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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why Bernie Sanders is a Bad Idea

"There is both an empirical and a logical problem with the notion that Sanders could even win a general election. The empirical problem is that for Sanders to win it would need a huge number of people to vote their economic interest. As a Marxist, I can tell you that it has been the bane of my people's existence from the man himself to today that people simply do not vote their economic interests. Period. For Sanders to win hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people to disregard their non-economic preferences, that is, their stance on issues like abortion rights, gay marriage, states' rights, gun control, and foreign policy and their own previous patterns of voting. That simply does not happen. Though US politics is more polarized than it has been for a generation, elections are still won and lost in the political center and margins of victory or defeat are in the single digits. A Sanders candidacy would put a left-wing economic isolationist populist political platform to a nation-wide referendum in a country where the voting preferences of the population are a considerable distance from Sander's expressed political positions. That is not a recipe for electoral success in a local race, to say nothing of a presidential election.

The logical problem with a Sanders presidency is related to the empirical problem. Great Britain's Labour Party recently elected a left-wing economic isolationist populist as its leader. I don't think anyone would argue that the United Kingdom is as conservative as (and definitely not more conservative than) the United States. The Labour Party was running in opposition to a Conservative/Liberal Democrat government that had been in office for years. Jeremy Corbin's platform was an electoral catastrophe for the Labour Party and delivered the Conservatives their first Parliamentary majority in decades. If a Sanders platform can't work in Great Britain there's no way it's going to work here.

And neither the empirical nor logical problems with a populist candidate winning the election come close to the problems of attempting to implement a populist platform in a political system characterized by strong institutions.

People in the United States are desperate for a new kind of politician. That is why they support anti-system populists like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both men characterize the world's problems and the solutions to those problems as inherently simple. For Trump, it's all about leadership and tough negotiating, for Sanders it's all about regulation and redistribution. The police platforms of both men lead to me to believe that neither actually understands anything about economics or geopolitics. But the beauty of that fact (from their perspective) is neither do most voters, so their understanding of these issues is immaterial.

The fact of the matter is that the United States, and the entire world, for that matter, is/are going through a period of profound social, economic, and political change that poses fundamental issues to the comfortable (and familiar) post-World War II status quo. For both Trump and Sanders, the solution to these problems is not coming to grips with a post-industrial society and a multi-polar world, but making promises to people who just want things to get better and/or go back to the way they used to be.

With regards to their proposed solutions, I think both men are sincere in their desire to implement policies that would benefit the middle class (I'd rather think of them as misguided than just cynical). But the problem is that both men fundamentally misunderstand the structure of the American political system, the structure of the economy, and the international system.

Bernie Sanders has a long list of things he'd love to do to solve some pressing issues like wealth and income inequality (source: The fact of the matter is that the executive branch *cannot* do any of these things by itself. Bernie Sanders will not get support from Congress to do any of this. We can and should blame Congressional Republicans for being batshit crazy, but the President of the United States cannot just sit around bitching and moaning about Congress. Whatever legislative program he proposes *must* be subject to compromise and his entire policy platform is so far to the left that it will not receive support from even the most liberal Republicans (to say nothing of the most conservative Democrats). Think about what happened when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Everyone was thrilled. There was going to be "hope" and "change" and while Obama did manage to get the Affordable Healthcare Act passed, the Democrats had to railroad that thing through Congress using lots of opaque parliamentary procedures. It is, of course, great that they did, but it goes to show you that even a seemingly-popular President working with a somewhat-friendly Congress still needs to be able to maneuver very careful and very adroitly to get anything accomplished. And let's get real: if Obama could barely get a law through Congress that basically just fixes the market failures that characterize a capitalist system of healthcare provision, what chance does a President Sanders stand getting a single-payer system through?

A reliance on executive power also characterizes Donald Trump's political platform. He does not care to elucidate a detailed policy platform, but he doesn't need to because for him it's all about going in, kicking ass, and taking names. But if you look at what Trump wants to do on trade policy it's actually not that different from what Bernie Sanders wants. To quote the latter's website: "[A President Sanders would] [reverse] trade policies like NAFTA, CAFTA, and PNTR with China that have driven down wages and caused the loss of millions of jobs. 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."

Sounds great, but in practice this would be almost impossible to implement. Let's imagine that either of them found a way to abrogate one or all of these treaties, impose huge tariffs on imports, and force companies to start producing everything from underwear to televisions in the United States. What happens? The prices on everything go up which is basically just a giant regressive tax on the poor and middle class. You can't pay someone $15 dollars an hour to produce a pack of 20 socks sold at Wal-Mart for $12 dollars. That's not advanced economics, it's simple math.

Furthermore, even if the US tightens up import and export policies it won't matter because we live in a world where capital is hyper-mobile. Sanders wants to make the United States an outpost of socialism and Trump wants to "make America great again," but in a world where there are lots of other large (and growing) countries with open markets the net effect of these policies would be higher prices, lower economic growth, and an even more stark polarization of the rich and poor. That Donald Trump does not realize this (or does not care) speaks volumes to his business acumen."
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