Bernie Sanders on the Issues: Rounding out the Agenda for America

We’ve covered the first parts of Bernie’s Agenda for America, starting with an overview his plans for infrastructure, climate change, worker co-ops, unions, minimum wage and pay equity for women. We’ll jump right into #7.

Trade Policies that Benefit American Workers

Trade is an exceptionally complicated issue that can be very different for dissimilar products and different countries. Bernie has criticized past policies such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and the PNTR with China as well as the current Trans-Pacific Partnership. He has gone so far as to proclaim, “If corporate America wants us to buy their products they need to manufacture those products in this country, not in China or other low-wage countries.”

(Sanders) is opposed to free trade and instead wants to have fair trade...

It’s hard to know exactly what that means legislatively other than Bernie might make it more difficult for American products made overseas to be sold here. He is opposed to free trade and wants to have, rather, fair trade that would hopefully reverse “the incentive for American companies to shutter U.S. manufacturing facilities and move jobs overseas.” That’s good because chances are vilifying owners or even manufacturers of iPhones and a few other popular products might be counterproductive.

Details are sketchy at this point, but there is little doubt free trade and protectionist policies are both a double-edged sword. It’s difficult to insist on other countries not having barriers to American products while imposing them on theirs. [There is a wealth of literature on the pros and cons of free trade vs. protectionism.]

One real advantage of free trade is the old adage of comparative advantage developed by David Ricardo in the 19th century. Basically, this idea advocates that if one country has a better opportunity to more efficiently produce a specific product than others would, it should allocate resources to doing so and then trade with other countries that have done the same on different products.

Overall, free traders believe that a business should succeed or fail based on its ability to respond to the free and open market while fair trade advocates focus on the wages and working conditions and other areas perceived to create unfair advantages through exploitation. Without knowing more specifics, it’s hard to address what Bernie might do, but as with the issue of unions and illegal immigration, it may be a balancing act.

Making College Affordable for All

“Free” college has been a popular point in the Sanders campaign for both supporters and critics. The former points out that a well-educated population not saddled with student debt is a strength, while the latter questions how this will be paid for. There are other concerns as well, including whether this should be our focus when too many kids are not even graduating high school, graduate without mastering necessary skills, or shouldn’t be in college to begin with.

While affordable college availability is a worthy goal, we need to remember that tuition is only one of many expenses. Are we looking to minimize all of them legislatively? More importantly, low-cost college won’t be of much use if the kids it’s designed to help are ill-prepared and unmotivated.

While affordable college availability is a worthy goal, we need to remember that tuition is only one of many expenses.

I don’t often use anecdotal data but a friend’s daughter who recently started student teaching in a poor district found that 10th grade students couldn’t respond to test questions that required answers in complete sentences. They didn’t care and the teacher didn’t care.

Coincidentally, she was also doing some mission work where a van picked up kids from the same neighborhoods and a lack of parental involvement and drug problems were rampant.

Studies show as many as 40% of students are chronically disengaged from school, up to 25% never graduate high school, and as many as 80% of graduates lack the skills to attend community college. Add in the near-impossibility of firing bad teachers even for much more egregious violations than simply not doing a good job and it’s pretty clear we have a lot more work to do before focusing on college alone.

In addition, it should be a given that college isn’t right for everyone, so we should give equal attention to helping kids learn a trade if they so choose.

There is also the question of cost. The presumptive choice on all Sanders’ proposals not projected to save money is higher taxes, including a .50 per $100 tax on stock trades.

There are possible benefits but also pitfalls to this idea. Regardless, the most important issue is understanding that a child properly nurtured and motivated to succeed is far more likely to achieve success, and that supersedes what any proposed living wage or redistribution can achieve. Let’s not build the house on a rotting foundation.

Taking on Wall Street

Bernie advocates breaking up financial firms because he believes they have too much money and have engaged in illegal activities that destroyed the economy. He has made various proposals that attempt to deal with firms deemed “too big to fail” by breaking them up and/or prohibiting the investment side from speculating with bank deposits.

The influence of the banks and Wall Street, along with the Fed, is clearly disproportionate and lacks transparency.

Sanders has a history of championing greater regulation including Glass-Steagall and sponsored legislation to audit the Federal Reserve, which he says “found that far more had been spent in the Wall Street bailout than previously disclosed, and that considerable funds had been spent to bail out foreign corporations.” He released a statement in 2011 with some specifics about the 265-page GAO report, which contains recommendations, but not mandates, for future Fed policy.

