July 17, 2019 | 92° F

BARUH: Criticism of democratic socialism in U.S. has merit

Opinions Column: Vox Signata


Presidential elections are always filled with noise, and thanks to Donald Trump, the decibel level is off the charts. But hidden in the noise are serious policy issues — for both Republicans and Democrats. For Democrats, one of the key issues in the fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is the applicability of the Scandinavian social welfare model. Bernie Sanders campaigns on a platform of instituting many of the programs currently found in countries like Norway and Sweden. Hillary Clinton is certainly a fan of Northern Europe (“I love Denmark”) but has made it clear that her campaign is not about recreating America in Denmark and Co.’s image. This debate isn’t limited to the Democratic Party. Recently Garry Kasparov, Russian chess grandmaster and human rights activist, has written about how the democratic socialism that Bernie Sanders advocates for America is fine for Denmark, but dangerous for America. (This column would like to thank Aviv Khavich for mentioning Kasparov’s op-ed in his letter to the Targum on March 25).

Kasparov, who grew up in the Soviet Union and is a fierce critic of socialism, makes many interesting arguments why what’s good for the Danes is not good for us. One reason for Kasparov’s skepticism is demographics — Denmark has a small and relatively homogenous population, so strong social safety net works. The United States, however, has a large, diverse population, and a Scandinavian welfare system would be unwieldy and ineffective. This argument can sound vague. Yes, the U.S. is bigger and more diverse than Denmark. But how different are we? And why should those disparities matter?

For Kasparov to be right, we need to show that (1) our demographics are significantly different from Denmark, and (2) that our demographics would lead to inefficient social welfare programs. First, let’s examine size. The United States is much larger, both in land mass and population size than Denmark. Additionally Denmark has a much higher population density (133 people in a square kilometer versus the U.S.’s 35) and a lower proportion of citizens living in a rural area (12 percent in Denmark and 19 percent in the U.S.).

Denmark also appears to be more homogenous. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that the United States is about 62 percent white (not including Hispanics or Latinos), but being “white” means that your family immigrated to the United States from Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. My friend from Turkey and my friend from England are both white, but I would be hard pressed to say they share the same ethnic (or cultural) identity. In Denmark 10 percent of the country is comprised of immigrants and their descendants. Does that mean that the remaining 90 percent share the same ethnic identity? Given Denmark’s relatively low levels of immigration, it seems plausible that the Danish really are as homogenous as Kasparov argues and by extension more homogenous than the United States.

But do these differences make for a difference? Unfortunately what we know about population size and government is limited by the sparse literature on the topic (if you have thoughts on the issue, please visit this column on the Targum’s website to continue the discussion). Research from the Harvard Institute of Economics has indicated that there is a negative correlation between ethnic diversity and government performance, but correlation does not equal causation. The complex relationship between ethnic tolerance, legal systems, macroeconomic forces and government efficiency makes any analyses difficult, and for better or for worse, the recent immigration crisis in Europe will give us perhaps the best chance of understanding what happens when the Scandinavian welfare system confronts a multicultural society.

There are several other arguments that Kasparov makes in his op-ed, which merit further discussion. For example, the outsized role that the United States plays in technological innovation and military defense is another issue that has received some academic attention, and there is no clear consensus about what would happen if the United States transitioned from cut-throat capitalism to cuddly capitalism. If the structure of the U.S. economy encourages innovation more than other economies because of its Darwinian characteristics (a matter of contention) and innovation drives economic growth, then who will pick up the slack if the U.S. decides to restructure its economy to be more equitable and less entrepreneurial? Kasparov also voices his (justified) concern of a powerful state and the unexpected dangers of government overreach. If we have learned anything from Flint, it is that government can break down without us realizing until the pain is all too real.

Yosef Baruh is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in economics and minoring in computer Science. His column, "Vox Signata," runs on alternating Mondays.


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Yosef Baruh

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