Jírovec Spreads Myths About Scandinavia
After forcing myself to read Jiří Jírovec's critique of my analysis of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), I wondered at first whether it would be worth the effort to write a reply. After all, everyone who read my original article with an open mind will immediately see that he has either misrepresented my ideas or misunderstood them. Anyone who is not a sexist will immediately notice the sexist arguments that he uses. And anyone who is not a racist will probably also notice that Jírovec displays a racist attitude toward Romanies.
So what is the point of responding? I have two reasons. First, Jírovec spreads a lot of myths about Western European social democracies. I suspect that many of Britské listy's readers do not know much about Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, where social democratic parties have dominated the political system since the 1930s. Second, since Czechs have been raised on decades of Stalinist propaganda followed by a decade of Thatcherist propaganda, many Czechs are not really aware of the dangers of nuclear power and thus do not fully appreciate what a moral crime it is to build nuclear power plants. Of course, I will also give a couple short examples of the manner in Jírovec misunderstands or misreprents me and I will also write something short about his sexist and racist arguments, but I will save these obvious questions for the end of this article.
Mythology about Social Democratic CountriesMyth nr. 1: Sweden has a progressive tax system. In reality, Sweden's tax system is among the least progressive in the industrialized world. The vast majority of the populace only pays the flat-rate municipal tax which depending on the area ranges from around 28%-32%. When the yearly income exceeds a certain limit, employees must pay the national income tax of 20% on all income exceeding that limit. Thus, there are only two tax rates in Sweden. Since only a minority of the population pays the national income tax, the national government raises most of its money from indirect taxes - especially through a 25% value added tax. VATs are normally considered regressive, because the poor usually spend most of their income on consumption, while the wealthy save a large portion of their income. That means that the poor devote a much larger portion of their income to VATs than the rich.
In theory, at least, the American tax system is more progressive than the Swedish. There are more levels in the income tax than in Sweden and the sales taxes are rather low. In the USA the state governments collect the sales taxes, which are usually only between 5-10%. Some states do not even have sales taxes. Of course, in reality the American tax system is not very progressive either, since there are so many loopholes that the truly wealthy hardly pay any income tax at all.
Myth nr. 2: The key economic sectors are under state control. Jírovec's statement does not hold up either on the question of free trade or state ownership of industry. The Scandinavian social democratic countries have always been among the world's greatest supporters of free trade. In fact, none of the Scandinavian countries joined the European Community in the beginning, precisely because of the trade issue. They did not like the high level of protectionism within the EEC, nor did they like its overly regulated agricultural system. Thus, the Scandinavian countries helped found the free trade organization EFTA as an alternative to the protectionist EEC. Denmark finally joined the EEC in the 1970s, but Sweden and Finland did not join until the 1990s (when it had become the EU) and Norway has still refused to join. When Sweden had its big debate on joining the EU one of the main arguments against joining was that it would force the country to become much more protectionist and it would lead to a tremendous regulation of agricultural policy.
Before joining the EU, Sweden was always considered to be one of the countries in the world with the freest trade. I still remember the surprise of one of my conservative guest students from America who took my course on social policy right before Sweden had joined the EU. He planned to write his term paper on the hypothesis of one author that countries with strong labor unions have more protectionist policies. After reading all the international reports - including those from the CIA - he concluded that Sweden had freer trade than the USA.
The other question is the one of state ownership of key industries. The Social Democrats ruled Sweden from 1932-1976. During this 36 year period, they only nationalized 5% of the country's industry. At the time hardly any West European countries had a smaller nationalized sector. Even conservative countries, such as France and Italy, that had never had socialist governments in the post-War era, had more state ownership of industry. However, when the center-right governments came to power from 1976-1982 they doubled the state sector from 5% to 10% of industry. During the 1980s, though, Social Democratic governments have privatized portions of state-owned industries by selling stocks in them.
Myth nr. 3: Social Democratic Countries had trouble financing their social programs. Before the Swedish Social Democrats carried out a market-liberal tax reform in 1990, the country was one of the few in the world to have a budget surplus. In addition, the social insurance funds also had run a surplus.
The financing troubles began after the government began pursuing market-liberal policies. The Social Democrats carried out a tax reform with the support of the liberals. This included a tax cut, reductions in subsidies to the housing sector and a decision to make fighting inflation the main monetary goal. The crown was also pegged to the ECU. As a result, the budget surplus changed into a deficit, the construction sector collapsed and unemployment began to rise. The Social Democrats were duly punished and lost the 1991 elections.
