Feeling the Bern
To attend a Bernie Sanders rally requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Entering the college gyms where he makes his case and observing the roar of the crowd, their excitement, their energy, never in a million years would one estimate that soon, such passion would be directed towards an old man from Vermont, let alone one that wants to be the president. Add in the fact that his primary goals are giving everyone free medicine and a lifetime of schooling, and the story begins to sound more like fantasy than anything else.
But yet, Bernie Sanders wants to be the president, I think. I mean, anyone who’s been auditioning for the job for the better part of six years probably has some interest in it, but what’s curious is it never really comes up. What Bernie wants, or at least what can be ascertained from his rallies, is for his visions of America to become a reality. And what are these visions, exactly? A pay increase for low-wage workers? A tax break for the middle class? At the very least, it’s a tiny bit more ambitious than that. Sander’s three tentpole plans are the following: Medicare for All, a job for all, and a green-oriented climate plan. All told, the price on these is somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 trillion dollars.
Honestly, to call this a radical reinvention of the American economic system is probably an understatement. Accomplishing even half of these things would require political mobilization the likes of which this country has never seen, and necessitates, among other things, an unprecedented bipartisan coalition to accomplish. Under this system, (that is, the cost of medicare, climate policy, and full employment), roughly 70 percent of the GDP would account for government spending, which is not only double the current amount, but would be, by a wide margin, higher than any of the countries Sanders so often cites as examples for how such a plan would function. Sweden and Norway, social states regularly lauded as samples for a medicare for all schema, barely approach 50 percent, and even the highest performers, like Finland, only spend 57 percent.
Now, this is not to discount the aspirations nor the ideologies of one candidate or another. The problem isn’t the ideas Bernie Sanders has, or that it is Bernie Sanders who wants them. The problem is there simply isn’t that much money in America. The Fed places all household financial assets at $82 trillion, well under the amount required for such an operation, or even part of it. Put another way, the government could drain the savings of every single American and invest it in Sanders’ proposal and it still wouldn’t be enough for what he envisions.
But what would? How does anywhere near that much money come about? Unlike others in the field, Sanders is willing to admit the answer is a middle-class tax increase, but like others, his math still doesn’t quite add up. Sum the wide number of taxes Sanders would implement, be it the 11 percent payroll tax increase on the many or the up to 80 percent marginal tax rate on the few, and the funds still only get to $23 trillion. Closing that remaining fiscal gap, about a $90 trillion budget deficit, or $66,000 a household, is simply not going to happen. At some point, you just run out of places to take money from, and that’s effectively what happens when this plan is placed under any amount of scrutiny. Cutting defense funs to NATO, increasing the estate tax, even implementing a VAT, all ineffective. It goes back to the same point earlier-there just isn’t enough money in the country to handle, much less facilitate, such a reinvention of it.
Most presidential candidates talk in tandem, weaving their vision for the country with how they will use the hard-won office of the presidency to achieve it. Yet every time Bernie speaks, he never talks about the first part. We hear what he wants, but not what he will do to get there. We hear about the journey, but not the destination. There are two readings of this conclusion. Either Bernie doesn’t know what he’s doing, or he does and assumes we don’t. He either knows his plans are infeasible or he doesn’t. Either of these scenarios is believable, and neither is appealing. After all, Bernie has been running on this plan for the better part of his life, and it’s not unreasonable to assume the scrutiny he’s faced for his plans is inversely correlated to the amount of time trying to push them, given how long he’s fought and how little has been done. But it’s also not unreasonable to examine such scenarios more carefully the closer he gets to making them happen. And what’s revealed upon doing so? Well, it sounds more like fantasy than anything else.