always, comes from that.  


But we’re polarized. God knows we’re been told that often enough to believe it, even though perfectly rational conversation is still possible among our like-minded friends.
Compasses are not often wrong, but I was once dangerously lost in the mountains of Montana at night, as the thermometer plunged toward -50 degrees. An otherwise pleasurable elk-hunting trip got downright scary in a matter of hours. It turned out that the manufacturer of the compass I carried had installed the dial upside down. Easy enough to catch in daylight, had I reason to look, but confoundingly purposeless at night.  


I often reflect on that.  
Socialism is a case in point, not always true-north, nor is capitalism, or the over two hundred isms (an inordinate number of them religion-based) that dandy themselves about. Ism is a kind of tincture for me, a trace color that’s likely to mask a personal interpretation and I usually try to get a definition before chatting further.
Isms are not usually stand-alones, they beg for modifiers; Godless communism and reckless capitalism come to mind. Daylight and a reason to look is usually good advice.
 


Take Sweden, everyone’s knee-jerk response to the evils of socialism, leavened perhaps (or not) by the enormous and profitable success of IKEA and the number one Information Technology nation in the world, for the fourth consecutive year.

Forbes magazine has this to say:
The new face of Swedish socialism

By Richard Heller, Forbes

Swedish snapshot A: Shows a taxed-to-the-eyeballs welfare state where the government grabs more than 52% of the country's GDP—the highest percentage of any industrial country. A Swedish businessman who earns Euro 200,000 a year gets to keep just 49% of his paycheck. Of OECD countries, only France comes close to Sweden in taxing its most successful businesspeople (for complete tax data on 33 countries, see "The tax grab 2001," Forbes Global, Feb. 5).

Swedish snapshot B: Shows a booming economy bubbling with entrepreneurial activity. Growth is predicted to be 3.5% for 2001; inflation, 1.7%; unemployment, 4% (less than half the European average). In 1999, according to the European Information Technology Observatory, Sweden ranked first in the world in investment in information technology and telecommunications. Venture capital is pouring into Sweden, and labor productivity is rocketing: From 1990 to 1999 productivity climbed 47% in Sweden, against 39% in the U.S. and 31% (on average) in the EU. Last year, Sweden topped the global standings in R&D spending as a percentage of GDP with 3.7% (in the U.S. it was 3.1%), according to the OECD.













Will the real Sweden please step forward?  Taxed to the eyeballs, yet with a booming economy. Rhetoric again, with both tax and boom in the eye of the beholder.
Uninformed, we throw generalities at one another and nothing much gets accomplished in the way of revising, upgrading, junking or bowing-down to our current economic and political (read that health-care) issues.  

Would some comparisons help? Perhaps just a bit, something to put some definition to the argument:
 
NAME OF COMPARED RANKING
YEAR
AMERICAN RANK
OUT OF
SWEDISH RANK
CIA World Factbook – GDP per capita
2008

10

229

26
CIA World Factbook – life expectancy
2008

36

223

10
World Economic Forum – Enabling Trade Index ranking 

2008
14
118
3
Yale University / Columbia University - Environmental Performance Index 

2008
39
149
3
The Economist Intelligence Unit - e-readiness
2008
1
70
3
The Economist Intelligence Unit - Global Peace Index  

2008
97
140
13
United States Patent and Trademark Office's list of patents by country 

2007
1
172
11
Save the Children - Mother's Index           

2007
27
141
1
Save the Children - Women's Index


22
141
1
Save the Children - Children's Index

2007
30
141
4
Wall Street Journal / The Heritage Foundation - Index of Economic Freedom

2007
5
157
27
United Nations - Human Development Index
2007
15
179
6
World Economic Forum - Global Competitiveness Report 

2007
1
177
4
World Economic Forum - The Global Gender Gap Report 

2007
31
128
1
World Bank - Ease of Doing Business Index            

2007
3
178
14
Reporters Without Borders - Worldwide Press Freedom Index 

2007
48
169
5
Transparency International - Corruption Perceptions Index

2008
20
180
1
The Economist Intelligence Unit - Index of Democracy

2007
17
167
1
Privacy International - Privacy index (EU and 11 other selected countries)
2006
30
36
28
New Economics Foundation – Happy Planet Index
2006
150
178
119
The Economist Intelligence Unit - Quality-of-life index

2005
13
111
5
World Health Organization - suicide rates by country

2004
46
100
31
NationMaster's index of civil and political liberties

2004
7
140
3
Save the Children – seats in the national government held by women
2004
10
141
1
NationMaster's index of asylum seekers (per capita)

2001
22
28
4
NationMaster's index of economic aid (donor, per capita)

2001
19
24
5
NationMaster's index of technological achievement
2001
2
68
3





 
So, America’s kicking butt in GDP, although both nations are in the top 10%. Ditto on patents, economic freedom and ease of doing business.
But Sweden, poster-boy for that mean old socialism, leads us by a bunch in life expectancy, environmental performance, global peace, mothers, women and children indexes, gender-gap issues, press freedom, corruption perception, seats in government held by women, asylum seeker acceptance, economic donor aid, political freedom and (gasp) democracy.
 


Democracy was always our trump card. We owned democracy. Now, out of 167 countries, we are 17th and they are 1st. Now, the issues we own are GDP and patents; ease of doing business and political freedom (which some of us thought might be growing less in America).
Socialist Sweden lays claim to a higher tax rate (49% to 33%), but what they buy with their taxes are life enhancing benefits and the personal freedoms usually associated with our constitution.
 


Which does not a ball-game make.
But the next time someone demagogues you with socialist legislation and the slippery slope to socialism, you might ask just what they mean.
Socialism is often defined as “the doctrine of centralized state control of wealth and property.” But, like so many oft-stated truisms, it’s not always that way. So it may pay to take a look at the conversation about the word and determine ahead of time who means what.
The face of the rhetorical compass is not always screwed on properly and reading it wrong can give rise to a long, cold night in the mountains.