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The Candidates’ Policies On Inequality: A No-Bullshit Guide

What are the 2020 candidates proposing to do about inequality, one of the defining issues of our time and a proxy for the class struggle? We've scoured their campaign websites and tallied up the pros and cons.

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) Marianne Williamson, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former tech executive Andrew Yang, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Drew Angerer / Getty

On the left side of US politics, we vote for people because they plan to do stuff we like — because as the famous saying goes, shit is fucked up and bullshit. Now we are confronted with several platoons-worth of candidates. What would they do, if elected? My mission is to sift their statements for specifics. It would be impossible to cover the full span of issues here, so this report focuses on the candidates’ stances regarding the economics of inequality, a veil for their implied posture on class struggle. I’ve surveyed the candidates’ “Issues” sections, so you don’t have to.

The initial task is to flush out the bromides. We also ignore the pretend candidates with zero chance, support, or credibility. So, bye-bye Marianne Williamson, John Delaney, Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, Andrew Yang, Wayne Messam, Joe Sestak, Eric Swalwell, Tulsi Gabbard, Steve Bullock, and Tom Steyer. Although they enjoy the credibility of incumbency, for reasons of space we will also filter out very long shots like Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, Bill de Blasio, Jay Inslee, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

That leaves the current front-runners: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and a handful of others in hot pursuit — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg.

In searching for substance, I nevertheless accept the commonly held belief that policy doesn’t matter for the horse race. Most voters have neither the time, the expertise, nor the inclination to delve into the details of policy. I do, however, assume it is of interest to readers of this magazine. Nor am I going to attempt theater criticism of the candidates’ political appeal or “electability.” It’s way too early for that, and it’s out of my wheelhouse in any case.

An example can illustrate the difference between a specific proposal and hot air:

“[L]et us come together around a policy that prioritizes affordability of prescription drugs …” (Beto O’Rourke)

Statements like this one reflect objectives but leave implementation to the imagination. I will ignore them. I will also ignore promises of executive orders. These are most easily accomplished for a president, assuming they pass a legal test of constitutionality, and many are vital, but they are susceptible to reversal by subsequent presidents. Legislation leading to new law is more durable, setting aside the difficulties of passing progressive measures after 2020 with Congressional Democratic caucuses full of “Blue Dogs” — let alone the difficulties if Republican Mitch McConnell remains in charge of the Senate.

Without further ado, here is a rundown of the candidates’ stances regarding inequality, according to their websites. It is biased in favor of candidates who devote resources to crafting position papers. It is biased against candidates who have resources but don’t bother with detailed policy analyses, such as Biden and Harris, and against less well-financed campaigns. As a cautionary note, we could remind readers that Hillary Clinton had an army of policy wonks and a raft of plans — she was a lock for the White House, remember? — so the importance of all this for actual voting could be questioned.

Joe Biden

Joe has the resources to deliver position papers, but thus far he chooses not to. He is light on policy. He is mainly campaigning as “I’m not Trump.” He beckons toward an Obama restoration.

When it comes to specifics, there isn’t much to point to in terms of promoting economic security, beyond gauzy rhetoric about “rebuilding the middle class.” Under the rubric of rewarding work instead of wealth, Biden would rescind the Trump tax cut. That means more to the federal budget and to a wealthier minority than to most families. The same goes for eliminating narrowly targeted tax concessions to the rich, such as the preference for capital gains.

Aside from his support for a $15 minimum wage, a train that has already left the station, Biden is vague on how he would strengthen unions or establish better trade agreements.

Bernie Sanders

It’s impossible to summarize Sanders’s approach to inequality because he touches every base imaginable, in detail. His platform provides an encyclopedic standard against which all the candidates could be measured. The pundits who like to reduce his platform to the slogans he’s been reciting for thirty years have not done their homework. The same analytical deficiency underlies the criticism that Sanders is indifferent to gender matters. When it comes to gender, Sanders is on board with equal pay for equal work, universal pre-K, and reproductive rights. On race and economics, some might criticize Sanders on the grounds that his universalist frame takes precedence. Exceptions in this vein are his specific references to the crisis in Puerto Rico and the needs of Native Americans.

Broadly speaking, Sanders’s approach to economic inequality is based on federal spending to promote full, green employment. Tighter labor markets do enhance the power and incomes of workers and reduce inequality. What’s missing is any direct reference to poverty, and to the security of those unable to work much, or at all (aside from retirees). This omission is common to all the candidates.

Perhaps the bigger question about Sanders is what he cares about most, since he won’t nearly be able to do everything he talks about. When questioned about this during the first debate, Sanders refused to narrow his appeal to any single issue. This was probably smart politics, but the question lingers.

Kamala Harris

Harris is brief on detail, except for her proposal for an additional tax credit for families with workers, basically a supplement to the Earned Income Tax Credit. As with Sanders’s employment-based approach, this glosses over the well-being of those with spotty or limited work histories. Her language is similarly vague or limited to second-tier measures when it comes to racial or gender justice, except for advocacy of equal pay for equal work.

