From Sweden to Socialism

Poking around Slightly-Imaginary-Sweden (SIS), even the skeptical socialist is impressed.

A solidaristic wage policy (centralized bargaining to achieve equal pay for equal work nationwide) forces unproductive enterprises to shape up or go under. This boosts overall economic efficiency. Strong tax incentives pull profits into reinvestment, further raising productivity and creating jobs. Intelligent labor market policies (job training and placement, subsidies for worker relocation, and so on) hold unemployment down to statistically irrelevant levels.

Because the transition to new jobs is eased, a powerful democratic labor movement cooperates in industrial rationalization, once again increasing efficiency and growth. Surplus from this dynamic economy is used to protect the environment. The surplus also supports a system of universal, high quality social welfare programs that are decentralized enough to be “user-friendly.” Good education builds a skilled work force. Progressive tax policies shrink income inequalities, which keeps the market from listing too heavily toward luxury goods. Public agencies oversee the immense pension funds, thereby exercising some democratic control over investment.

National legislation prevents arbitrary firings, requires worker representation on the boards of directors of all firms, allows workers to halt production if they find unsafe conditions, and obliges employers to negotiate with local unions before implementing major changes.

After living under this system for some decades, most SIS citizens hold dear the values of equality, social justice, solidarity, democracy, and freedom. Images of the homeless on the streets of New York shock them. They pressure their government to increase aid to the Third World. They point with pride to the fact that the overall health of SIS children in the bottom 10 percent income group is identical to that in the top 10 percent. During their six weeks of vacation each year, SISers love to travel abroad. But they return convinced that their system best implements basic values.

Life is sweet in SIS. Why go beyond? The socialist points out that because most industry is privately owned, the system is vulnerable.

The left government and unions try endlessly to accommodate private capital. Not only must profits be high, private owners and investors must be persuaded that they will benefit more by staying in SIS than by moving. This gives them excessive economic power and political leverage. But no matter how well the SIS system performs, private capital will defect if it perceives significant advantage elsewhere. National loyalty is a myth. (The current flight of capital from real Sweden into the EEC countries is sad proof.) The gains made in SIS remain precarious.

The socialist has other reasons for wanting to move beyond SIS. First, she would like to break up concentrations of wealth and power in order to promote democracy. Second, she believes that people can have substantial control over their work life only if the workplace belongs to them. Third, although SIS wins high marks for equalizing life opportunity, redistributing wealth, and fostering fine (socialist) values, the socialist thinks even more could be done.

What structural changes does the socialist propose? The innovations must do more than upgrade SIS (more than, say, improve day care or make taxes more steeply progressive); they must transform capitalist SIS into a socialist country. Forms of ownership must change, and the scope of markets be reduced.

The socialist recommends enlarging SIS’s small socialized sector. Under the new system, the state would own enterprises in key industries as well as natural monopolies (the telephone system, power companies, railroads, and so on). Socialization would keep concentrations of power and wealth out of private hands, give the government and labor movement more control over the economy, and prevent capital flight.

But the skeptical socialist acknowledges serious problems. The inevitable oversight agencies can undermine freedom of initiative for the managers of socialized firms. Assessment of responsibility becomes difficult. Even if a good managerial culture develops in the socialized sector, the entrepreneurial function, essential to a dynamic economy, may be lost.

The socialist doesn’t value efficiency, competitiveness, and economic growth for themselves, but rather wants enough of these to fund the institutions that make social justice and equality possible. No socialist party wins a free election with a program of enforced autarky for a state-controlled economy.

So the socialist suggests an alternative form of ownership—workers’ cooperatives. Cooperatives, too, break up concentrations of power and wealth and prevent, capital flight. They give people the greatest control over their work life, eliminate unearned income, and encourage participation. The decision is made to expand SIS’s existing cooperative sector until co-ops are the dominant form of ownership.

Unfortunately, new difficulties develop. Coops within an industry can compete ruthlessly; some knock out others, leading to new concentrations of wealth and power; some worker/members may resort to extreme self-exploitation.

The socialist proposes laws to counter monopolization and to protect workers from themselves. But more serious imbalances emerge: cooperatives resist taking in new members in order to keep profits per member as high as possible. Labor mobility decreases throughout the economy. Co-ops also resist labor-saving technology, undermining overall efficiency.

Then Co-op A decides to invest its surplus in Co-op B, turning Co-op A members into capitalists. Co-op A has the possibility of becoming a powerful conglomerate. Laws are passed to prevent one co-op from investing in another. But this immobilizes capital, and the economy may lose its dynamism. Finally, an economy dominated by cooperatives doesn’t have labor unions uniting workers both industry wide and throughout the economy. There is no solidaristic wage policy and therefore none of its far-reaching benefits.

Needing respite from the ownership question, the socialist considers the market and its noncapitalist alternative, planning. Comprehensive planning—including price setting, production quotas, and the allocation of capital, raw materials, and intermediate goods between firms—is rejected. No one can fathom how to make such a system work, with its built-in inefficiencies, shortages, impossible data requirements, arbitrary prices, and inadequate criteria for evaluation.

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Who Benefits from Public Land in the Bronx?

