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Bernie Sanders' Platform: Ambitious Reform or Absurd Idealism?

by Craig Berlin, published

As deeply divided as Americans are now on political issues, Bernie Sanders is having the unique effect of being even more polarizing to some voters while also attracting others who wouldn't normally touch someone so fiscally liberal. His populist message is resonating very strongly with people who are tired of a country where working people still struggle to make ends meet, but also with opponents of crony capitalism across the political spectrum.

On the other side, opponents of big government, increased entitlement spending, and "more free stuff" are concerned with the entire ideology of his ideas. Is there any way to find common ground?

There are a lot of memes with versions of Bernie's platform. In the first of this four-part series, we'll take a look at the philosophy behind the Sanders campaign as listed in his Agenda for America: 12 Steps Forward. These include:

  1. Rebuilding Our Crumbling Infrastructure
  2. Reversing Climate Change
  3. Creating Worker Co-ops
  4. Growing the Trade Union Movement
  5. Raising the Minimum Wage
  6. Pay Equity for Women Workers
  7. Trade Policies that Benefit American Workers
  8. Making College Affordable for All
  9. Taking on Wall Street
  10. Health Care as a Right for All
  11. Protecting the Most Vulnerable Americans
  12. Real Tax Reform

After these, we'll address prominent issues on the campaign that somehow were left out of the list, but often show up in speeches or memes.

We'll examine each of these individually, but first we need to take a look at his overall approach.


From a pragmatic standpoint, each proposal in a given political platform needs to be evaluated on its own merit. However, Bernie's philosophy has a flavor somewhat unique in American politics -- after all, he has unabashedly stated he is a Democratic Socialist. You have to give him credit for honesty.

Emotionally, in a society where many are bothered by everyday struggles, the appeal of everything being paid for in advance through taxation of the uber-rich and the possibility of cutting military spending sounds attractive to many. The question of what is fair is the subject of intense debate, as well as the role of government in redistributing wealth to provide both essential and desirable services.

John Adams famously said, "ideology is the science of idiots," and first we must establish what Bernie's really is and whether or not it works for the United States.

There are those who will oppose anything Bernie wants to do because of his template. Regardless of whether you are bothered by the nomenclature, he is most certainly a big government liberal who wants more programs funneled through the federal government.

His fans are fine with this and continue to point to Scandinavian countries as a model we should be emulating.

Bernie has gone to some effort to make the distinction between the idea of Marxist socialism and Democratic socialism, and it's important to get away from the "slippery slope" argument that assumes that if we have a country that is essentially capitalist with higher taxes and more public spending, we will end up in a Marxist society.

Not only is that a fallacy, but it pushes the argument away from dealing with the real issues associated with a more powerful centralized federal government in this country and the problems specific to trying to do what Bernie advocates.

However, it is completely legitimate to understand that once we start to move in that direction, as we already have with many things, there is a tendency to look to the federal government to solve any and all problems.

Putting aside that there will always be those who don't want the government -- particularly the federal government -- to be involved in anything, Washington is already involved in a number of things that are arguably better left to local and state control.

It's one thing to have a conversation about something as critical as health care; it's another altogether to mandate something such as a "living wage" that will uniformly apply to every single business no matter how small they are, no matter where they're located, and no matter whom they employ.

We don't need to be concerned with moving toward Communism, but we do need to be worried about the increasing penchant for trying to handle everything through government and at the federal level.

However, the problem with this argument for many prominent Republicans lies largely in their seemingly limited ability to outline solutions. They have a fair amount of legitimate criticisms for Democratic policies and the Obama administration, some of which are written off if not ignored by much of the media.

However, they seem equally inept at focusing on issues that are the most important to people looking at long-term solutions to everyday problems.

Democrats have long been far better at public relations in regard to addressing the struggles a plurality of everyday Americans face and Bernie Sanders, to his credit, has gone to the trouble of formulating specific ways to solve them through government programs.

One may disagree with his methods or even show they may not work, but a large number of Americans are going to respond to someone who is at least addressing their concerns with specific proposed solutions.


In a speech to the DNC, Bernie enthusiastically stated, "One of the demands of my campaign is that we think big and not small."

There's nothing wrong with big ideas and lofty goals, especially understanding the resistance they will encounter, so long as they are well thought out.

