If Bernie Sanders loses the nomination in a few months, I think that would be a real bummer for democracy in America. His campaign is one that has already defied the odds in many ways. The Bernie primary victory in Michigan was “one of the greatest upsets in modern political history” according to the New York Times. Bernie Sanders has broken individual fundraising contributions by Obama, who certainly had a large grassroots political movement. Bernie Sanders went from relatively unknown to major candidate in a very short period of time, and that’s because what he is saying is resonating with millions of people.
There’s many people who want to vote for Bernie Sanders but think he could never win. I want to let those people in on a secret: If all the people who thought like you actually voted for what they wanted to happen, Bernie Sanders would win.
On the Issues
I want to briefly summarize Bernie’s stance on a few of the key issues so you know what his positions are.
Income and Wealth Inequality
We are in another “gilded age” and most of the wealth belongs to the people at the top. That is not a recipe for a well-functioning society. “The top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”
I understand that people believe in the American Dream, and that when they get to the top and become billionaires, they don’t want their wealth taken away from them. But what is generally missing from this sentiment is the orders of magnitude. We have lots of trouble comprehending the disparity. There are many ways to visualize this.
The top 25 hedge fund managers made more than 400,000 teachers. That doesn’t seem right. People get mad when someone makes a little more than them at work, or someone else may even make double(!) what they make. They’re missing the boat.
If you make a billion dollars in a year then you make $480,000 per hour or $8000 per minute. The median wage in the US is around $52,000. This means they had to work about seven minutes to make what most people make in a year working a much more difficult job. Now pause, and think about that.
US Median Salary: $52,000
US Median Hourly Wage: $25/hour
Billionaire Salary: $1,000,000,000
Billionaire Hourly Wage: $480,000/hour
You’d have to work for 19,000 years.
Yes, the people at the top should pay more in taxes.
Some will argue that this is just because the market can bear it. I would argue the rules of the market are broken.
It’s actually such an issue, that Hillary Clinton, a card-carrying member of the 0.1% has to mention it too:
Free Public College
College is a prerequisite to many jobs, yet it is a luxury good that is unaffordable to many people. The costs of college have skyrocketed, up 13x since 1978 — and significantly faster than inflation. A generation ago college was much more affordable, but today many people leave college saddled with debt. And today, college is arguably a greater prerequisite for the workforce. Many countries, such as Germany, Finland, Norway and Slovenia have it.
Back to the norms and arbitrariness of the current set of rules: Why are we so normalized to free public K12 education, but shocked at the idea of free public higher education?
Building Infrastructure — A New “New Deal”
People like to talk about Bernie Sanders as a socialist, but his version of Democratic Socialism is actually much more similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It’s about economic security, investing in infrastructure, and financial reform.
The programs were in response to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians refer to as the “3 Rs,” Relief, Recovery, and Reform: relief for the unemployed and poor, recovery of the economy to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. (via Wikipedia)
And from the New Yorker:
The heart of Sanders’s program, like F.D.R.’s, is economic security: like F.D.R., he argues that “true freedom does not occur” without it. (via the New Yorker)
It actually seems like an appropriate time for a New Deal. The New Deal came in 1933, after the Great Depression, and we are now still just a few years after the Great Recession. If I were president here my “public works project” would be investing in infrastructure for public/private transit around self-driving cars.
$15 Minimum Wage
I’ve previously written some of my thoughts about minimum wage, but in general Bernie’s position here is a $15 minimum wage. The core idea is that it is not right for someone to be working full time, and still be in poverty or reliant on government assistance. And when this does happen, such as is the case for Walmart — the public is still on the hook — paying even more to subsidize these costs.
Reform Wall St.
“Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial decisions while expecting the public to bail it out.” (link)
Essentially, the recent financial crisis and subsequent bank bailout showed that problems in the financial sector are systemic. This was a case of public ownership of private risk. The reforms around Wall St. are closely connected to wealth inequality and money in politics. The revolving door between Wall St. and government means that there is not functional oversight. After a $700 billion bailout, the banks are fine, and the bankers better off, yet many Americans were not. The lack of regulation around the financial economy means it is no longer working for the real economy, and now is more financial engineering than real productive output.
Money Out of Politics
The question, as posed nicely in Robert Reich’s book Saving Capitalism, is not whether it is free-market or not — the question is who the government is working for. The government is no longer working for most Americans, as this Princeton study showed: it functions more like an oligarchy responding economic elites and business interests, and average citizens have little or no-influence.
This is the natural consequence of rulings like Citizens United, which allow unlimited spending from corporations towards campaigns through Super PACs. This directly translates into buying influence. Wealthy individuals and companies donate large sums, and they buy themselves better rules. This creates a negative reinforcing cycle.
There was a great article from The Onion here which just takes as an assumption that lawmakers are only responsive to lobbyists and no longer the American people.
WASHINGTON-Citing a desire to gain influence in Washington, the American people confirmed Friday that they have hired…www.theonion.com
The actual way lobbying is causing our democracy to function is horrible. A new law will come around to fix the broken patent system, or help lower drug prices, but is promptly struck down by the respective industry lobbying groups. Interestingly enough, Donald Trump has resonated quite a lot with this point on the Republican side since bought politicians and money in politics has been a central bipartisan anti-establishment issue.
Universal Health Care
The US right now is one of the only developed nations that does not provide Universal Health Care. In other countries, health care is seen as a right that everyone has access to. In theory, people might support the 3rd-party payer private US system in the US for higher quality and lower costs, but neither of those things is true, as evidenced by personal anecdotes and aggregate data. For example, drug prices are significantly higher in the US and there is price gouging because the government does not use its collective bargaining power and is at the whims of the lobbying industries. Take a look at some of the data.
