06.16.2016
  • United States

The Bernie Platform

  • Matt Bruenig

A New York Times op-ed slamming Bernie Sanders's program misses the mark.

In the New York Times, Mark Schmitt argues that Bernie Sanders’s policy proposals are out of date because they do not align with those favored by liberal think tanks. Schmitt’s piece contains a number of odd claims worth responding to.

Health Care

Concerning health care, Schmitt writes that “single-payer is an all-or-nothing proposition that creates few openings for legislators who want to do something incremental that could lead to a bigger goal.”

This is simply not true. There are many incremental paths toward single-payer. For instance, we could expand Medicare to cover all the country’s children just as Medicare already covers nearly all of the country’s elderly. Such an expansion would add 78 million people to the Medicare rolls, but would not be that costly because 43 percent of children already receive some type of government-provided insurance and children consume far less health care than the rest of the population.

Schmitt paints Sanders’s interest in single-payer health care as quaint and out of touch with modern progressivism. But this is only true if you equate modern progressivism with the foundations that set the priorities of liberal think tanks. The largest union of nurses in the country, National Nurses United, aggressively promotes single-payer health care, and the AFL-CIO unanimously endorsed single-payer a few years ago.

Sanders is not behind the times when it comes to single-payer. He’s just in line with different modern progressive constituencies than Schmitt is.

Uberization

Concerning the on-demand gig economy, Schmitt writes, “[Sanders’s] campaign barely focused on other issues related to work, such as the challenges posed by new employment models in the on-demand, or ‘gig,’ economy, a topic of a speech by Senator Elizabeth Warren in May.”

Sanders did turn his eye toward the gig economy during the election, saying that he has “serious problems” with it and criticizing it as “unregulated.” Schmitt seems unsatisfied with Sanders’s treatment of the Uberization issue, but the Warren speech he cites as an alternative largely echoes Sanders’s proposals.

In regards to the gig economy, Warren argues that “[w]orkers who have serious accidents or suffer from illnesses that knock them out of the labor market for an extended period need a backstop” and that “workers should have some paid family and medical leave to insure against longer absences such as a more serious illness or to care for a newborn.”

Sanders’s program already addresses both of these issues through the FAMILY Act, a bill that would provide twelve weeks of publicly funded paid leave. Sanders also proposes paid sick days and paid vacation days, mirroring Warren’s call to guarantee each worker “a certain number of days [off work] a year for any purpose.”

Warren’s final proposed fix to the on-demand economy is “to make employee benefits — both for health care and retirement — fully portable.” This idea is also sometimes described as “having a good welfare state,” and Sanders’s campaign has been very supportive of it. He would make health care fully portable by providing it through the federal government, and make retirement benefits fully portable by using, and expanding, the existing Social Security system.

Predistribution

Finally, Schmitt takes Sanders to task for focusing too much on taxes and transfers and not enough on a more equitable distribution of market income:

Where Mr. Sanders talks about “redistribution” of wealth from “the billionaires” to the middle- and low-income classes through high tax rates, others, such as the economists at the Economic Policy Institute, have focused more on what is sometimes called “predistribution,” wages and the conditions of work. They would reduce the gains at the top — such as by putting some meaningful constraints on executive pay — but also make sure that workers got a greater share of the profits, not only in the form of money, but also time, flexibility and predictable scheduling.

This claim is frankly ridiculous. Sanders’s “predistribution” program is pretty straightforward. First, you jack up the wage floor by establishing a $15 minimum. Second, you substantially increase the top marginal tax rate, which would not only bring in more revenue, but also push firms to pay top workers less, freeing up money to pay lower-compensated workers more. Third, you increase the power and density of unions so they can collectively bargain for higher labor shares and more compressed wage schedules. This is a fairly standard social-democratic approach.

Beyond the policy specifics, Schmitt also just completely misunderstands Sanders’s rhetoric. In some policy worlds, “redistribution” is understood as a separate thing from “predistribution.” But it’s clear that Sanders makes no such distinction. During the campaign he has constantly talked about the upward redistribution to the wealthy that has occurred over the last forty years, and the need to “redistribute wealth back into the hands of working families.” These comments have been as much about wage inequality as tax and benefit policy.

Ultimately, in his rush to prove that Sanders’s prescriptions are outmoded, Schmitt instead shows his understanding of think tanks is fundamentally flawed. Think tanks are not independent institutions that impartially develop a body of ideas. They develop ideas that reflect the interests and perspectives of their donor bases and the political environments in which they operate. They can and do transform when conditions require them to do so.

If Sanders’s political revolution really did come to pass, there is little doubt the auxiliary political institutions would follow.