You hear it often these days: "America is turning into a socialist country."
But in the marketplace of ideas, I'm not buying the notion that we're all about to become socialists.
To judge just how "socialist" America is, consider some data supplied by Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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Socialist countries generally have high taxes and redistribute large slices of income from the wealthy and upper-middle classes to the less well off. And you could surmise that in socialist countries, less inherited wealth is passed down to the generations.
In the Baltimore Sun, Schaller noted that in America, state and federal taxes as a share of the gross domestic product amount to 28 percent. He pointed out that's among the smallest in the 31 first-world nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Mexico, Turkey, Japan and South Korea pay smaller shares.
That's still a lot of American tax money to redistribute, right? And by a statistical measure called the "Gini coefficient," which gauges the distribution of income in society, America does redistribute some of its wealth.
According to Gini, the more evenly income is distributed, the closer the coefficient is to zero.
America's number, before government taxes and transfers, is 0.46. This is just at the Organization for Economic Cooperation average of 0.45. After taxes and transfers, it drops to 0.38, indicating the redistribution of wealth.
But that 0.38 is the highest of any first-world country, indicating the United States is the least redistributive.
Finally, let's look at "intergenerational economic mobility," a term used when talking about how much people's income can be explained by their parents' income.
The higher mobility is, the more a person's economic success was based on skill and effort. But America has one of the lowest mobility rates. We pass a lot of money on to our kids.
Let me quote Schaller; you can get angry at him if you want:
"In which countries are personal incomes least dependent upon parental incomes? Hold on to your cups and saucers, tea partiers, because the answer is — wait for it — those darned 'socialist' countries like Denmark, Norway and Finland."
Now, what's socialism and what isn't can be debated in a coffee cafe until you are madly overcaffeinated.
There's no denying that some Americans are taking advantage of the great recession to push an anti-capitalist agenda. They've never had much faith in free markets.
And those who are crying "It's socialism!" have an overriding and sometimes justified fear of big government and its unintended consequences. They also disdain too-high taxes, bailouts, redistributive spending, deficits and all the rest.
For some, socialism is just about anything the government does. And in times of economic distress, the government has to do a lot.
Perhaps the most "socialist" step taken in the great recession was the bailout of Chrysler and GM. It truly was the government taking over the means of production.
But at least the government wants to back out of the car business as quickly as possible, and auto execs are working overtime to rejoin the free market.
Most of the other actions taken by the government weren't socialism.
The bank bailouts were essentially just bridge loans to ensure the flow of credit — and keep the wheels of capitalism turning for the rest of us.
Similarly, the tightening of financial regulations or their extension into the world of "shadow banking" again will help capitalism work more efficiently. Better regulation often saves capitalists, especially bankers, from themselves.
Then there's the stimulus bill, which didn't do that much stimulus. It mainly cut taxes and shored up the safety net until the economy recovers. In times of need, most Americans see that as just an extension of neighbor helping neighbor, not some kind of socialist plot.
Finally, what about health care reform?
Yes, the government is reorganizing one-sixth of the economy or whatever, but I have deep doubts that health care should be wholly treated as a free-market good. Isn't all insurance a "socialized" way of handling potential problems?
The current problem that health care reform is trying to solve is how to distribute and pay for this good efficiently and somewhat fairly.
We'll see whether it does that.
But my head spins at this disconnect at some anti-government rallies: One protester holding up a sign decrying socialism standing next to another demonstrator with a sign saying, "Don't touch my Medicare."