Which proposals a candidate chooses to invest with detail can be reflective of greater interest, if not just political strategy, as well as what she cares about less. In this regard, Harris’s tax credit plan detracts from the credibility of her commitments on other issues.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren has issued a raft of position papers against which most of the other candidates’ plans pale in terms of sophistication and detail. For instance, she cites academic research debunking canards about technology causing unemployment, and about poverty being caused by lack of worker skills.

Senator Warren’s stock in trade is her critique of financialization, with a strong consumer protection dimension. In this respect she has the deepest critique and response to the commanding heights of economic predation in the United States — the financial sector. Sanders’s positions are similar but less centered on this specific domain, given his comprehensive tour d’horizon of progressive causes and policies.

There is more contrast with Sanders in the emphasis on the depredations of the tech monopolies, starting with Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In general, monopolies reduce the bargaining power of labor, squeeze small business suppliers, and enjoy inordinate political sway. The implication is the need for anti-trust action — breaking up the big corporations — to enhance competition.

Anti-trust policy in Warren’s context aims to transform tech into a mosaic of functioning markets. A socialist alternative would be to move some components of these enterprises into the public sector, or facilitate other nonprofit or public alternatives. The postal-savings-bank model, in which the government would offer basic banking services through the US Postal Service (also endorsed by Sanders), could be extended to privately owned utilities, broadband, and software patents.

Warren also promotes a big green jobs plan, founded on increased federal spending. There is a “buy American” theme that runs through her policy discourse. This could be taken in two ways. One is that it’s an appeal to chauvinism; the other is that it opens the door to industrial policy, to some move towards economic planning.

When it comes to gender justice, Warren devotes significant attention to childcare. By contrast, she hasn’t much to say about legislation dealing directly with racial justice from an economic standpoint. An exception is a housing proposal that would assist victims (predominantly African American) of redlining.

Beto O’Rourke

Inequality in general doesn’t make Beto’s top menu of pressing issues. What does is one specific component, Social Security. Beto is specific on how he would expand benefits in benign, progressive ways. He feels obliged to offset the expense with increased taxes on high-salary workers; whether or not this is necessary can be debated, but in terms of inequality this is a point in his favor.

One layer down on the website, under the literal heading of “economic security,” there is nothing but hot air, some of which is in Spanish. On several other issues, Beto is heavy on detail. In this sense, his neglect of inequality stands out.

Cory Booker

Booker’s website and pitch on inequality are brief but include two nuggets worth mentioning. One is another proposal to expand tax credits for workers, like the one proposed by Harris. The other is a “Baby Bonds” proposal that is more squarely addressed to racial economic inequality than anything from the other campaigns.

Pete Buttigieg

The most interesting part of Buttigieg’s campaign platform seems to have received little notice. He has presented a full-spectrum program dubbed the “Douglass Plan” (after Frederick) to address institutional racism. Its breadth and detail exceed that of any other candidate. While many specific items could be dismissed as limited, taken together the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. It includes a specific focus on homeownership, noted above as key to redressing the racial wealth gap.

What’s missing is any straight-ahead measure to provide cash income directly to the poor. The plan does contemplate an expansion of in-kind benefits, especially in health care services, and that would reduce economic racial inequality.

Julián Castro

Castro’s website is still limited to discussions of immigration, housing, policing, education, and lead (e.g., the water problem in Flint, and in principle, in substandard housing everywhere). We’ll give him an incomplete and wait for more material.

I’ve got a matrix of how the candidates stack up on the issues surveyed above.

The Sanders campaign in 2016 has, arguably, influenced most of the field of 2020 candidates, as it did the Clinton platform in 2016. A $15 minimum wage is no longer controversial. Sanders’s programs have exerted a magnetic force on others that we could expect will persist.

More broadly, feminist movements now require all candidates to commit to reproductive rights and equal pay. Subsidized childcare requires public dollars, so it is still a stretch for some candidates. The reluctance to endorse spending measures reflects an underlying, irrational fear of budget deficits, though no candidate will admit it directly.

The biggest oversight for most of the candidates is a substantive response on racial equality and on poverty. Exaltation of education doesn’t pass muster in this regard, though it is well-taken in and of itself. I would say the most powerful approaches in this domain are, on one side, the industrial-strength force of Sanders’s class-based program, and on the other, the focus, range, and detail of Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan. We could also give an honorable mention to Booker’s support for Baby Bonds.

Some might ask why, in an analysis of income inequality, there is no mention of proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) from ultra-long-shot candidate Andrew Yang. As I’ve argued in the past, a UBI is inherently impractical and even in its idealized form, a poor substitute for the capacities of a rejuvenated public sector.

Finally, it is worth criticizing the neglect, common to all candidates, of repairing the biggest hole in the “safety net” — that left by the destruction of Aid to Families with Dependent Children wrought by the Clinton administration — through which fall those with weak or nonexistent ties to the labor market, as well as their dependent children and disabled adults. The war on poverty has yet to be rejoined.