If politics were taken seriously, Bernie Sanders would be a genuine threat to Hillary Clinton’s march to the presidency. The senator from Vermont, who serves as an independent but is running for the Democratic nomination, is for real. He is a powerful thinker with the right ideas and polished skills of politics and leadership. Secretary Clinton has proven only the first of these qualities.
Unfortunately, people devote more research to the backgrounds of racehorses than to the ideas of political figures. Let’s just imagine for a moment, though, that people paid attention to what politicians believe. I know, it’s a far-fetched fantasy, but let’s try it out, anyway.
Only two areas of policy are genuinely important in the presidential race: One is the economy, particularly as it applies to an endangered American middle class, and the other is war and peace. Forget about the Republicans, all of whom promise to further enrich billionaires and invade a few more countries without imposing a draft. How’s Bernie on those questions? Where’s Hillary?
Clinton has 200 economic advisors. She can’t make up her mind on the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), bringing to mind the old Shaw quip, “If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.” Sanders, who sees the TPP as another American job killer, sputters, “You can’t not have a position,” on a question of such importance, but of course she can.
When Sanders took over as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, he hired Stephanie Kelton from the University of Missouri – Kansas City as his chief economist. She is a leading advocate of Modern Monetary Theory, a small but growing movement holding that government surpluses are bad for the economy. This is controversial but hardly radical; it was Alexander Hamilton who first put the country into debt and recognized both the power and the benefits of pledging the full faith and credit of the government against manageable debt.
This view, which, like most of Sanders’ opinions, seems to be genuine and strongly held, allows him to put John Maynard Keynes on steroids and fund the public works and social programs he advocates so powerfully. Those programs, with living-wage provisions Sanders also believes in, would go a long way toward rebuilding a path to the economic middle class for millions of American families.
He could be wrong, but this is not crazy thinking. He could be right, and in one sense he certainly is: the right-wing politics of the Bushes and the center-right positions of the Clintons and Barack Obama haven’t been working for the middle class. That necessarily implies collapse of the entire system, so something substantially different is in order. Sanders offers that. His wager is that even if you think he’s a radical, you realize that something radical needs to happen.
In place of Clinton’s 200 economists, who is it that Sanders listens to? He mentions several. Paul Krugman, he says, would make a good secretary of the Treasury. Krugman won a Nobel Prize in economics, teaches at Princeton and writes for The New York Times. Sanders uses the advice of Joseph Stiglitz, who also won a Nobel in economics, teaches at Columbia and writes the most lucid and compelling popular books on the economy one can find.
So, while we’re wondering what would happen if voters took all this seriously, let’s imagine that voters read Stiglitz’ 2012 tome, The Price of Inequality. They would find that he recommends the following: 1) Curb the risky excesses of Wall Street and level the playing field between banks and consumers; 2) Strengthen competition, which business people laud in the abstract but despise in reality; 3) Reduce the ability of corporate executives to take all the paper winnings for themselves; 4) Fix the bankruptcy laws so that they work for consumers and not just for businesses; 5) End government giveaways to business; and 6) Reform the legal system so that the First Amendment’s guarantee of access to the government for redress of grievances applies to people whose pockets aren’t already deep.
While Clinton would like to reduce college debt “as much as possible,” Sanders has a plan to make a four-year college education free of tuition.
Clinton can’t make up her mind about a $15 minumum wage, although her 200 economists, no doubt, are working away on the problem. Bernie stands for a living wage.
Radical? Maybe, in the sense that the reform proposals, and Sanders’ entire economic package, would represent a significant departure from the current course of things. But the crucial question is, do voters agree with them? I think they would. If they paid attention.
Now let’s move to that other crucial question of war and peace — not that spending a few trillion dollars on decades of war is not an economic question, too. This space has been used in the past to point out Clinton’s hawkish behavior, once proposing she be asked if she had ever opposed a prospective military action. Others on the left notice, too.
Sanders, on the other hand, while usually supporting Israel, he seeks a general military disengagement from the Middle East. Unlike Clinton, he voted against the Bush war in Iraq. He sought an early exit from Afghanistan. He was right on both counts, of course, and these are positions that more and more Americans are adopting, albeit somewhat later than he.
The whole scenario resembles leadership.