The center-right government continued to follow market-liberal policies. As a result the banking industry collapsed. Three of the four major banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the state. The state even had to take over one of the banks (another of them was already state owned). So ironically, market-liberal policies in the short run led to an increase in the socialized sector! The government stubbornly tried to keep the crown pegged to the ECU, which caused interest rates to rise to 500%!!! It was not cheap to keep the crown pegged to the ECU or to salvage the banks. Both policies cost the government many tens of billions of dollars. (Note: I am using the American English term of "billion" here, which corresponds to the British term of "thousands of millions"). As a result, the country which only recently had a budget surplus now had the second biggest deficit in all of Western Europe - second only to Greece! Shortly afterwards, the government had to let the crown float. Meanwhile, unemployment had risen from slightly over 1% to nearly 9%.
Of course, since the Right controls the Swedish media, it has succeeded in spreading the myth even among many Swedes that the economic crisis was caused by the "fact" that the country had been "living over its means." It seems that in a period of neo-liberal hegemony there is no place for logical, causal arguments! Nevertheless, to the non-indoctrinated reader, it should be clear that Sweden's financing problems were caused because the government switched from more traditional social democratic policies to more market-liberal ones.
Actually, the Swedish situation is not so unique. When Reagan carried out his tax reform, he immediately gave the USA by far its greatest budget deficit in its history. No other president had even come close to him. The savings and loans banks also went bankrupt in USA as the result of the neo-liberal policies. I remember last year that one of my Czech students defended the dogma that large tax cuts cause budget deficits only temporarily. After the budget deficits increase, the economy grows so rapidly that the deficit disappears. In 1998 - 18 years after Reagan came into office and 16 years after Reagan's tax cut passed congress, Clinton was finally able to present a balanced budget. That is quite a long time for a "temporary" deficit! It is more likely that Clinton's policies aimed at cutting the deficit are the real cause of the balanced budget.
Myth 4: Private property is necessary for human rights. It is really amazing that Jírovec uses such an argument just after the Britské listy has been filled with articles about the terror which the Chileans suffered under Pinochet. The Allende regime socialized a lot of private property, but completely respected human rights in the country. Pinochet destroyed the country's democracy, murdered, tortured and raped thousands of people - all in the name of defending private property. Hitler and Pinochet's hero, Franco, all did the same thing: they overthrew democracy, while claiming that they were defending private property owner's against the "Communist threat." The vast majority of capitalist countries throughout history have been dictatorships with little respect for human rights. We also have the case of Israel, which is the only democratic country in the Middle-East. During the first three decades of its existed, the country always had socialist prime ministers. I do not have the exact statistics, but I am sure that over half of all industry was in public hands - that is either state-owned, cooperatively owned or owned by the unions. During Likud regimes, some of the property was privatized, but respect for human rights also drastically decreased. Another example: in the 1970s, about half of Austria's industry was state owned, while the state sector in Franco's Spain was much smaller. Yet, Austria was a democracy and Spain a fascist dictatorship. The lesson is clear: private property is not necessary for human rights, but democracy is.
Misrepresenting ArgumentsJírovec obviously knows his Marx, so he criticizes me for ignoring the economic base of the Czech Republic in my analysis of the “SSD. I am making a mistake in thinking that the Social Democrats can be successful if they ignore the economic base of society and instead concentrate on the political superstructure, by profiling themselves in "unimportant" questions such as saving the environment (so that people can eat, breath and drink the water) or providing the same opportunities to Romanies and Czech women as Czech men enjoy. According to Jírovec, the Social Democrats must develop their "own" economic policy in order to gain the confidence of investors.
What kinds of radical departures does Jírovec suggest that the Social Democrats make from mainstream market-liberal policies? They should make it clear what mistakes the ODS had made in dealing with state-owned property (as if these problems are not already generally known!) and then they should show that they are capable of "governing openly and responsibly"! Of course, nobody can make the counter claim that the Social Democrats should show society that they can govern secretly and irresponsibly, but does this really mean a radical departure in economic policy from the Tošovský government?
