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Bernie Sanders is campaigning for president with a platform to help maintain the American working class. This is a theme that hasn’t been heard in a long time in American politics, so it sounds radical. Sanders even calls himself a socialist. Many pundits say this makes him unelectable, while some on the left see Sanders – for all his drawbacks – opening up an opportunity for socialism; if not now, then someday.
Sanders sees something “profoundly wrong” with America when working people have a problem surviving, even though their survival is never guaranteed in capitalism. He points to statistics which show a huge amount of people sinking into poverty and a few making lots of money. He finds this obscene. Would he have a problem with wealth at the top if the poor were not failing to survive? No, because that’s what’s needed to finance his programs to maintain the working class. This contradiction doesn’t bother him.
So what does this mean for his platform? Let’s look at specific measures from his campaign website.
“The current federal minimum wage is starvation pay and must become a living wage. We must increase it to $15 an hour over the next several years.”
Does Sanders really think $15 hour (or $30,000 a year before taxes) is anything but poverty? And why should it take several years? He doesn’t say.
“Putting at least 13 million Americans to work by investing $1 trillion over five years rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, railways, airports, public transit systems, ports, dams, wastewater plants, and other infrastructure needs.”
Sanders ties his public works program to job creating measures that should give the unemployed an income. Why not just give them money? That would send the wrong message. He wants to stress that work is not just work but an honor; and he’s not giving any hand-outs.
“Reversing trade policies like NAFTA, CAFTA, and PNTR with China that have driven down wages and caused the loss of millions of jobs.”
Sanders never says to business: you have to hire American workers even if you lose money. He is not going to prevent capitalists from making money the way they want just to hire American workers. So this is kind of a fake issue.
If it sounds as if Sanders opposes foreign trade, he adds a clarification:“If corporate America wants us to buy their products, they need to manufacture those products in this country.” He doesn’t want American capitalists using the global economy for manufacturing products by hiring Mexican and Chinese workers, but only wants American capitalists using the global economy for selling their products. This one-sided notion corresponds to the normal imperialist intention: the world market should be a means for one’s own country, not for the others.
1 Make tuition free at public colleges and universities
2 Stop the federal government from making a profit on student loans
3 Substantially cut student loan interest rates.
How do low interest loans for education fit with free tuition? By ignoring private colleges and universities, which are quite significant in the American system (about a fifth of all students go to private colleges). Free public schools doesn’t change that, so there’s still a reason for college students to take out loans. He’s not opposed to debt, but merely wants to lower the interest rate so that people with no money aren’t bankrupted by student loans and can still be productive citizens after going into debt to pay for college.
What’s wrong with the current education system?“In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world.” America is not mastering the world; this is hardly about former graduate students who have to pay off student loans on a barista’s paycheck.
“Break up huge financial institutions so that they are no longer too big to fail. Seven years ago, the taxpayers of this country bailed out Wall Street because they were too big to fail. Yet, 3 out of the 4 largest financial institutions are 80 percent bigger today than before we bailed them out. Sen. Sanders has introduced legislation to break these banks up. As president, he will fight to sign this legislation into law.”
Sanders’ idea is to make the banks smaller, so if one bank fails the government doesn’t have to rescue it. But even if a bank is too small to make certain deals because it isn’t big enough, it can still get together with other banks to make these deals; banks are in collaboration as well as in competition.
Sanders overlooks the necessity of rescuing the whole banking system. He doesn’t realize how interconnected the banking system is. Financial institutions ride piggy back on each other’s speculation, so that in the last crisis, banks went bust in Iceland, Ireland and England not because of their size (which was not big) but because they had participated in the speculative assets created by the American banking industry.
Every politician recognizes that the bailouts were a huge budget burden. They all seem to forget that the whole point of the banking reforms in the 1990s was so that US banks, which are still not the world’s largest, could be big enough to compete on a world scale with the monster banks in Europe and Japan. The Obama administration’s idea was that more transparency would restrain the banking system from getting into such risky speculation again. But speculation is their business. Nobody knows when speculation has gone too far until the limb breaks.
This is publicly discussed: there is no bubble until it bursts because there is no objective measure of riskiness, especially when it comes to pure abstract wealth in the form of derivatives of derivatives and other such exotic financial instruments. The entire ownership of assets on this level becomes completely generalized throughout the economy, so that when a bank goes out of business, its not like a corner grocery store that has no effect.
“Getting big money out of politics….These people own most of the economy. Now they want to own our government as well.”
Sanders doesn’t talk about the craziness of raising money in primaries or competing on the basis of how well a candidate raises money before attracting any votes. He just says that rich people are spending more on elections than poor people. If you think about it, this is a criticism of the voters: if rich people are financing elections, they are deciding elections because the people are voting according to how money is spent. It says that people are voting according to how many commercials they see on TV. But if this is true, who would vote? If everyone thought that everyone votes according to money, why would they participate in such a thing?
His reform is that only people, not corporations, should not be allowed to donate, and all donations are to be disclosed so that everyone knows who is paying. That’s it. He doesn’t call for public financing of campaigns or making elections cheaper, only moving away from private financing “toward” public financing.
The rest of his program consists of normal welfare state measures – paid vacations, parental leave – which have been known in Europe for over a hundred years. The only thing radical about it is that this is not standard in America. Sanders is not even calling for a national health care system, just for single payer, which is not the same as a single provider.
How is all this going to be paid for? Sanders wants a speculation tax on Wall Street. This would slow down the speculators when they are engaging in arbitrage and taking positions for five seconds on rising and falling prices, but this is different from a tax on the results of transactions. This enacts a slight hurdle to speculation, but has nothing to do with raising money.
All these measures to help the working class are linked with the success of the American economy. Concern for the “American working class” ends up being concern for “America.” Sanders’ whole program requires successful capitalism or else there is no means for it. That’s why Sanders’ program doesn’t end up being anti-business. It even becomes a demand: if business has to support the working class even when the working class isn’t producing sufficient profits, American business damn well better make tons of money.
The American economy is still in the grips of a crisis that it can’t shake, so once again a cyclical concern about the economy is on the agenda: capitalism is doing something that is not good for itself so it needs a reformed supervision by the state. Capitalism, as Hilary Clinton puts it, “needs to be saved from itself.” This goes back to the program of FDR and before that to the progressives at the turn of the early 20th century when Theodore Roosevelt regulated the railroads. Sanders is taking up the general cause of all reformers: politics needs to do something different because it is responsible for the society and things are not going well. This does not lead to a critique of the economic system that produces so much misery, but of politics. Because you can always vote for new leaders, but not for a different economic system.