Social Democracy and the Economy

Since it was published in 2014, Lane Kenworthy’s “Social Democratic America” has turned heads in public policy circles. Kenworthy, who teaches sociology at the University of California San Diego, outlines our social democratic future in this book. This includes more generous Social Security and Temporary Aid for Needy Families, paid family leave, guaranteed paid vacation, guaranteed paid sick days, comprehensive early childhood education, and universal health insurance. Kenworthy advocates a variety of taxes to pay for his proposals. In my interview, the Sociology professor brought new insights on war, peace, social democracy, diplomacy and international law, and the future of our country.

Question: The domestic proposals you advocate are different considering the anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric that have been the norms over the years. How is the change you propose going to come about?

Answer: I suspect the pattern in the coming half century or so will be similar to what’s happened over the past century. Proposals for new or expanded public insurance programs will be frequently put forward. Usually they will get blocked. But occasionally one will pass. And typically it will stick, because Americans will like it and the extensive separation of powers in our government makes it difficult (though not impossible) to get rid of popular programs.

If the Republicans maintain their recent oppositional approach, it will be difficult to pass anything. But Republicans also will become less popular, and eventually we may see at the national level what has happened in California: a Democratic supermajority, which has allowed passage of paid parental leave, paid sick leave, a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage, a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit for low earners, a supplemental pension program with automatic enrollment, and more.

Question: What is the difference between social democracy, which you advocate, and democratic socialism? The two terms are used to describe the same ideas, right? Was there a point of separation between the two?

Answer: To most people, “socialism” includes significant government ownership of firms, whereas “social democracy” doesn’t.

Question: Social Democratic programs exist in our country. We have social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and temporary need for families. Would you consider Presidents, who implemented these programs–FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, LBJ and Hubert Humphrey–to be social democrats?

Answer: Yes, I probably would. They were in favor of expanding public insurance programs to enhance economic security and opportunity for ordinary Americans, and that’s the core of social democracy. A caveat: Contemporary social democracy also tends to include a commitment to using public services — early education, active labor market policy, lifelong learning, and more — to facilitate employment. Some of Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” programs fit, but I’m not sure how committed the others were to this.

Question: In your work, you’ve pointed out that our country spends more on the military than is the norm in other countries. You don’t make yourself out to be an expert on war and peace, but what are your views on this? Is the amount we’re spending just mad?

Answer: In recent decades the US has tended to spend around 4% of our GDP on the military each year. Other rich longstanding-democratic countries spend 1% to 2%. I suspect we could spend less and still do an effective job of keeping the peace.

Question: Is there a tension between your proposals and military spending? They’re both funded by taxes. Could the military spending squeeze out the social spending?

Answer: It would help if we could take some money that currently goes to the military and use it for public social programs instead. At the same time, doing that would only get us so far. I think we need an additional 10% or so of GDP in government spending in order to put in place the full array of programs that would make us a “social democratic America.” If we cut our military budget in half, that would only get us 2% of GDP.

Question: Is peace a civil right that social democrats believe in? If so, why?

Answer: I don’t know that there’s a “social democratic” position on this issue.

Question: What are your views on diplomacy? It’s a way we talk ourselves out of war. Is there a connection between social democracy and diplomacy?

Answer: Social democrats tend to believe in institutions and policies that boost the well-being of the least fortunate while allowing for a flexible, dynamic, open society. They also have tended to be pragmatic and adaptable when it comes to the strategies that will achieve this. I suspect discussion, negotiation, and compromise are prominent tools mainly because of their effectiveness rather than because they are intrinsically social democratic.

Question: What are your views on international law? Is the effective making and enforcement of international laws essential to keeping military spending down?

Answer: Yes. Laws (and norms) discourage violent behavior within a country, allowing less spending on police. The same surely is true between countries.

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