There was a revealing (and for Democrats, deeply foreboding) moment in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate, quite apart from the shockingly bad, woefully unprepared, nearly moribund debut of Michael Bloomberg. It came when moderator Chuck Todd raised a question about a past Bernie Sanders statement from the fall, when he introduced a tax plan that his own economists said would reduce the fortunes of most billionaires by some two-thirds.
As reported in the New York Times, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos’s fortune would shrink from $160 billion to $43 billion under Sanders’s plan. (Elizabeth Warren’s plan would allow Bezos to retain about double that: $87 billion.)
Asked at the time whether he thought billionaires should exist in the United States, Sanders said, “I hope the day comes when they don’t.”
Todd followed up on that Wednesday night in this exchange in which Sanders gave way to all the deepest suspicions regarding his seething anti-capitalism and more pointedly, his oft-pronounced disdain for great wealth.
TODD: Senator Klobuchar, I actually want to get you to say something about—Senator Sanders tweeted last year, “Billionaires should not exist.”
TODD: What say you?
KLOBUCHAR: I believe in capitalism, but I think our—the goal of someone in government and a president of the United States should be a check on that. I’m not going to limit what people make, but I think right now our tax code is so tilted against regular people and that is what’s wrong.
I was thinking of your question about small businesses. The small businesses I talked to, they have trouble getting employees because their employees don’t have childcare. We should have universal childcare.
And we have not been talking enough about Donald Trump and—let’s just talk about Donald Trump, because he signed that tax bill that helped the wealthy, and he went down to Mar-a-Lago and he said to all his friends, “You just got a lot richer.” That is Exhibit A.
And I can tell you, the hard-working people in Nevada were not in that room. So the key to me is to not limit what people can make, but make sure that we have a government that is fair for everyone.
TODD: So, Senator Sanders, what did you mean that you don’t think they should exist?
SANDERS: I’ll tell you what I mean.
TODD: What did that mean?
SANDERS: We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral. That should not be the case when we got a half a million people sleeping out on the street, where we have kids who cannot afford to go to college, when we have 45 million people dealing with student debt.
We have enormous problems facing this country, and we cannot continue seeing a situation where, in the last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth—congratulations, Mr. Bloomberg—but the average American last year saw less than a 1 percent increase in his or her income. That’s wrong.
TODD: Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?
BLOOMBERG: I can’t speak for all billionaires. All I know is I’ve been very lucky, made a lot of money, and I’m giving it all away to make this country better. And a good chunk of it goes to the Democratic Party, as well.
TODD: Is it too much? Have you earned too much—has it been an obscene amount of—should you have earned that much money?
BLOOMBERG: Yes. I worked very hard for it. And I’m giving it away.
So much packed into that exchange!
Now: I am not here to sing “Poor Jeff!” for Mr. Bezos and the paltry remnant of wealth at $43 billion that Sanders would permit him to retain. (That’s assuming Bezos wouldn’t deputize his accountants to figure out the quickest tax-avoidance schemes money and wiliness could buy.)
Nor to defend Bloomberg’s dubious assertion that “I earned it.” (Though in his defense, he preceded that statement with, “I’ve been very lucky.” But as Sanders reminded him in a followup: “Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some role in that, as well.”)
In the context of a bare-knuckle political campaign, the notion of taking measures to tax billionaires out of existence via Sanders’s ‘democratic socialism’ will come to have echos of Soviet communism rather than Denmarkism. Trump’s campaign will ferociously demagogue and exploit that point to a low information public.
And I understand and share Sanders’s revulsion to the cold current reality that sees hundreds of thousands of Americans sleeping on the streets and millions more barely hanging onto shelter, living in marginal circumstances a paycheck or two away from catastrophe. This while a leisure class of billionaires and multi-millionaires can’t even count the money they have and are awarded more of it all the time by capital gains taxes that are lower than working people pay on their actual labor, and by huge tax cuts for them and corporations as we saw in 2017 under Trump and the Republican Congress.
Those grim realities face us all. This is a question not strictly for the USA, either, even given the more radical disparities in wealth we see here compared to most other capitalist countries.
It is in a larger sense a question for all human beings: How do we countenance some of us living in (varying degrees of) luxury while millions of others around the globe starve? Are we not, to some greater degree than is currently manifest, our brother’s and our sister’s keeper?
This is a moral question first and foremost, and a political question only secondarily. Which is to say: politics has a role in the solution, but morality and its associated human traits of compassion, empathy and equity are what pose the question.
And while one would certainly hope that politics is never altogether separate from morality but is instead grounded in it, it is also true that moral considerations can be tangled and complex, needs and desires of different people vary, self-interest always intrudes to one degree or other on pure altruism, and politics, being an art practiced and jostled over by imperfect people, is an inherently imperfect vehicle at best to achieve moral ends.
Which means this with respect to Sanders’s claims on morality as a proud socialist: He should be applying to Yale Divinity School, where he can get to the serious, much needed work of tending to souls rather than elections and legislatures, because politically, his economic, taxation, and health care plans stand zero chance of ever seeing the light of day.
