A few weeks ago, I took an ISideWith test to see which 2016 political candidate I was most well matched to. For some reason, the site hadn’t included Gary Johnson in its list of options, so I was paired with populist wunderkid Bernie Sanders. I’d heard a lot of rumblings about this guy, particularly that he was gaining a lot of groundswell. I see his image macros all the time on social media. Many of my friends seem to love him. So I decided to check him out.
When I looked on Sanders’ site a few weeks ago, he had an 11-step plan to fix America. That page seems to have disappeared, but I found an image put together by Occupy Democrats with the plan on it. As with the first time I read this, I found myself rolling my eyes. I wondered if anyone who is stoked about Sanders had actually thought about these points in detail. Are they feasible in this economy? Are they things a president could reasonably change? Are they even good ideas?
Here’s my breakdown of Sanders’ 11-step plan (because 10 steps weren’t good enough, I guess).
1. Invest in schools, roads, bridges, and airports
Leaving aside schools for just a moment, I like this. A lot. The United States’ infrastructure is slowly deteriorating, and government funding for these projects has slowly died in favor of more “exciting” projects. From a libertarian perspective, infrastructure investment (i.e. roads) is probably the most just role of government in a free society, and ours has sorely been lacking in this (you had one job, government…). I’d really like to see a presidential candidate bring these issues to the forefront. However, it is unclear how a president can affect more than a nominal amount of infrastructure, as so much of it is really governed by individual states.
I suspect he will find a lot of issues doing this because of federalism. Fixing America’s infrastructure would, really, only be possible for a President if he spent every waking moment of his two terms working on it. Obviously, that’s not feasible.
Schools are, of course, a separate consideration. As most people know at this point, pouring federal dollars into has NOT correlated with success at all. Despite federal spending at an exponential rate, test scores have, at best, stayed exactly the same. Of course, it’s not entirely clear what Sanders means by “invest,” but if he means more than just throwing money at the problem, it’s unclear what he means and what could be done at a federal level to fix the problem.
2. Transition from fossil fuels to renewables
I’m curious as to what he means by this, and I’d be interested in specifics. If any part of this means ending government support of oil companies, I’m all for it. If any part of it it means investing federal dollars into nuclear energy, I’m all for it.
However, I suspect Sanders probably has the same fear of nuclear energy that many do, and he will fall short in this regard. I also think he will find ending oil subsidies more difficult than he expects, as America’s government has, for a very long time, been propping up the fossil fuel and automotive industries while also taking token initiatives to support renewables. There is a lot of entrenched power there, and not all of it is going to be something a President solve. Sanders has to remember that he has to work with a Congress, and pretty much none of this Congress is going to support that plan.
3. Make it easier for workers to join a union
So, let me go on record here and say that I think the concept of unions is pretty okay. Giving individual workers collective power to bargain with their employer is a great idea and a great way to fix huge power imbalances. However, unions in this country have a really complicated history, much of it not good. Unionization just hasn’t taken hold in the way it has in European states, such that many unions are corrupt and self-serving/self-perpetuating. Neither the desire for nor participation works in the U.S. the same way it does in Europe. And even in Europe, that history has not always been pretty, with unions strangling governments to make decisions that are in their best interest rather than society’s as a whole.
Of course people should have the freedom to join whatever associations they wish, but I’m not sure the emphasis on unions — which are just another form of a large, corporatized body — is wise here.
4. Raise the minimum wage
There is so much literature on the minimum wage, and a great deal of it suggests (though there isn’t a firm consensus), that raising the minimum wage causes employment rates to suffer. While of course there is room for disagreement, what minimum wage advocates essentially advocate for is a trade off: fewer jobs that are higher paying.
Now, I don’t particularly care to get into a minimum wage debate here. I’m not an economist and am not particularly qualified to make a solid case one way or the other. But my main beef with this point is that, while Sanders recognizes that many people are not able to live based on the income to make, that problem goes way beyond wage. Sanders, and many liberals who support him, have not yet recognized that the issue isn’t necessarily greedy corporations trying to profit at the expense of unskilled laborers, but rather that what to do with unskilled labor is a larger societal problem that we don’t yet know how to fix. And it’s going to take more than raising the minimum wage to fix that problem.
5. Equal pay regardless of sex, gender
I’m honestly confused as to why this is here, except that it’s a nice thing that liberals like to think they can fix. I don’t think that there is anything, constitutionally, that Bernie Sanders could possibly do to decrease the pay gap. He can’t regulate employee pay across the country (holy shit, what an undertaking!), he can’t tell employers what and how to pay their employees, he can’t fix subtle sexism, and he can’t fix the not-insubstantial problems of gender-role-influenced choices that women make about their jobs.
