Bernie Sanders challenges not just Hillary Clinton, but the country’s long-term rightward drift.
[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont began his presidential campaign on April 30 with a five-minute statement in front of the Capitol, and then took five more minutes of questions from reporters. [video, transcript]
The standard I try to maintain at The Weekly Sift is that I’m honest, but not necessarily objective. So I’ll tell you the bias I start with: As I listened to Sanders’ talk, I had the reaction conservatives must have had in 1964 when they listened to Barry Goldwater. In my heart, I know he’s right.
Sanders says the things I’ve been thinking, but that I never hear directly from presidential candidates. Or I hear them, but only because I know how to unwrap the layers of bows and wrappings that politicians put on their ideas to make them look pretty to the conventional wisdom.
Prosperity for everybody. All candidates, left and right, seem to agree that the major economic issue America faces is the shrinking of the middle class and the dismal prospects faced by our young adults. Rand Paul, for example, said:
I’ve been able to enjoy the American Dream. I worry, though, that the opportunity and hope are slipping away for our sons and daughters.
And Ted Cruz:
For so many Americans the promise of America seems more and more distant. … So many fear that that promise is today unattainable.
And Marco Rubio:
My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible.
If the 2016 race is about issues — always a question in this era of trumped-up pseudo-scandals and 30-second attack ads — the issue it should be about is why the middle class is shrinking and what can be done about it. Paul explains that our economy is “collaps[ing] under mounting [government] spending and debt.” Rubio blames leaders whose “ideas are stuck in the 20th century” and says we need to “reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace ObamaCare”. Cruz talks more vaguely about “liberty”, mentions policies like a flat tax, and implies that the real secret to success in all areas is for our nation to get right with God.
Sanders points in a different direction: The middle class is endangered because the very wealthy have taken control of our political system and shaped our economy so that virtually all economic growth flows to them.
The major issue is how do we create an economy that works for all of our people rather than a small number of billionaires, and the second issue, directly related, is the fact that as a result of the disastrous Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, we now have a political situation where billionaires are literally able to buy themselves elections and candidates.
Class warfare and socialism. Conservatives have wasted no time calling this “class warfare“. Ben Stein expressed his upper-class let-them-eat-cakism like this:
There has never been a case in history where a poor person who’s a slovenly, uneducated, lazy, undisciplined drug addict got to be rich because of some wealthy person being taxed.
But a lot of progressives aren’t afraid of the class-warfare meme any more, and respond: “It’s about time somebody started fighting back.” As Warren Buffett said in an interview in 2010:
There has been class warfare waged, and my class has won. I mean, it’s been a rout. You have seen a period where American workers generally have gone no place, and where the really super-rich have (as a group) increased their income five for one.
Sanders has been turning around the “class warfare” rhetoric for a while now. When Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankenship (with an annual salary of $16 million) came to Congress in 2012 to call for cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, Sanders’ web page called him “the face of class warfare“.
Likewise, Sanders doesn’t run away from the word socialism. They have socialism in Scandinavia, and those countries are pretty nice places to live. Let’s talk about how kids are going to afford college, not about labels like socialist.
Proposals. Sanders alluded to a number of proposals he has fleshed out elsewhere. All of them take a step beyond anything the Obama administration has proposed.
Reverse Citizens United. Sanders has proposed a constitutional amendment.
Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power of Congress and the States to protect the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, limit the corrupting influence of private wealth in public elections, and guarantee the dependence of elected officials on the people alone by taking actions which may include the establishment of systems of public financing for elections, the imposition of requirements to ensure the disclosure of contributions and expenditures made to influence the outcome of a public election by candidates, individuals, and associations of individuals, and the imposition of content neutral limitations on all such contributions and expenditures.
Make College Free. He has proposed legislation he describes like this:
$70 billion a year in assistance – two-thirds from the federal government and one-third from states – would replace what public colleges and universities now charge in tuition and fees. The federal share of the cost would be offset by imposing a tax on Wall Street transactions by investment houses, hedge funds and other speculators.
That tax, the so-called Robin Hood tax, is interesting in its own right. The theory is that introducing friction into the financial markets would make them less volatile.
Transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Sanders is a long-time champion of solar energy, and a leading opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. He has proposed spending $1 trillion over five years on infrastructure, and claims this would create 13 million jobs. (I don’t know what that’s based on.) He has not specified how to pay for this (though the next item might play a role). He has pointed out that this plan would be cheaper than the Iraq War, which also had no funding mechanism.
Tax corporate profits that are hidden overseas. Again, he has a bill proposed:
Under current law, U.S. corporations are allowed to defer or delay U.S. income taxes on overseas profits until the money is brought back into the United States. U.S. corporations are also provided foreign tax credits to offset the amount of taxes paid to other countries. Under the legislation, corporations would pay U.S. taxes on their offshore profits as they are earned. The legislation would take away the tax incentives for corporations to move jobs offshore or to shift profits offshore because the U.S. would tax their profits no matter where they are generated.
He quotes an estimate by the Joint Committee on Taxation that this would bring in $590 billion over ten years.
Can he win? Should he? I understand the point Hillary Clinton supporters make: The difference between the two parties is so vast now that our entire focus should be on winning in the general election. (Justice Ginsburg will be nearly 88 by the time the next president leaves office; 92 if there’s a second term. Imagine any of the Republican candidates appointing her replacement.) The best way to do that is to get behind our strongest general-election candidate early, and avoid any fratricidal strife that will hurt the party.
I see two problems with that. First, since Republicans show no signs of returning to the moderate ways of Dwight Eisenhower and Jerry Ford, we might be in this position for decades. So the upshot of this argument is that the liberal wing of the party should never make its case to the primary electorate. If that’s how things are, then I have a hard time arguing against the progressives who want to abandon the Democratic Party completely. If you want to prevent another Nader-style candidacy by Sanders (who has already rejected the idea) or somebody else, you have to be able to argue that the Left had a shot at the nomination and just lost it fair and square.
So I think it’s way too early to make the unite-behind-a-winner argument. There has to be some point in the electoral process where people express their consciences and vote their ideals. Otherwise, the horse-race mentality because self-stoking: People won’t support a candidate they agree with because he can’t win, and he can’t win because the people who agree with him won’t support him.
Second, there are large sections of the electorate who never hear a strong progressive message. Compare to the Republicans. No matter who gets nominated, they always make a pitch for their overall brand identity: small government, low taxes, strong defense, so-called “family values”, and so forth. It would be unthinkable to go through an election cycle without somebody preaching that gospel in its purest form.
The Democrats don’t do that, and in the long run it hurts us. Obama-Clinton in 2008 was a debate between two flavors of moderate. Dean and Kucinich were out of the picture early in 2004, and so was Bradley in 2000.
The result is that right-wing alternatives to the status quo are part of the national debate, but left-wing alternatives aren’t. So voters who could tell you about the conservative Ryan Budget have never heard of the progressive People’s Budget. Every hint of a conservative alternative to ObamaCare gets massive coverage, but a liberal alternative well tested in other countries — single payer — is off the table.
So when it comes time to compromise, the compromise that seems reasonable in the media is between an already-moderate Democratic plan and a far-right Republican plan. Should we cut Social Security little by little, or make a big slash in it? Should we invade any country that gets in our way, or just hit them with a few drone strikes? Hold the line on the estate tax or eliminate it?
In short, even if we end up nominating Hillary, I want the public to know she’s not the extreme edge of the liberal spectrum.
I’ll get more pragmatic as Election Day gets closer. (I was totally against voting for Ralph Nader in the 2000 general election, for example, and I stand by that. The Nader voters in my own state of New Hampshire — forget Florida — had it in their power to swing the election from Bush to Gore, and decided not to.) If, late in the primary season, after Sanders’ message has been aired around the country, polls show him running behind the Republican front-runner while Hillary runs ahead, then Democrats should think about doing the pragmatic thing.
But this far out, that’s not the only possible scenario. Sanders is claiming that a full-throated defense of the middle class will resonate with voters who don’t get inspired by baby-step proposals like bumping the minimum wage up a little, or not cutting Social Security as much as Republicans want to. That case needs to be tested every few cycles, and it has been a while.
Fact-checking. Sanders made a number of checkable claims.
For most Americans, their reality is that they are working longer hours for lower wages. In inflation-adjusted income, they are earning less money than they used to, years ago, in spite a huge increase in technology and productivity.