Take a look at your medical bills and you can very clearly see that the “market” here is not working and lowering costs. My recent bills for a hospital visit were absurd, and the market dynamic that is really occurring in the US is an oligopoly of a few large health insurance companies. People don’t want health insurance. They want health care. A single payer system has proved more cost-effective and saner by huge margins in every other developing country. It’s also the right moral thing to do — because the net effect of this is a disproportionate cost burden on the poor, with many not receiving care, or “socialism for the rich” in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But what about this?!?!
The first, and rather obvious, criticism of Bernie Sanders is that “his plans aren’t realistic,” or “that could never happen.” And this is a very reasonable line of argument. But I think the best context for this is a historical one. At any point in time people are very used to the current social and cultural norms and the current laws seem obvious. But the government laws and market rules are set by people and have been drastically changed over time.
I find it interesting that many people who want what Bernie supports to happen conclude that they can’t vote for him because it isn’t practical.
Cynicism never caused any real change. If you want something to happen you need to vote for it. What is interesting is this political will is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Time travel a bit with me to see how this same argument holds historically. Those people are the people who would have said in 1840: don’t abolish slavery, that’s not practical. Don’t give women the right to vote, that’s not practical. Don’t let gays marry, that’s not practical. They’re right! It wasn’t practical. The big changes to the big issues aren’t practical and that’s why someone needs to be bold and make those changes. Hillary Clinton is not that person, rather she is the embodiment of status quo ideas, big money and corruption in politics and political dynasties.
My optimistic hope is that in the future, in a nicer America, when we treat the poor better and everyone has healthcare access, we will look back at now and thank the people who saw beyond “that’s not practical” to what we should do. That something we thought was politically infeasible and certainly not practical in the past, we considered to be a basic human right in the future.
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor and founder of Creative Commons, tried to run for the Democratic ticket. He said he was running as a “referendum candidate” — meaning he was just running on one issue: campaign finance reform. And he would work on that issue first, and then resign. This was a fascinating idea, and like most presidential elections, very symbolic. The government is pretty complex — with 22 million people working in it. This means a vote for any president doesn’t change anything overnight. But it is a way for democracy to work: for people to communicate what they feel is important and set the tone for the government. I see Bernie Sanders in many ways as a referendum candidate as well — and the issue the people are voting on income inequality and money in politics, and that it is important to make the government work for everyone, and not just the lobbyists and financiers.
Hillary and Bernie
#FeelTheBern or #ImWithHer? At a cursory glance at the issues, they seem to both be progressives with Bernie being more liberal than Hillary. However, the underlying dynamics of this election mean that there are actually great differences between them.
The thing that has made this election so bizarre is all the surprises. Bernie Sanders is one of the surprises. Donald Trump is another. The chatter about each of them was that they are disturbing their respective parties’ best-laid plans about who should be nominated. However, the reason I think Bernie Sanders is resonating with so many voters is quite different than the progressive agenda that Hillary has.
There’s this idea resonating across the aisle which is that money has taken over politics, and the politicians are bought. Trump admits to buying off those politicians in the past. Bernie — almost by a miracle — has raised a competing set of funds without a super PAC.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” — Upton Sinclair
If you think money in politics and income inequality are foundational issues in the country, Hillary Clinton is the quintessential representation of those issues.
Wall St. and Money in Politics
Hillary talks about reforming Wall St., yet that claim is hard to believe. All her big donors are banks. She’s been given millions by banks. Follow the money is sage advice here — it’s quite hard to see how she will forget those millions in contributions when really trying to tighten up financial regulation.
“While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Walmart,” Mr. Obama said to Mrs. Clinton during a January 2008 debate.
Hillary talks about the minimum wage now, yet worked at the board of Walmart, arguably one of the more egregious offenders in terms of treating full-time workers poorly. The taxpayers are subsidizing billions in assistance for these companies. It’s hard to see how you can be on the board of Walmart, get huge contributions from the Waltons, yet seriously talk about improving minimum wage.
Hillary is talking about improving health care, but is shy around talking about universal health care. If you follow the money here, you can see she is by far the largest recipient of heath company lobbying money. She’s also been called the best candidate for healthcare investors — which for me, again, is ironic. I’d rather have the best candidate for actual health care for people.
The Dynasty and the Oligarchy
Bush and then Bush. Clinton, and then … another Clinton? I find it impossibly difficult to believe that the best candidates are brothers or married. This is again, the epitome of insider politics, a rigged system, a dynastic system, and one that looks much more like kings and aristocratic families rather than a functioning democracy.
There’s other approaches I don’t agree with — I think Hillary is too hawkish, her shifting views on gay marriage and criminal justice reform too politically convenient.
The medium is the message. Donald Trump’s Twitter account is the medium to deliver his absurd message. And Hillary Clinton is the wrong carrier for the current populist/progressive message. In terms of the general election, polls have shown that Bernie would do better.
Bernie Sanders has given millions of people a reason to reengage with politics — including myself. Donald Trump has even given people that reason — for me so he doesn’t get elected. Hillary Clinton is more of politics as usual, another dynasty, continued incrementalism.
An incrementalist approach is the wrong approach. A big plan and big ideas offer a better path forward for the country.
What do you think? Let me know on twitter @jkeesh. If you like this article please recommend.
To learn more about this topic, and provide more historical context I highly recommend reading Robert Reich on Facebook, as well as his book Saving Capitalism. Additionally, I’d recommend Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next? which allows you to question some assumptions about the way things are done in the US around health care, education, prisons, and more.