This is a nice idea. I’d love to live in a country and a world where I don’t have to worry about being paid less than my peers for my work. But this is not a change a government can make. This is a societal change that needs grassroots support and a shifting of norms to happen. Sorry, Bernie.
6. Reform trade policies that send jobs overseas
So, I’m not really clear on what this means, exactly (if someone can explain this to me, please leave a comment!). But I’m going to hazard a guess that this has to do, again, with the problem of what to do with unskilled labor. It seems the impulse here is that companies are moving factory jobs overseas so they don’t have to pay high wages to workers (see above) or comply with other kinds of regulations that get in the way of successfully running a business. Dodging safety regulations notwithstanding, the only thing that keeping businesses from moving jobs overseas is going to do is make them move their entire business overseas. What will Sanders propose we do then? Not trade with companies that are made outside the U.S.?
I don’t want to say more, because it’s an issue I don’t know a lot about, but this seems counter-intuitive to me.
7. Make college affordable
Okay. Okay. Seriously? Do we not remember what happened when we said “make owning a home affordable?” NOT GOOD THINGS. And while I realize that the home ownership market is different than the college one, and it has different effects on our economy, many of the same lessons apply. You cannot make something universally accessible and it have the same value as it did before. College is not job training. College is specialized academic study, and not everyone can or even wants to do that.
Look, I sympathize with many of my peers who exit college without the knowledge of how to get a job or pay off debt. But making college “affordable” doesn’t solve that problem. Instead of making college affordable to everyone, Sanders should be concerned with a culture that makes a college degree required to have a decent standard of living. Sanders should emphasize that universities should teach students how to market their marketable skills. Is there anything he can do about this as a President? Probably not. But making college “affordable” is not going to make the problem of unskilled labor better — it will probably just make it worse.
8. Break up the big banks
Ha. Okay. I’ll just be here eating popcorn while I watch that train wreck.
9. Make healthcare available to all
I suspect here that he’s talking about a single payer health system. Which, all things considered, I don’t mind all that much. I don’t think that America’s health infrastructure, as it is, could sustain that, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. Single payer is not ideal by any means, but the Affordable Care Act is a policy disaster that has had to have the Supreme Court essentially rewrite in order for it to be functional and constitutional. It’s shafted, in general, young people who are already struggling. It’s replaced one kind of inequality for another. Obviously, my preference would be to deregulate and free up the healthcare market, but since that’s not going to happen, I’d prefer it if people’s ability to have healthcare weren’t dependent on their job status.
It must be said, however, that this is a pretty pie-in-the-sky plan point. ACA isn’t really going anywhere, and if Sanders thinks he can pass single payer healthcare when Obama couldn’t, he’s got another thing coming.
10. Expand Social Security, Medicaid, and food stamps
I gotta give him credit for this one for sheer balls. But I gotta say… wasn’t Medicaid already recently expanded with the Affordable Care Act? Are we expanding this more, and to what extent? Same thing goes for the other programs. What does this even mean? Honestly, I find this plan point really confusing. It also must be said: with all the investment into infrastructure, schools, healthcare, etc. is he going to get the money for this as well?
11. Reform the tax code and close corporate loopholes
Again: what does this mean? I’d love some tax code reform. I’d love to abolish the tax code and replace it with a flat tax. But I doubt that this is what Sanders has in mind. From his website, it seems that he simply wants to increase taxes on corporations and the rich. You know, again. I’m not necessarily one to cry rivers over the rich’s money, but income earners making over $200,000 in this country already pay 70% of the nation’s taxes. I’m not sure how much more we should expect them to pay. As for corporations, increasing taxes on them is only going to push more businesses overseas (which might cause a problem for #6) or decrease the benefits allotted to laborers.
It seems to me that, before reforming the tax code and increasing taxes on the rich and corporations, the federal government should focus on balancing its budget, paying off its debts, and downscaling the spending it does. Otherwise, what is really happening here is that government is forcing people to pay for its own ineptitude and mistakes. Regardless of whether the person paying for that mistake is an poor individual or a multi-national corporation, that is not fair.
There are a lot more things to say, particularly to the list as a whole, but I know I have spilled much digital ink on this, so I will leave with only a few overall thoughts. Bernie is a popular, populist candidate because he presents what seems to be easy solutions to America’s labor and economic problems. The problem with using this to get elected is that Sanders, and the American public, will soon find that implementing these ideals is far from easy, if possible, for a president to do. And some of them will make the underlying problems much worse.
For this, I can’t really support Sanders as a presidential candidate. It’s not that I don’t like the picture that Bernie is painting, I do. It’s a wonderful, idealistic, United States society in which everyone is cared for. It’s just that he’s viewing it from too far away, and when he gets up close to it, he’s going to find it’s a giant mess.