Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Lesson to be Careful When Name Calling

Today I’m going to do something stupid.  Some readers may already be asking how to tell the difference.  I won’t respond to that question.  But today’s post will be foolhardy in a way that I’ve rarely, if ever, been before.  Today, I’ll offer an urbanist insight into the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign.

Long-time readers will know that I’m not a fan of labels, especially in the political arena.  If someone wants to call me an urbanist, a baseball fan, a civil engineer, or an active member of my community, I’m generally fine with those.  They’re objectively true, or nearly so.

But I’ll bristle when someone calls me a progressive.  Not only is that label frequently intended as a pejorative, but it’s often perceived as incorporating a number of views only some of which do I ascribe.  I may often make common cause with folks who are willing to call themselves progressives, but it’s not a label I accept for myself.  Plus, it’s a term that tends to drift over time, making labeling even more awkward.

With that preamble, you can probably guess how I respond to the frequent use of “socialist” in the current campaign.  If a candidate wishes to put that label on himself, that’s his right.  But problems quickly crop up as the term is applied to other candidates and as opponents make assumptions about the nature of the candidate’s self-defined socialism.

To begin, there were times in the past when people were apoplectic over the “socialist” concepts of Social Security and Medicare, threatening to lie down in the streets before allowing those ideas to take root in American soil.  While I’d agree that the implementation and administration of Social Security and Medicare could often be better, I think that most would agree that both have made American life safer and more financially secure.

Thus, anyone who intends to use “socialist” as an insult must first come to grips with the reality that ideas once called socialist have generally worked out well.

But even more important, at least to me, is the frequent linking of socialism with the impugning term of “wealth redistribution”, a scarcely veiled suggestion that socialism is mostly about taking money from folks who have earned it and giving it to those who have sat on their couches.

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the lives of many who espouse that argument.

I won’t argue that everyone who advocates against “wealth redistribution” fits into this box, but I think we can agree that a fair number are living in single-family homes in sprawling subdivisions while relying almost exclusively on private cars for daily transportation. 

The problem is that people who live that life are relying on a huge redistribution of wealth to sustain their lifestyles.  Whether asking for outside assistance to repair their streets or leaving unpaid infrastructure maintenance and climate damage bills for future generations to cover, they’re not covering their own costs and are instead implicitly demanding that others cover the costs.

Ironic, isn’t it?  Some of the folks responsible for defaming candidates as “socialists in favor of wealth redistribution” may be the beneficiaries of what could be one of the great wealth redistributions in history.

And those are the reason that I have a problem with the throwing around of terms like socialist.  Not only are the terms usually fuzzy and evolving, but too many folks haven’t thought through the implications of their imprecations.

I don’t call myself a socialist.  But there are a number of positions frequently described as socialist which I endorse.  And whether a candidate chooses to call himself a socialist has absolutely no effect on my voting decision.  Before I cast my ballot, I look to character, grasp of issues, and policy directions, not shallow labels.

Meanwhile, I’m consistent proponent of urbanism and of properly allocating the costs of living, whether home location or transportation mode, so wealth redistribution is reduced.

Having now sullied myself with presidential politics, I’ll wade even further into the muck the next time I write.  I’ll note how the 2016 campaign has been turned into the politics of anger, a game which many urbanists, ever if they have a right to be angry, are constitutionally ill-equipped to play.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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