There are a lot of ways to measure wages. But in terms of take-home pay adjusted for inflation, Sanders is right.
The wild card in this discussion is how you account for health-care costs, which have ballooned over the last several decades. So pro-business groups will show you graphs of total cost of employment, which includes everything a company spends on a worker, including health insurance premiums. That looks less depressing.
Even so, a 2013 Brookings Institute report began:
Over the past quarter century, labor’s share of income in the United States has trended downward, reaching its lowest level in the postwar period after the Great Recession.
99% of all new income being generated in this country is going to the top 1 percent
The transcript I linked to has this quote wrong. (It says “99 percent of the income”, which would be a laughable statement.) Watch the video to get it right.
PolitiFact rated this claim “mostly true“. The more complete story is that Sanders’ claim is based on what the economy does prior to any government interference: before taxes on the rich or government benefits paid to the rest of the country.
the top 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent
This is wrong, but not in the way you think: Sanders should have said the top tenth of a percent. Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman provide the following graphs:
we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major nation on Earth
Like so many claims, this one depends on how you define your terms. In sheer size, India is a “major nation”, and in absolute terms, a lot of Indian children have less than American children who are considered poor.
Most studies that get results like Sanders is stating are measuring relative poverty, i.e., the number of children who live in households whose income is less than some percentage (typically 50%) of the national median. Also, they are comparing the U.S. to other developed nations — a group that includes Canada, Japan, and the European Union nations, but not India or Indonesia.
Miles Corak does a creditable job of explaining why relative poverty is the right thing to measure. (Summarizing: A household receiving less than 50% of the median income has a hard time participating in normal society. So these children are growing up so far outside the mainstream that it will be hard for them to present themselves as normal adults when they go looking for work.) And if contemplating America’s superiority to Ethiopia or Bangladesh gives you a chest-thumping satisfaction, don’t let me stop you.
the Koch Brothers and other billionaire families who are prepared to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in elections to buy the candidates of their choice
According to the NYT:
The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign.
It’s not immediately obvious how much of that $889 million is from the Kochs themselves. Sheldon Adelson spent around $100 million of his own money on 2012 campaign (including $20 million for Newt Gingrich), and is expected to be a major donor in 2016 as well.
There’s no way to quantify to what extent the candidates who receive this money will be “bought”. In the 1950s, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn is supposed to have told a young congressman, “Son, if you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and then vote against ’em, you don’t deserve to be here.”
Real unemployment in America is not five and a half percent, if you include those people who have given up looking for work, and people who are working part time when they want to work full time. Real unemployment is 11 percent.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates something it poetically refers to as “U-6″: a measure of unemployment that includes the people usually classified as “unemployed”, but also people who are underemployed (i.e., the engineer who’s flipping burgers) or who want a job but aren’t currently looking for one (i.e., “discouraged workers”). (The unemployment rate you usually hear about is U-3.)
It’s fine to quote U-6 or any of the other U’s, as long as you’re consistent about it. Watch out for anybody who compares some measure of “real” unemployment today to what the official unemployment rate was when Obama took office, or claims that the gap between the two represents some kind of statistical shenanigans. Since discouraged workers tend to be the last people to start working again, you’d expect U-6 to lag behind the official unemployment rate. So even though the official unemployment rate is back below where it was when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, U-6 hasn’t completely recovered yet. That’s not some sleight-of-hand by the Obama administration, it’s how these statistics run.
One thing is undeniable: All the measures of unemployment have been coming down over the last few years, as shown in this graph:
Bernie Sanders has never run a negative ad.
“Never” is hard to check, and “negative” is a judgment call, but in his 2012 Senate race (as an incumbant Independent) Sanders didn’t run TV ads at all. He got 71% of the vote. People say, “Well, that’s Vermont for you.” But Sanders counters:
It wasn’t that long ago that Vermont was one of the most Republican states in the country. Until two years ago, the governor was a Republican; the lieutenant governor is a Republican. This is a significantly rural state. This is a state with some very conservative regions.
Since April 30, Sanders has been living up to his word and running a positive campaign. On CNN’s State of the Union he said:
I’ve known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. Maybe I shouldn’t say this: I like Hillary Clinton. I respect Hillary Clinton.
That doesn’t sound much like the fratricidal strife Clinton supporters are worried about.