Members of South Bronx Unite, a local environmental justice coalition, welcomed four newborn babies into the world last year. One of the four has already had to be hospitalized for not getting enough oxygen, according to Mychal Johnson, a founding member of South Bronx Unite. “Breathing is a real problem in our community,” Johnson told me. His newborn son, who is sixteen months old, already uses a nebulizer.

The statistics speak for themselves. A 2007 study found that asthma rates for children living in the South Bronx were eight times higher than the national average. There are more than 35,000 cases of child asthma and 100,000 cases of adult asthma in the borough. Within New York City, the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood, where Johnson lives, ranks first for child asthma hospitalizations and third for avoidable adult asthma hospitalizations.

“You go to any large gathering and you ask people in our community, ‘Does anyone here know anyone who has asthma?’ and . . . higher than 90 percent of the people raise their hand,” says Johnson. “It’s an epidemic.”

The Bronx is home to over a million people. Bordered on all sides by major highways and home to the country’s largest food distribution center, the South Bronx already attracts constant truck traffic. Over the last fifteen years, residents of the South Bronx have watched as more and more highly polluting facilities have moved into the area, including two waste transfer sites, four power plants, a FedEx trucking station, and two newspaper printing operations (the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal). Each of these sites emit fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can be lodged deep into a person’s lungs and affect their breathing. PM2.5 is closely associated with asthma, lung disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, in full), and heart disease. (Cardiovascular disease affects more than 20 percent of the Bronx population—about 300,000 people.) For the power plants, that particulate matter is in the smog coming out of their smokestacks; for the FedEx Station, waste transfer sites, and printing stations, it’s in the exhaust spewing from their relentless convoy of diesel trucks.

For many residents, the last straw came when the high-end grocery-delivery company FreshDirect announced in 2012 that it was relocating its trucking facility from Queens to Mott Haven. The FreshDirect relocation would bring an estimated 1,000 truck trips a day to a neighborhood already clogged with air pollution. In response, a coalition of Bronx organizations, residents, and environmentalists formed South Bronx Unite, whose grassroots struggle for environmental as well as housing justice in the neighborhood they call home could serve as a model for marginalized communities nationwide.

In their four years campaigning against FreshDirect, South Bronx Unite has put public education and outreach at the core of their efforts. Their street protests and online advocacy have already attracted significant public support. A South Bronx Unite petition calling for a boycott of FreshDirect has garnered over 1,400 signatures to date. They’ve also kept pressure on the company through regular rallies, forums, and other events in the neighborhood and beyond. In one of their most recent, on April 16, South Bronx Unite conducted a “toxic” bike tour around the area. The tour, a public education effort, brought together thirty cyclists, who visited multiple sites of pollution and discussed the environmental justice history of the South Bronx, learning why the sites moved there and how the community is fighting back.

What has made the FreshDirect relocation particularly frustrating for residents is the direct involvement of the state and city government in facilitating it. Together, New York city and state have pledged some $120 million in subsidies and grants to FreshDirect. What’s more, the facility is being erected on a portion of the Harlem River Yard, a stretch of industrial waterfront owned by the New York State Department of Transportation. The arrangement raises the question: Who benefits from public land in a borough that is at once an industrial sacrifice zone and the target of aggressive gentrification? And how does it affect the residents who call the South Bronx home? In a neighborhood where residents have long complained about the lack of green, public space and where private developers are buying up entire blocks of land as affordable housing continues to disappear, the question is especially pressing.

In 1991, the city leased the waterfront land to Harlem River Yard Ventures, Inc., a private developer, for ninety-nine years with the intent to develop an intermodal rail system—something New York badly needs. In fact, the lack of rail infrastructure is one reason the city is so dependent on heavily polluting diesel trucks. The proposed intermodal rail terminal would have eliminated some 30,000 truck roundtrips into and out of the city each year, according to its 1993 Environmental Impact Statement.

But the rail station was never built; what appeared at the waterfront instead, year after year, were sites that contributed to the air pollution in the South Bronx, and the Mott Haven neighborhood in particular. Today, the Mott Haven waterfront is home to the FedEx hub, printing stations, and two of the South Bronx’s four power plants—all of which rent their properties from Harlem River Yard Ventures, Inc. The FreshDirect facility is slated for the last remaining available acres of the Harlem River Yard. George L. Stern, an expert in railroad operations and construction, noted in an affidavit to the Bronx Supreme Court that with the FreshDirect facility in place, building an intermodal rail terminal on the Harlem River Yard would be impossible. FreshDirect would not only block this solution to diesel dependence but, with its 1,000 trucks, also exacerbate the problem.

FreshDirect did not respond to multiple requests for comment; however, the company has expressed previously that its move will benefit the Bronx by creating jobs. On, the website FreshDirect created to deflect the spiraling public relations fiasco around the relocation, it says it plans to add 1,000 jobs. However, many of FreshDirect’s foes have noted that there is no guarantee or legal provision that they must hire Bronx residents. FreshDirect also mentioned buying ten new electric trucks to offset pollution—but, as urban planning scholar Tom Angotti points out, that represents just 4 percent of their entire fleet, and Bronx residents have reported apparent purchases of additional diesel trucks as well.

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