I never claimed that economic policies are not important. Nor did I claim that the Social Democrats did not need to gain the confidence of investors. On the contrary, my point is that even democratically elected governments face a lot of structural constraints. One of them is political: the ČSSD faces a parliament with a center-right majority and a populace that places itself in the center and center-right. Then there are many economic constraints: the Czech Republic is a small country, highly dependent on foreign trade and foreign investment and it is a period of increased globalization. A further constraint is that it wants to join the EU, which means that it will be subject to the Maastricht agreement which sets limits on the rate of inflation and the size of the budget deficit. Given these constraints, it would be difficult for the ČSSD to devise a radically different economic policy than the Tošovský government. In addition, the finance policies of the Tošovský government, in turn, did not differ much from Klaus' monetarist policies. The main differences were two: 1) the attempt to build up institutions that can regulate the capital markets and make them more transparent, and 2) the desire to speed up the privatization of banks. If the ČSSD wants to gain the support of investors, then it must basically continue the policies of the previous government. It can marginally differ, for example, by allowing a slightly larger deficit, or privatizing the banks either a little bit more slowly or a little bit more quickly, but the Zeman government cannot really do anything radically different.
Given this situation in which the Social Democrats cannot radically change the country's economic policy, they have to find some issues where they can profile themselves as being different from the previous governments. This includes issues as the environment, gender and minority rights. This would also be a realist strategy, because it would be possible to find a parliamentary majority at least some of these issues. This does not mean that the economy is not important; it just means that the Social Democrats are not going to be able to gain many votes by radically changing the country's economic policies - although, of course, they could certainly lose a lot of votes if they do so.
Another of Several MisunderstandingsSince I do not want to write a book, I will just briefly mention another case in which Jírovec misrepresents my arguments. He claims that it is wrong for me to consider support for nuclear power to be an example of the "Old Left." His reasoning is that many rightwing parties also support nuclear energy. It is really surprising that he sees a contradiction in this, since he knows that I have asserted many times that portions of the Old Left and portions of the Right heve vary similar attitudes on many issues. The first time Jírovec criticized me was after he read my article on conservative communists, in which I claimed that the Czech Communist Party has conservative (i.e. traditionally "rightwing" attitudes). Both groups often believe that economic growth should be the main goal regardless of the human or environmental costs. The fact that nuclear power is the most centralized form of energy ever used and the fact that nuclear power requires a lot of security measures all fits well into the centralized, authoritarian Stalinist-type of society, which market liberals in theory should abhor, but in practice often support. My point, was that all traditional "Old-Left" parties have supported nuclear power, while the "New Left" has always been against it, as has most of the "New Middle." However, the definition of "Old Left" contains much more than support for nuclear power, then no party is an Old Left party merely because it supports nuclear power. Thus, this does not exclude the possibility that Rightist groups can behave similar to the Old Left on this issue. There would only be a contradiction here if I claimed that the Old Left and the Right are the same on every issue. In any other case, it can be fruitful to distinguish between two groups which share the same opinions on some issues, but hold different opinions on other issues.
The Seriousness of the Nuclear Power IssueJírovec claims that I am not "serious," when I claim that future generations might remember the decision to build nuclear power plants to be the greatest crime of this century. Jírovec counters that the two world wars were much worse crimes. Obviously, the world wars were terrible events. Millions of people died during this 31-year period of 1914-1945. Hitler's attempts to completely exterminate two groups of people (Jews and Romanies) was particularly noxious - although Jírovec's attitude toward Romanies is not very encouraging either.
Let's try to get beyond the immediate future and imagine the world 100,000 years from now. Imagine that the human race has not been wiped out by war or environmental destruction. That 31 year period that includes the two world wars amounts to 0.031% of the entire 100,000 year period. Another way of putting this into perspective is to look back to the birth of Jesus. That seems to us today as if that event occurred in a completely different world during a period so many years ago that it is hard to conceive of what life was like then. Yet, 2,000 years is only 2% of 100,000 years. Let's go even further back to the period in which Moses led the Jews from slavery in Egypt back to Israel. Or how about the time in which Homer wrote the Illiad? In both cases, this period is not much more than 3% of 100,000 years. In another 100,000 years the world will have gone through several - perhaps over a dozen - ice ages. Mountians will have moved, the geological rock formations will have changed. In this completely different world 100,000 years from now, the period of the two world wars will be a little spec of dust in the collective consciousness of the human race. It is very likely that Jesus and Moses, Hitler and Stalin, will have long been forgotten.
What will be left of our era? Well, if we do not solve the problem of nuclear waste and if nuclear power has not already caused the complete extinction of the human race, then this future generation will still be faced with the problem of storing the toxic nuclear waste that the world created from the 1950s until today. If nuclear waste has not already destroyed most life on the planet, then it is still extremely possible that by then, so much waste will have leaked from storage centers that the human race will have greatly degenerated due to mutations caused by these leaks. Thus, the humans alive in this era might not even be smart enough any more to read history books about the two world wars. Nevertheless, they will still be confronted with the problem of surviving in a world that is collapsing because of all the damage caused by nuclear waste.
