Second Thought: Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Grass Capitalist

Whatís scarier than socialism for some? Obameritocracy.


Toward the end of the presidential campaign, I started hearing the Republican rank and file express worries that the election of Barack Obama as president would lead to socialism. Letters to the editor in the local daily that ran a week before the election expressed the same fear. One writer gloated that we Obama supporters would get what we deserved: some sort of totalitarian socialist state.
The most remarkable thing about what happened in November may not be that we elected our first African-American president but that we elected the most able man to lead despite his very unusual background. And as a reconstructed socialist, Iím here to tell you that we have put into office not a group of socialists but rather a meritocracy.
In a meritocracy, people are promoted on the basis of their demonstrated ability: their work history, their education, their presence. Ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, and religious belief have no bearing.
Following the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as president, I saw a bumper sticker with Clinton spelled with a hammer and sickle instead of a C. Some sorehead thought we had elected a communist! A communist whose wife sat on the board of Wal-Mart! Apparently we have at least a few Texans who are so far to the right that even Hillary Clinton looks like a communist. I had to explain to an acquaintance that being on the board of Wal-Mart makes Clinton a capitalist, not a communist. Although, actually, thatís being too harsh. Clinton is a liberal Democrat, and if that makes her a socialist in some eyes, that says more about their ignorance than it does about her.
I know a socialist when I see one. In my early 20s I was a self-described socialist college student who thought that democratic governments ought to take over major industries and run them for the benefit of the public instead of for a small group of greedy executives. I had no cohorts, no comrades on my small campus. I had no membership in the Socialist Workerís Party.
Since then Iíve become more pragmatic. As the dream of worker ownership of the means of production comes closer, circumstances required me to become a small-time capitalist ó a gardener who must advertise for work, who must borrow to buy equipment and supplies, who must invest some of my earnings in the ďbusiness.Ē
The dream of worker ownership? Well, a lot of corporations have employee stock ownership plans. My former wifeís company was bought and sold, and we benefited financially because of her decision to partake in the employee stock ownership plan. On the other hand, employees of Enron were wiped out when their shares became worthless.
Then there are examples of government-owned industries: Amtrak, Conrail, the city of Austinís ownership of the electric utility that provides service to the city. The U.S. Air Force has a jazz band that tours giving free concerts and handing out free CDs. In a free-enterprise system, shouldnít all musicians have to book paying performances and use their own money to pay for CDs to sell at a profit?
Itís sad, but some of our neighbors donít have the vocabulary to accurately describe what happened on Nov. 4. And for someone like me, at a time of great uncertainty, it is tempting to make cryptic remarks about May Day parades in the first year of an Obama administration and income redistribution on a grand scale. But that would be disingenuous.
What we are getting is the opposite of what weíve got now: President George W. Bushís administration is almost the opposite of a meritocracy. Certainly the president doesnít belong at the head of a meritocracy. He got to the White House based on his family name, family connections, and a brilliant but unethical crony named Karl Rove. And when Bush did appoint people of merit to his administration, he didnít have the good judgment to listen to them, and they didnít last.
Curiously, it is the Bush administration that is using government money to buy equity in failing financial institutions. Why not? If we are going to float these failing companies a loan, why not acquire some equity, so if they do return to profitability the government can sell it at a profit? Yes, itís socialism, but I call it pragmatism.
Lifelong Democrat Ben Swallow works the dirt in Fort Worth. He can be reached at

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