Campaign Spotlight – Bernie Sanders

Campaign Spotlight: Bernie Sanders

This week we are putting the spotlight on Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. As we’ve done with other candidates (like Ben Carson), the following is designed to shine a light on some of his positions and analyze candidates through the lens of how their positions would immediately benefit our community. Are you feelin the Bern?

Bernie Sanders

Political Party: Democrat, although he would identify himself as a “Democratic Socialist” and has campaigned as an Independent.

Who is Bernie Sanders?

About:Real name is Bernard “Bernie” Sanders

Born: Brooklyn, New York

High School: James Madison High School

College: Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago

Life: Dad (Eli) immigrated to the United States from Poland at the age of 17 and worked as a paint salesman. Bernie was an officer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1962, and lead students in a multi-week sit-in to oppose segregation in off-campus housing owned by the University of Chicago.

Achievements

  • In 1981, running as an Independent he was elected Mayor of Burlington, Vermont beating out the six-term incumbent.
  • Served 16 years in the House of Representatives as Vermont’s sole congressman
  • Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
  • Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee
  • Longest serving Independent in the history of US Congress
  • One of the founding members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus

Issues:

Getting Big Money Out of Politics: This sentiment has been a staple of the Sanders campaign and serves as the foundation for many, if not all, of his policy decisions.  Bernie Sanders highlights how oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and wall street bankers have been pouring truck loads of money into our political system for years. To make matters worse in 2010 the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). This opened the door for super PACs to raise and spend an unlimited amount of funds to advocate for or against political candidates – however super pacs cannot contribute or coordinate directly with parties or candidates. To remedy this problem, Bernie Sanders emphasizes three actions: (1) Congress must pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, (2) Pass legislation like the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act) which amends the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) by strengthening disclosure requirements and restricting independent expenditures and payments for electioneering communications by government contractors; (3) Bernie has promised that any Supreme Court nominee, under his administration, will commit to overturning the Citizens United decision.

Question Mark

Getting big money out of politics would be a win not just for our community but also for the integrity of our representative democracy. The cost of campaigning is so high that many people, particularly minorities, feel they could never obtain a house or senate position given the extraordinary cost just to get your name out there and have a fighting chance. The cost to run for president is even higher, and some top fundraisers think it will cost as much as $5 billion for the 2016 presidential race. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United only exacerbated the issue by allowing big business and corporations to dump even more money into campaigning, despite the obscene amount of money candidates were already spending. Meanwhile, multinational corporations have tried to throw their money into the pot even though federal law prohibits foreign influence in U.S. politics (Bluman v. FEC). Although the Supreme Court has made clear they do not want foreign nationals spending in American elections, they have not clarified for election purposes what counts as a foreign corporation. The DISCLOSE Act could have helped resolve this problem by increasing transparency and strengthening disclosure requirements. At first pass, Bernie’s proposal sounds exactly like something we could get on board with, however the proposed vehicle in which he uses to achieve the desired result is much more questionable.

Bernie proposes that Congress must pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. As we discussed in our campaign spotlight of Ben Carson, it is incredibly difficult and highly improbable for the president to get a constitutional amendments passed. Why? Our Constitution was designed in such a way that one person or one group does not have the unilateral authority to pass a constitutional amendment. As we learned during the Obama Administration, a divided congress isn’t exactly willing to pass new laws just because the president said so, irrespective of the hurdles congress would have to overcome to amend the constitution. At best the president can ask congress, based on the support he’s garnered from the American people. The truth is Bernie doesn’t have the overwhelming support of the American people to pass this type of constitutional amendment, and it is unclear whether electing him as president would change that. In fact, Bernie and company tried hard to get the DISCLOSE Act (and variations of it) through congress but were unsuccessful. Will becoming president change Republicans belief that the DISCLOSE Act is bad law? Will electing Bernie president unify Democrats who once opposed the bill to now be on board? Did all those years in congress, rubbing elbows with politicians on both sides, build him up enough good karma to cash in a constitutional amendment if elected president? We wont hold our breath. Bernie also says that any Supreme Court Justice appointed to the bench under his administration would commit to overturning the Citizens United decision. Great, but if the newly elected Justice doesn’t stay true to their word – because all politicians stay true to their word – then Bernie has a serious problem. The first being that Supreme Court Judges are appointed for life, and thus don’t have to worry about making the president happy to keep their seat. In short, Bernie has played the political game in congress for over twenty years and it would be helpful for Bernie to educate us on how his experience will be essential to working with congress to get a constitutional amendment passed.

