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Long the whipping boy of American politicians, socialism is a word they only use in the negative mode.

Universal health care is referred to as "socialized medicine" and Social Security is said to be incomplete unless certain aspects of it are "privatized."

Socialism in America is represented by two historic icons, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. Eugene and Norman might be smiling these days if they were still on the scene, as once again an American crisis is being solved by socialism, although no one in the political establishment will admit it.

Actually, we spend our lives amid socialistic institutions - in other words, entities of our government that perform many useful services. Examples range from the U.S. Postal Service to the Food and Drug Administration.

Even our public schools are a form of socialism since they must accept and educate every youngster who shows up at their door, in contrast to private schools that can pick and choose.

Everything from weights and measures to the quality of food crops is governed by an appropriate government agency. Yes, they make mistakes, but not because they are trying to increase their bottom line.

Most experts agree that the current financial crisis has resulted from too loose a grip on the reins by the various federal entities controlling the stock markets, investment and commercial banks and those financial behemoths known as hedge funds. We once had a firm grip on most of them, but it was loosened over the years in the name of free enterprise. Trouble was, it got a little too free and took financial freedom away from many of our fellow citizens.

Now that we have created a thousand-pound monster that will not only not go away but has the potential to darken the future of everyone's grandkids, we have decided to pull the reins tighter. Some will surely refer to it as leaving the barn door open too long.

We've even gone so far as to find our very own name for socialism: state capitalism. There, doesn't that sound much better?

Visiting the Scandinavian countries a few years back, I soon discovered that socialism seems to work pretty well over there and they even call it by its name. Many American politicos have attempted over the years to portray socialism as a form of communism, which is, of course, way out there in left field. For some candidates in the past, however, the tactic has worked.

It must be tough on the formerly "great minds" of the banking and financial world to have to be dug out of their financial quagmire by their old bugaboo, socialism. It's more than tough, however, on John Q. Public and Joe Six-Pack, who suffered and are suffering for the sins of our mighty magnates committed with abandon over recent years. Let's hope the trespasses of the moguls will end in some real penalties instead of golden parachutes.

Meanwhile, Eugene and Norman, take heart. Your ideas are still in play. Free enterprise can be great, but with proper controls in place, it can be even greater.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.