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DAVID GREENE, host:

The fall elections will, in part, be decided based on what voters think about economics. And so we've asked NPR's Planet Money team to look into the economic thinking behind much of today's politics. We're going to start today with socialism.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, no major figure in American political life identifies as socialist, except for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders - certainly no serious contender for national office this November. But socialism has still become a part of the discussion. Here's Sarah Palin at this summer's Tea Party Convention.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Republican, Former Alaska Governor): Some in the administration kind of hinting that government needs to take over more aspects of our private industry scares the heck out of me. That does put us on the road towards a more socialist agenda, and thats not what America is made of. And that is not where we should be headed.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

GREENE: This idea is a regular refrain among many conservative activists. And so we thought it would be worth asking what a real socialist government in the U.S. might look like.

Planet Money's Adam Davidson reports.

DAM DAVIDSON: Simply mentioning socialism is controversial, at least in the U.S. In the rest of the world, it's not that big a deal. Right now, the governments of Spain, Portugal, Greece are headed by socialists. In the recent past, the U.K., France, Canada have all been led by socialists. Most countries have an active socialist party; socialism is just one more, mainstream way of thinking. It's on talk shows, and in political debates and in the papers.

I talked to Richard Wolff, a real-life American socialist - a Marxist socialist, even who is professor emeritus of economics at University of Massachusetts. He says that in the 1950s, the U.S. banned socialism from polite discourse.

Professor RICHARD WOLFF (Economics, University of Massachusetts): And that meant we have now about two generations worth of people who never really engaged that topic, who didnt think about it, who didnt read up on it. It produces an inability to understand what socialism is, a gut-level rejection and hostility to it.

DAVIDSON: And he says, it produces ignorance of what socialists think these days. Most Americans, he says, think that socialism died alongside the Soviet Union and the shift towards capitalism in China.

Prof. WOLFF: They don't know that, of course, the experience of Russia and China have also affected socialists. Over the past 50 years, socialism has changed dramatically in every way.

DAVIDSON: For example, he says, socialists now say the government should not own everything. You can own your house, your car, even your own business. But he says socialism is not capitalism.

Take how companies work. In capitalism, typically, large companies are owned by shareholders, directed by a board, and run by a small number of managers. Most workers simply - well, work in exchange for a paycheck. Under socialism, many companies would be owned by the workers themselves and would function as a cooperative.

Prof. WOLFF: Groups of workers make the decisions: what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits that are generated.

DAVIDSON: Wolff says that the Democrats' health-care reform and stimulus spending came nowhere near the socialist vision.

A truly socialist government, he says, would instantly provide free health care to everyone, government jobs programs to employ every single out-of-work American. He lists a whole host of other government programs that these days, it's hard to imagine the U.S. government being able to pay for.

Strangely - or maybe it's not so strange - Wolff says he loves it every time he hears the word socialism in the media, even if it's out of the mouth of an angry and possibly poorly informed critic.

He says that for the first time in a long time, socialism is - sort of - back in the public discourse.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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