Does Jírovec honestly believe that we are capable of building storage containers that can survive 100,000 years and several ice ages so that radioactive wastes will not contaminate the environment and threaten all life on this planet? Is he really certain than during all of these 100,000 years every generation will be fully informed about where all the radioactive materials are stored, so that storage containers that fall under ice can be rediscovered after the ice ages end?
The only possible defense of nuclear power is the religious one. A new religious sect called Science is getting a lot of followers. According to this sect, we do not have to take any responsibility at all for our actions. We can destroy the environment as much as we want. We do not have to worry about the potential dangers of any substance that we use, because Science will always come to our rescue. Someday Science will redeem us. It will find all the solution to all our problems. All of the extinct species will be brought back to life. If only we believe anything is possible!
I am sorry that I am not a believer. I leave open the possibility that someday a technical solution will be found and that this solution will not be astronomically expensive. (All the solutions that have been suggested so far would be so expensive, that they would immediately make nuclear energy by far the most expensive energy every used and thus, the worst investment in human history. Even the most promising solution that has been suggested so far would merely mean that the wastes would "only" be radioactive a few thousand years instead of over 100,000 years.) Yes, it is possible that the human race will be saved and the price of saving us will not lower our living standards so drastically that we will have to return to the caves. However, until such a solution is found, it remains a great moral crime to invest in nuclear energy. After all, Hitler "only" wanted to eliminate two groups of people from the world. Nuclear energy threatens to eliminate all groups.
SexismIt would be tempting to hop over the sexist issue, since Jírovec's arguments are so amazingly primitive. However, my conscience tells me that I cannot let him get away with writing such outrageous statements.
First, he claims that Zeman did not choose any female ministers because "obviously" there were not any women who were qualified to be ministers. Come on! Does he really seriously think that in the Czech Republic, there is not a single woman who is capable of being a minister??? Let's even assume that this were the case. That would bring up the question of why this is so. How is it possible that in Sweden 50% of the ministers are women and that the female ministers are generally more popular and considered to be more capable than their male counterparts? Is it because Czech women are genetically inferior to their Swedish sisters or is it because the Czech society is a lot more sexist than the Swedish?
Now let's get back to the question about whether there are any Czech women who could be capable ministers. I do not know whether Jírovec was in Prague during the spring election campaign. If he were, he would have seen that every Social Democratic election poster included a picture of a popular female politician. If Jírovec ever reads Czech newspapers, he would also know that this woman is consistently one of the most popular politicians in the country. Normally, she comes out as the most popular politician. She usually enjoys the support of twice as many people as Zeman.
Another amazing claim which Jírovec makes is that there are not any gender problems in the Czech Republic. He shows himself to be a very good Marxist-Leninist who realizes that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was able to solve the gender problems which still plague the capitalist West. For the moment, we can ignore some of his factual mistakes, such as his claim that there is wide access to daycare centers ("jesle" and "školky") when state support for them has almost completely disappeared. The real question is, does he really think that it is good that less qualified men normally get jobs over more qualified women; when women do the same jobs as men, they get paid less then men; although most women work as many hours as their husbands, they still do most of the housework and still take most of the responsibility for raising the children? Does Jírovec really think that it is good that hardly any men at all take parental leave to help raise their children? Is it really a satisfactory situation that state support for daycare centers has dried up, while maternity leave has been extended to four years, which means that most women who have two children leave the labor market for 6-8 years, while their men continue in their careers? That would only be satisfactory if: a) all men are better workers than all women and thus only men should have careers and b) all women are better at taking care of children than men are.
I am writing this article while on parental leave in Sweden. Although I do not want to claim that I am some superhuman person, who is better than most others, I do want to make the claim that I am just as good in raising my daughter as most women are in raising their children. No, I am not a superhuman man, just a man who loves his daughter. I am not doing anything that no Czech man could not do if he loves his children and if the state forms its family policy in a manner that encourages other men to take their responsibility for parenthood seriously. (Again, I am assuming that Czech men are not genetically inferior to Western men or to Czech women). I dare make that claim that Czech men are just a capable of raising children as Czech women and that Czech women as just as capable of reaching top positions in society as Czech men. If sexism were eliminated from Czech society and jobs and positions went to the best qualified regardless of gender, if men and women on the average took equally long parental leaves, so that employers would not have to worry about women having children and taking long maternity leaves, then the Czech economy would become much more efficient and society would become much more just. Perhaps the Jírovecs are afraid of the potential competition?