Everyone should realize that the models Bernie and supporters often point to as what we should emulate are dramatically different from the United States. When even a very liberal site such as Slate begs people to "shut up already about how the Nordic countries top every global ranking," everyone should be willing to frame comparisons in proper context.

Scandinavian countries, for example, are individually smaller than many large American metropolitan areas—so there's not a great deal of diversity of any kind, whether ethnically, financially, geographically or otherwise.

Having high taxes and generous social services in countries where the biggest (Sweden) is only slightly bigger than New York City and the sum of all is about the population of Texas, is an entirely different proposition than a country of 320 million and nearly 10 million square kilometers. These countries collect and distribute taxes very much as a local municipality or small state would in the U.S.

Beyond size differences, however, there is also the matter of how these countries operate versus a republic of 50 semi-autonomous states, each with its own sets of laws.

Our Constitution states that those things not tasked to the federal government are left to the states to decide. Clearly, there are things not originally envisioned by the Founders that can be a shared responsibility (health care) or are by their very nature better suited for Washington than a state legislature (space travel).

However, aside from strict Constitutionalists' ideas about what the federal government can or should do, there are also challenges associated with any programs that are legislated nationally but enacted locally.

We should not act as if the federal government can or should simply step in and mandate sweeping programs without proper scrutiny. Aside from the legal challenges that would likely ensue, there is also the legitimate concern of trying to make similar programs function as intended even if everyone agreed philosophically.


The Wall Street Journal was quick to run the tab on Bernie's proposals, not even including all the ones listed here, and came up with a figure of $18 trillion for the cost of his proposals over 10 years, most of which is for a $15 trillion single-payer health care system.

Sanders' policy director, Warren Gunnels, admitted, "Sen. Sanders' agenda does cost money. If you look at the problems that are out there, it’s very reasonable.”

According to the WSJ, Gunnels said the campaign hasn’t worked out all the details and their health care plan might allow each state to run its own single-payer system (a big plus logistically, but more on that later), but he said the $15 trillion figure was a fair estimate.

In spite of acknowledgment from the Sanders campaign, the attacks on the WSJ numbers have come quickly and aggressively, most notably from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a long-time ardent supporter of the kind of policies Sanders suggests.

Via Alternet, Reich writes, "the Journal’s number is entirely bogus, designed to frighten the public."

In fairness, the WSJ used the research of Amherst professor Gerald Friedman in assembling its numbers and omitted his conclusion that we would end up saving $5 trillion over the same period. Friedman

responded via the Huffington Post and listed his full 10-year projections which include both tax increases and estimated cost savings.

While there clearly are potential cost savings in a single-payer system, it's important to remember that these are projections based on assumptions that we would benefit from "reduced administrative waste, lower pharmaceutical and device prices, and...lowering the rate of medical inflation."

These are significant and potentially valid arguments, but certainly merit close analysis by more than one economist for many reasons, starting with looking at all the rabbit trails one must go down when following things to their logical conclusion.

As an example, when one shifts spending from the private sector to the public sector, it takes income away from tax-paying entities. Private companies who will no longer be in business due to shifting the industry to the public sector will also no longer be there to pay taxes.

At the end of the day, we may decide that is a better alternative, but we can't ignore the disappearance of taxable income.

In addition, it's important to note that government doesn't always have the same accountability as the private sector.  The evil profit motive is also the impetus for watching things such as efficiency and cost overruns that the government lacks.

There is no better example than the military, which presents a boondoggle that both Democrats and Republicans have ignored for years, resulting in over $8.5 trillion in funds unaccounted for and to this date, a bipartisan effort to audit the Pentagon is still waiting in the wings.

James Kwak, co-author of White House Burning: The Federal Debt and What it Means to You, responded to the WSJ article in part with a reminder:

"Now the big issue, I admit, is whether the government can provide equivalent service at lower prices. For the vast majority of consumer goods and services, it can’t. That’s why we buy our phones and computers from private companies like Apple, not from government agencies. The usual argument against a federal health insurance program is a blind assertion that the government can never provide services that rival the private sector. That’s what you learn in Economics 101, therefore it must be true. But real economists have known for more than half a century that health care doesn’t behave like ordinary consumer goods."

These are the kinds of distinctions we'll need to make in looking at each of the proposals in the Sanders campaign.

Photo Credit: Juli Hansen /

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