WASHINGTON – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, is a man from the 1930s.
If you didn’t believe that before, you certainly should now. Sanders last week gave a powerful speech at George Washington University defending his identity as a “democratic socialist” and endorsing Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 promise to create an “economic bill of rights.” Roosevelt died before he could make good on that.
“We must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal,” Sanders said. Meanwhile, he expects “massive attacks” from those who attempt to use the word “socialism as a slur.” Sanders is surely right to object to this: We long ago passed the threshold of having a socialist society that reorders its spending to help those who we think deserve help.
It’s true that Sanders’ socialism doesn’t fit the traditional definition, which is government ownership of the “means of production” and major corporations. But we do already have a vast system of “entitlements” – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and the like – that eventually subsidizes most Americans. At any one moment, roughly half of U.S. households receive benefits, reports Danilo Trisi of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Over time, the proportion rises.
We are all socialists now, as I wrote a few weeks ago. But we deny this obvious reality and stigmatize socialism as an alien phenomenon that is automatically un-American.
In a recent post on his blog, The Conversable Economist, Timothy Taylor made a similar point. “I’ve been coming around to the belief that most modern arguments over ‘socialism’ are a waste of time, because the content of the term has become so nebulous,” he wrote. Many “’socialists’ are really just saying that they would like to have government play a more active role in providing various benefits to workers and the poor, along with additional environmental protection.”
This may explain why support for socialism is surprisingly strong. Gallup periodically asks whether Americans think socialism is a “good” or “bad” thing. Earlier this year, 43% said a good thing, 51% a bad thing, reported Taylor. In 1942, the responses were 25% a good thing and 40% a bad thing (most of the remainder had no opinion).
What should count are actual proposals, not the associated slogans and soundbites. Not unexpectedly, Sanders’ economic vision is sweeping. “We must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights,” he said in his speech. These include, in his words:
The right to quality health careThe right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our societyThe right to a good job that pays a living wageThe right to affordable housingThe right to a secure retirementThe right to a clean environment“We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights,” he added. “That is what I mean by democratic socialism.”
All these are worthy goals – and utopian. Inevitably, they raise practical and philosophical questions.
The practical issues involve costs, which are bound to be large. More spending would add to budgets that, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, are already running annual deficits of $1 trillion, equal to roughly 4% of gross domestic product. Moreover, the CBO projections may be conservative, because they assume slowdowns in discretionary spending that may not occur.
The philosophic questions revolve around “rights,” which is how Sanders frames his proposals. A “right” is open-ended. How much more medical care is needed? How clean does a clean environment have to be? How much education is justified? Because Sanders casts his proposals as “rights,” they may disappoint both supporters and opponents – being too stingy for supporters and too generous for opponents.
Listening to Sanders’ speech, it was almost possible to imagine him during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Because the crisis then was mostly economic, virtually all of Sanders’ major proposals today deal with economics. In his talk, Sanders barely mentioned climate change, foreign policy or defense spending. (His campaign website contains some discussion of these issues.)
This is not the 1930s. For better or for worse, we have moved on. Society is aging with pervasive consequences for most Americans. Economic growth has slowed. The world has become more hostile. We need to engage with these realities. The trouble is that our leaders are ill-prepared to adopt this sort of hyper-honesty. We cannot prepare for the future if we are stuck in the past.
Robert Samuelson is a columnist for The Washington Post.