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Bernie Sanders, Third-Rate Op-Ed Columnist

Bernie Sanders, writing in the Boston Globe, offers a strange double argument: He defends socialism (he identifies himself as a socialist) and accuses Republicans of using the term socialist as a smear. He doesn’t ask or answer the obvious question: Why should Democrats object to being labeled socialists if, as Sanders argues, socialism is a good thing?
Sanders is particularly taken with the case of Finland, which he holds up as a model of what a long-term commitment to democratic socialism can produce. That may seem attractive to some readers, given the current convulsions in the world economy and the accompanying denunciations of alleged capitalist excess. Sanders, however, does not mention the worst economic meltdown in the post-Depression era: It happened in . . . Finland. This is why aspiring newspaper editors should study economics or history, or something useful, rather than majoring in journalism. Somebody ought to have asked: Gee, Bernie, what about that catastrophic national economic meltdown Finland suffered a decade or so back? (Or how about the fact that, as Alan Reynolds argues in the current issue of National Review, the social-democratic paradise of Sweden had far worse housing inflation, and is suffering a steeper recession, than the cowboy capitalists in America? Or the fact that the global recession seems actually to have preceded the troubles in the U.S. subprime-mortgage sector?)
Sanders almost manages to stumble into the interesting part of this argument. It is true, I believe, that American conservatives make too much of the alleged horrors of the European welfare states, and tend to conflate expensive social-wefare systems with socialism, which, properly understood, is centralized government direction of the economy. (You know, like what the U.S. has in farming, banking, insurance, automaking, mortgage-lending, utilities, &c.) A critic once asked Milton Friedman what he thought about the fact that Sweden has basically no poverty, and Friedman answered: We don’t have many poor Swedes in America, either.
Sanders acknowledges that the U.S. and Finland are radically different societies: Finland has a few million people overwhelmingly homogenous people packed into a relatively small country; we’re diverse, sprawling, and dynamic. What Sanders can’t quite manage to do, and what his editors at the Globe apparently did not ask him to do, is to progress to the logical follow-up question: Even if we assume that Finnish institutions are desirable, what reason is there to believe that Finnish-style institutions will produce Finnish-style results in the United States, which is a rather different country? There is no reason to believe that Finnish inputs will produce Finnish outputs anywhere other than Finland, and especially not in societies that are radically different from Finland. This is why airlifting copies of the U.S. Constitution all over Africa will not turn Mombasa into Greenwich or Lagos into Austin.
Even making the comparison on Sanders’s own terms, though, his argument is weak: A 2004 Timbro study calculated that if Sweden were to join the United States, it would be the sixth-poorest state; France would be the fifth-poorest. About 40 percent of Swedish households would be considered low-income by U.S. standards.
What Sanders needs, and what the Boston Globe needs, is an editor who knows how to ask questions. The Globe can’t afford one, but what’s Sanders’s excuse? Here’s a business strategy for Pinch & Co.: Smarter op-ed pages.


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