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Socialism is becoming increasingly appealing among young Americans who value universal health care, free public college and living wages. In her new book, “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism,” Kristen Ghodsee argues that implementing socialist concepts would make women’s lives more autonomous, manageable and fulfilling. Paul Solman reports for our weekly economics series, Making Sense.
There was a time in this country not so long ago when talking about socialism favorably could get you into a heated argument, especially during the Cold War and the battles over communism, or it could lead to something much worse and dangerous during the days of McCarthyism.
But for a growing number of Americans today, especially younger ones, socialism apparently has a different appeal. In fact, some make the case that it could benefit women especially.
Our economics correspondent Paul Solman has this story. It's part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday.
What would our intimate personal lives be like if we had a more secure economic position?
That question is at the heart of University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee's college course, viral New York Times op-ed, and now book "Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism."
Sure, the title is inflammatory, but Ghodsee insists the free market is failing most women in many ways.
All of the housework, and the child care, and the elder care, and often the care for the ill and infirm generally falls on the shoulders of women. If women are consistently having to take time out of the labor force in order to do care work in the home, they're going to be seen as less valuable or less productive employees.
So, they're paid less, which has meant that so many have been, still are financially dependent on better compensated men.
But not so, Ghodsee argues, under socialist countries we typically demonize, like the old East Germany, which promoted gender equality even in its newsreels.
I long for the day when our happy wedded life will unfold, on the basis of equality, of course.
A really key part of what was going on in the state socialist regimes of 20th century Eastern Europe is that they were fully incorporating women into the labor force, and that allowed women to achieve a measure of economic independence that was really rather unparalleled.
So, states that coerced political conformity and a planned economy also enforced policies to emancipate women.
For example, something like maternity insurance, what we would think of as job-protected paid maternity leave, or kindergartens and creches that are basically available to all women, federally funded or nationally funded in some way.
So these were all policies that were put in place to reduce the economic burden on women for care work that is done in the private sphere.
But wait a second, socialism? State control of production and politics? Didn't the Berlin Wall's toppling squash that dream? Anyone nostalgic for the Soviet Union?
To many Americans, socialism is political devil worship. But others now think capitalism has also gone a bit far.
The rising tide should lift all boats, but it hasn't. Certainly, in the last 30 years, we can see all sorts of wage stagnation, we see growing inequality. The contemporary moment of capitalism that we're in has created a lot of risk for young people.
They're in a very precarious situation because there's so little of a social safety net.
Which may help explain why 51 percent of Americans 18 to 29 hold, according to Gallup, a positive view of socialism.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:
The top one-tenth of 1 percent now own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
The free market's imbalances have fueled the popularity of self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.:
We are here in a generational fight to guarantee health care to all people in this country. We're fighting for a living wage.
Now, these are Democratic socialists who believe in electoral politics and plenty of private industry, so-called social Democrats who back higher taxes, a la Scandinavia, to provide greater economic safety and equality.
At the University of Pennsylvania, those beliefs resonate with Professor Ghodsee's students.
I think the reason that nowadays we're so willing to embrace socialism is because our generation and our parents' generation are feeling the failures of capitalism.
We are suffering so much financially with going into mountains of debt to go to school. People are having GoFundMes just to afford, like, medical care.
Do any of you actually know people who have GoFundMe campaigns?
It's a pretty common thing, I think. Certain human rights shouldn't have to be literally begged for on the Internet.
Now to some, capitalism seems to treat these kids pretty well. It was exam time, with stress-relieving goats imported to campus. Ivanna Berrios is another of Ghodsee's students.
I don't think any of us are trying to deny the ability of capitalism to produce wealth. But after that has happened, after we have created this wealth, we should redistribute it.
Though, of course, redistribution can discourage wealth creation.
But what prompted Professor Ghodsee's op-ed, book and course is what she sees as a particular problem with capitalism, relationships as commodities to be bought and sold. Ever hear of a Web site called Seeking.com, which matches young women, so-called sugar babies, with successful older men, or sugar daddies? It boasts 10 million active users.
On this Web site, one of the pages, which is directly targeted to university students, is called Sugar Baby University. It has a debt clock that is increasing in real time. And the language of the Web site is, don't go into debt, when you can be somebody's sugar baby instead and take the time and affection that you might otherwise spend with random hookups on campus. You can actually get paid for that time.
Time is money, proto-capitalist Ben Franklin pointed out in 1748. But money destroys the bonds of human relationships, wrote Karl Marx exactly a century later. And capitalism can commodify everything, says Ghodsee, including sex.
But among the problems behind the Iron Curtain, Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic points out, no commodities at all.
Women were very much burdened with lack of bare necessities, for example. You go to supermarket, there is nothing there.
So, if you have to queue up to put something in the fridge, it's quite a worry. They couldn't, so to say, cultivate their femininity because there was nothing to cultivate it with. It was still a very hard life and it also fell on women's back.
And let's not forget that tens of millions people died under communist planned economies that led to famines, purges, labor camps.
I want to dispel any impression that I'm trying to say that life was a paradise behind the Iron Curtain. There were many, many problems with these 20th century state socialist regimes.
But, Ghodsee asks, why not at least try socialist policies that empower women, like Denmark and Sweden do?
One of the most insidious legacies of the Cold War is that we have completely lost our ability to look into these 20th century state socialist countries and see if there was anything good, if there was anything…
Anything at all. They thought a society where the sort of profits of society are kind of invested back into social services and where women had opportunities for economic independence outside of marriage, that relationships would be more authentic and more satisfying ultimately, because people are not looking at each other in a transactional way.
But, wait, this book's sales pitch, for a monetary transaction, mind you, is the claim that women have better sex under socialism. Based on what? In part, on surveys of East Germans before and after reunification.
Women, and men too, say that they had much more natural and satisfying personal intimate lives prior to '89 than they did in reunified Germany, when it was commercialized.
I'm only using this word because it's in the title of your book. They had better sex?
They had better sex before…
That's — now, self-reported.
But Slavenka Drakulic is skeptical of what East Germans would have told government researchers.
They didn't volunteer to give the answer, what they really feel, but rather the proper answer, rather, the right answer, that is anticipation of the right answer. So, I do not trust these statistics.
But, in the end, Ghodsee is making a general point.
What I want to do is to say, hey, look, there are these interesting facts about Eastern Europe, and that we can actually also see them operating in Scandinavia.
And so why not have a conversation about how socialist policies don't only impact our economy, but what about our personal lives?
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman in Philadelphia.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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