The Fed, Wall Street, and monetary policy are extremely complicated subjects that we can’t adequately cover here, but it’s clear that there is much going on with the Fed that has a significant effect on Americans, yet is poorly covered or understood.

Bernie’s proposals, including limiting the crony capitalistic benefits big banks and their executives have from their relationships with Washington and the Fed, deserve serious consideration and likely don’t go far enough. The recommendations from the previous audit were just that, perhaps part and parcel of why Ron Paul opposed amendments to the original bill, accusing Sanders of selling out.

Paul has championed more aggressive action regarding the Fed, which he regards as corrupt and unconstitutional as he wrote in his book, End the Fed.

Regardless, the influence of the banks and Wall Street, along with the Fed, is clearly disproportionate and lacks transparency. Opening up the system and preventing unhealthy manipulation of the system is something we should all be able to get behind.

Health Care as a Right for All

Bernie’s call for universal health care is also a complicated subject that we can’t fully address in a couple of paragraphs. Most Americans agree that something should be done to ensure affordable alternatives for all Americans, but there is wide disagreement on the method.

The cost of care and drugs in the U.S. is very high and some believe a less regulated free market would help. Others feel that we must model our system after systems in other countries where a different kind of regulation is in place.

Bernie advocates a basic Medicare for all plan. While the U.S. certainly boasts the best medical care in the world, the costs are sometimes prohibitive and while some other universal health care systems are flawed, others deliver better outcomes at a much lower cost, both to patients and government.

Clearly we’re doing something wrong.

universal health care system does not have to be “socialized medicine.” The key factors we need to address are cost, 100% participation, and the right kind of regulation that will benefit, not impede the system.

Protecting the Most Vulnerable Americans

In his agenda, Sanders mentions that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any industrialized country and we must expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and nutrition programs. Even though that claim is not accurate, no one wants to see anyone struggling. How to assist them is a subject of great disagreement.

I’ve discussed Social Security in detail and while we can make it last longer, it’s not the best system in terms of providing a real retirement income for seniors. I’ve also covered ways we can continue social programs while also encouraging people to get back to work.

Despite real concerns about its financial viability, Medicare is something most Americans feel is worth the cost and if extended, must be adequately funded. Of course, the serious reforms to Social Security mentioned above along with what eventually happens with our health care system will also likely impact both Medicare and Medicaid.

Again, these are concerns most Americans share but differ on the solutions. Bernie has not given much detail on methodology other than raising the cap on Social Security contributions and increasing taxes elsewhere. Hopefully there can be a simultaneous conversation about serious reform when looking at additional funding for social programs.

Real Tax Reform

As is common to many of Bernie’s positions, most American understand our tax code is nuts but disagree on the solutions. Bernie supporters tend to prefer a progressive income tax whereas fiscal conservatives tend to look at flatter income or consumption taxes.

Our tax code is egregiously long and complicated and fraught with accommodations for every special interest.

There is no one credible who doesn’t understand that those of greater means should pay more than those with less. Again, the question is how. Bernie hasn’t mentioned a lot of specifics either, but he did tell Bill O’Reilly that “you’re gonna pay more…how much more I can’t tell ya.”

There are those who see taxes as a means to raise necessary revenue and others who also expect it to be used for social engineering. Bernie talks a lot about wealth and income inequality and those not paying their fair share. However, it is a fact that since 1980, the share of the total federal tax burden paid by the very wealthy doubled while that paid by the bottom half of earners fell to about one-third.   That has nothing to do, of course, with how it’s spent.

Our tax code is egregiously long and complicated and fraught with accommodations for every special interest. Our corporate tax rate is among the highest in the industrialized world and yet many call for higher taxes because companies work hard to pay less. This invokes the ire of some who see a big company paying no taxes, yet there is little understanding that business taxes are an expense that is ultimately passed on to the consumer.

The best idea seems to be a broad-based transaction tax that places the burden on spending, investing and usage fees, most importantly because it generates revenue from all the criminals who currently pay nothing. This is a great place to start and then, if a small income or estate tax is imposed on only the uber-wealthy, it makes more sense.

Agree or disagree with the Sanders’ platform, he has bold and specific ideas about most of his concerns and how he intends to address them. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at many of the issues in greater detail.