Furthermore, those plans, very much including the “billionaires shouldn’t exist” idea, will have these far-reaching impacts if he were to become the Democratic nominee: He would lose, and the country and larger world would then be subjected to the seemingly unendurable specter of another four years of the worst human being to inhabit the White House in American history.
Here’s the problem: Sanders’s heavily redistributionist tax policy and his pronounced aversion to great wealth goes against the foundational American myth of limitless horizons, unbridled freedom, and the self-made person who dreams big, overcomes obstacles and naysayers, and makes his or her fortune.
And by “myth,” I do not mean something false or of dubious importance, but instead a core idea and value that carries great weight in a person’s or nation’s self-identity.
The reality is that aside from a few monks and nuns pledged to poverty, everyone would like more money than they have, if only to have greater freedom to give vast swaths of it away, ala Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and their friends.
Accumulating and then giving is fun! (When one has an excess…)
Money built America and everything else in the world, after all, and Americans for the most part do not begrudge the wealthy their huge piles of it—both because they fancy the chance to make a lot more of it themselves, and the idea of “No Limits” and free-range entrepreneurialism is engraved so deeply in the American psyche.
We are, after all, the Land of Opportunity and Supersizing.
Now: Sanders is right about many things, and no one can deny his passion and energy for righting the many wrongs of income distribution in this country. Of course taxes should be higher on the wealthy, the working class should make a good rather than scraping-by wage, everyone should have health coverage, and money should be poured into childcare, education, infrastructure and all the rest, rather than keeping taxes low for corporations and billionaires.
Scores of wealthy people agree, including Bloomberg, Gates, and Warren Buffett. That much is indisputable.
In the context of a bare-knuckle political campaign, though, the notion of taking measures to tax billionaires out of existence via Sanders’s “democratic socialism” will come to have echos of Soviet communism rather than Denmarkism. Trump’s campaign will ferociously demagogue and exploit that point to a low information public, and the Sanders campaign’s curious, years-long ineptness to clearly and emphatically distinguish between his brand of Scandinavian socialism and the gulags of Russia will be the death knell for Democrats.
It will be as if Sanders has a permanent sandwich board hung tightly on wire around his neck:
I hate capitalism.
Which, unfortunately, he gives most every indication he does. That may be belied, however, by the fact that he and his wife have enjoyed more than a touch of capitalism’s rewards, something Bloomberg alluded to in perhaps his one good line the other night: “The best-known socialist in the country is a millionaire who owns three homes.”
For the record, Sanders and his wife have a reported net worth of approximately $2.5 million, not profligate by any means, but still…(Fortunately, none of his competitors, at least to my knowledge, has yet proposed that mere multi-millionaires “should not exist.”)
All of which begets the questions: How much money is too much? Should there be an upper limit, beyond which it should be capped and confiscated as Sanders is suggesting? Who decides?
Every inch of that discussion is a slippery slope, with any absolute caps running counter to American history and psychology from our very first days.
Final point: Has there ever been a more visibly, relentlessly angry politician than Bernie Sanders?
He shouts virtually every sentence from first to last in every debate, most of the time accompanied by hunched shoulders and pointing, gesticulating forefingers, just in case you don’t feel badly enough already about the horrible rich people and businesses he is inveighing against.
I’m of the mind to start hitting the mute button every time his speaking turn comes in future debates, relying on subtitles to grasp the content so I don’t have to listen to his haranguing tone set at only one volume level: “Loud.”
Anger can be a powerful tool in a politician’s arsenal, no doubt. Trump, far more malevolent, mendacious and bitter than Sanders, uses it masterfully to fire up his base, who are, however, having a good time as Trump toys with them and incites their laughter in ridiculing his enemies (which are legion, so his speeches tend to be long).
But no one besides the most ardent Bernistas can be having any fun being shouted at incessantly by an overamped, hoarse old man.
Where is the hope, the inspiration, the stirring rhetoric, the profound vision of a future Eden that is the deep backstory, the implicit foundation, to every political speech worth listening to today and waxing nostalgic about tomorrow?
“Fourscore and seven years ago…”
“The only thing we have to fear…”
“Ask not what your country can do…”
“I have a dream…”
With Sanders, we get over and over: “LAST YEAR THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY MADE $100 BILLION IN PROFITS!!”
Railing, impugning, accusing, upbraiding, condemning: everything but lifting up.
It’s an essentially dark vision of revolution rather than transformation, payback rather than come-along, sticking it to the wealthy rather than ennobling the working class, at a time when the country is already awash, flooded even, in anger and enmity.
Besides which, America had a revolution already, and if Sanders thinks he can incite a second one leading us out of the hell of capitalism to the purity of socialism, he is sadly, tragically mistaken.
Wrong person, wrong idea, wrong tone, wrong time. I will vote for him if it comes to it, of course.
But I am terrified it would once again be in a losing cause.
A lamentation here for the disrupted legacies of JFK,RFK, MLK….
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Sanders photo by Gage Skidmore, Surprise, Arizona https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/
Wall St. bull by Stefano F https://www.flickr.com/photos/stefof/
“No Limits” graphic by Zayde Wolf https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKBstPFnyMY