On Bernie Sanders

Senator Sanders seems like a decent enough guy. His long Senate career, while not really distinguished, is still honorable and trouble-free. There’s very little that you can say about him that’s to his discredit. This makes him different from the other major candidates. He describes himself as a “Democratic Socialist”, which sounds like a European political party. No one can really explain what that means. So if we’re going to criticize him, we’ll have to focus on his proposals.

His main platform, as I’ve seen in his recent TV spots, is to punish the Big Banks, increase taxes on the major corporations, and use the additional revenue gained thereby to provide universal health care and free college tuition to everyone. That’s a decidedly European socialist economic plan.

Would it work here?

Pretty much everyone wants to bash the “big banks” and other financial institutions whose shady lending practices caused the economic collapse several years ago. I agree; they should be penalized in some fashion, and there should be a regulatory framework in place (with oversight) that can at least limit the fallout of any such financial shenanigans in the future. Just saying you’re going to punish them isn’t enough; you’ve got to specify how. Putting their executives in jail, while desirable, probably isn’t going to happen. You’ve got to figure out who exactly was responsible, and what criminal statutes were violated. Not an easy task, and it will probably cost more in the investigation and trial than any benefit you’d get from incarceration. One is left with fines, which have been doled out – and paid – to the tune of billions of dollars. Let’s make sure that they pay them all, OK?

Increasing taxes on corporations is also a good idea; there are a colander’s worth of loopholes and dodges and accounting ledgerdemain* that corporations can use to avoid paying taxes. They can easily be tightened up, and the overall tax rate raised without doing noticeable harm to the economy.

But those are the sorts of things everyone on the liberal/left/Democratic side proposes. It’s the “freebies” that Sanders proposes that make him different, and interesting.

First, there’s the “health care for everyone” proposal. Isn’t that what we have already? If I remember things correctly, he’s proposing a universal health care plan to be paid for by a mix of salary deductions and taxes. That’s very different from “Obamacare”. And when you consider how darned difficult it was to get Obamacare passed, how long it took us to get any form of national health care plan enacted, and how hard the GOP is still fighting Obamacare, you have to consider Sanders’ plan pure fantasy. Sure, it may be nice to have, but there’s not a chance in heck it will happen given the current political environment. He’s setting himself and his supporters up for disappointment.

About the “free college” plan, he’s right that student loan debts are a crushing burden on many people, which accounts a good deal for his support among younger people. But I’m not sure they realize that even if he got that proposal through intact (assuming he gets elected, of course), it’s not going to have any effect at all on current debts.

I actually think that his proposal misses the point. Or points, since I see the problem as twofold.

First, college tuition is too damn high. It’s gone up way faster than inflation, or anything in the Consumer Price Index. Since 1978, tuition at a four-year college has gone up on average by a factor of twelve.

I cannot figure out why. There’s no apparent justification for this – other than market forces.

That leads me to the second point.

We (and our parents) grew up in an environment that had the “American Dream” of “Go to college and get a great job”. That may have been the case decades ago, but the economic situation has changed since then. It was possible to get a good-paying job and be successful without a college degree, since there were plenty of good-paying jobs that didn’t require a degree.

But a couple of things happened.

The unions, which provided plenty of good “non-degree” jobs, were battered and weakened to the point where they couldn’t provide enough of those jobs anymore. As part of the increasing globalization in the economy, manufacturing moved to countries with cheaper labor costs. Automation improved and took the place of semi-skilled labor. The change to a service economy replaced full-time jobs with part-time ones that could never pay a living wage on their own.

The net result? An increasing divergence between “good paying” jobs and “not-so-good paying” jobs, with nothing in between. With more people getting the degree that’s needed for the better jobs, the market’s getting flooded to the point where there are so many people with degrees out there that even the people offering the “not-so-good paying” jobs are being overwhelmed with degree-bearing applicants.

That’s started a self-perpetuating cycle. When there are so many people with degrees looking for non-degree jobs, employers aren’t even going to bother looking at people without degrees. So in order to compete, more prospective employees are getting degrees, which leads to more competition in the job market, which means more employers stop looking at people without degrees….

I’m not sure that “Free College Tuition” will have any effect on those underlying factors. It would probably be much easier to force colleges to lower their tuition and fees.

As far as the rest of his platform goes, he seems weak on foreign affairs. He’s been focusing on economic matters. He’s presumably also going to take the standard Democratic Party line when it comes to social issues.

The thing that worries me the most about him is not anything he’s said or done, but the “Bernie or Bust” attitude among a significant number of his supporters. If he does not win the nomination, then they pledge to either stay home on Election Day, vote for a third party candidate, or just write in his name and vote for no one else.

Aside from the spiteful pettiness, this is self-defeating. The Bush-Gore debacle is within living memory for almost all voters. It can easily be argued that those who voted for Ralph Nader, believing that there was no real difference between Al Gore and George Bush, changed the outcome of the election. A hissy fit by the “Bernie Bros” just might hand the presidency to a Republican, especially if they join in on the GOP attacks on Clinton. And it’s not just the White House at stake, either. The GOP’s current majority in the Senate is four seats. The last time I checked, there are enough seats polling as “toss ups” so if the Democrats win them all, they get control of the Senate. If Sanders and his supporters intend to have any chance at getting his proposals passed, they are going to need the Democrats controlling the Senate. And the House of Representatives too, for that matter.

I’ve said earlier I support Hillary Clinton. But Sanders is my second choice. The differences between the two of them are nothing compared to the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. If Sanders wins the nomination, I can almost guarantee I’ll vote for him. And it will be a vote FOR him, and not one against the GOP.

For all his weaknesses, he does present some inspiring leadership. The issues he’s pressing are ones that need to be discussed, even if his proposals aren’t likely to be implemented intact. Yet

* Yes, it’s a deliberate typo…

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