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 in 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 the city's main drag: 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.
“Socialist” has become the new Republican label of choice to try to tarnish Democrats as some sort of crazy cult that wants to seize control of your dog. Last month the National Republican Congressional Committee declared the local Democratic candidate, Nate McMurray, to be a “deranged socialist loser.” You can bet that more name calling is coming.
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 we 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 100,000 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 a 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 this week. When she 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?
Then there is the ongoing debate over whether more of our health care should be provided in a public system. The historic abuses of private health insurance are well-known — high premiums matched with high deductibles, denial of care for pre-existing conditions, 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 bogeyman, 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 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. I don’t think it is crazy at all to have other, similar public options for taking care of our children or getting medical care when we are sick.
Do public services like these require more funding? Yes they do. I personally favor the idea of Senator Elizabeth Warren for a new 2% tax wealth tax on the nation’s billionaires, invested in the nation’s children. For 40 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 is fair and 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 our local elementary schools. 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, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.