Gun Control (Second Amendment)

Bernie favors gun control and recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper that, “I’ve been strong on this issue.” Bernie supports instant background checks and voted to end the “gun-show loophole” following the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. In addition Bernie notes that mental health is also an area of concern when talking about the larger gun debate, explaining “So obviously, we need strong sensible gun control, and I will support it. But some people think it’s going to solve all of our problems, and it’s not. You know what, we have a crisis in the capability of addressing mental health illness in this country. When people are hurting and are prepared to do something terrible, we need to do something immediately. We don’t have that and we should have that.” Also Bernie is quick to point out the differences between guns in rural Vermont and those in Chicago, saying, “I think the people of Vermont and I have understood for many years that what guns are about in Vermont are not what guns are about in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, where they’re used not for hunting or target practice but to kill people.” Pushing the issue even further Bernie said on Meet The Press, “Nobody should have a gun who has a criminal background, who’s involved in domestic abuse situations. People should not have guns who are going to hurt other people, who are unstable. And second of all I believe that we need to make sure that certain types of guns used to kill people, exclusively, not for hunting, they should not be sold in the United States of America, and we have a huge loophole now with gun shows that should be eliminated.”

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Bernie’s voting record on gun control has been the cause of much debate. On the one hand Bernie is telling us that he is strong on gun control and believes nobody with a criminal background should be able to obtain a gun. On the other hand Bernie represents Vermont, a state with rather lax gun laws, and he has voted against legislation that required background checks (5 day waiting period) prior to obtaining a firearm. In the same breath, Bernie supported legislation that required instant background checks prior to purchase and he also supported a 72 hr background check amendment. Based on his voting record it sounds like he supports background checks generally, but he would prefer that people do not have to wait to obtain firearms. To make things more confusing, Bernie voted against HR2122, a bill that would have made it mandatory for gun shows to provide background checks (24 hrs) and prevent children under the age of 18 from possessing firearms or ammunition. What’s the deal?

If nothing else, I think it is safe to say, that Bernie’s voting record on gun control isn’t nearly as clear and straight forward as the strong rhetoric we hear from him on the campaign trail. As it pertains to our community, it’s important to note, Bernie voted for HR 424 a bill that sets the minimum sentence for gun crimes (10 years in prison for possession of a firearm while committing a crime, 15 years in prison for brandishing a firearm while committing a crime, and 20 years in prison for discharging a firearm while committing a crime). In short, Bernie’s obligation to the constituents of Vermont, which largely consist of white, rural, pro gun activist, puts him at odds with the the issues facing urban communities. Bernie has asked communities like ours to “understand” that families, particularly in Vermont, enjoy the outdoors and not to condemn that type of lifestyle. To be clear, we do not disapprove or discourage responsible gun ownership, in the context Bernie has described, our issues are well documented in the cemeteries from New Orleans to Detroit and California to Philadelphia. Equally, we ask Bernie, and other pro gun activist, to “understand” our lack of sympathy for those who may have to jump through additional hoops to enjoy their outdoor lifestyle, at the expense of the thousands of lives altered by gun violence. Irrespective of the mountain of data which articulates how the number one cause of death for black men, between the ages of 20 and 24, is gun violence. While the number one cause of death for almost everyone else, within that age range, are car accidents. Studies suggest that, “A young black man is nearly five times more likely to be killed by a gun than a young white man and 13 times more than an Asian American man.” We cannot ignore these facts and we cannot sit idly by waiting for the world to change.

Reducing the Deficit and Creating Jobs

Estate Tax on Billionaires: Consistent with his position on getting big money out of politics, Bernie is adamant that Wall Street and large corporations have acquired too much political power and economic influence. Bernie is not shy about asking the wealthiest people in the country to pay “their fair share of taxes.” Bernie is especially critical of too-big-to-fail financial institutions noting that in 2008, “those institutions received a $700 billion bailout from the US taxpayer, and more than $16 trillion in virtually zero interest loans from the Federal Reserve. Despite that, financial institutions made over $152 billion in profit in 2014 – the most profitable year on record, and three of the four largest financial institutions are 80 percent bigger today than they were before we bailed them out.”  Bernie’s plan to reduce the nation’s debt starts with a progressive estate tax, also known as a billionaire tax. Bernie proposed legislation that would lower the estate tax exemption level from 5.4 million to 3.5 million for individuals and from about 11 million to 7 million for couples. In addition, Bernie would like to create a new billionaire surtax of 10% that he says would impact 530 billionaires who are worth a combined $2.6 trillion, close loopholes used by the wealthy to avoid estate taxes, increase the marginal tax rate to 45% on estates between $4.5 million to $10 million, 50% on estates between $10 million and $50 million, and 55% on estates over $50 million. In simple terms Bernie explains that, “people who inherit multi-million and billion dollar estates must not be allowed to avoid paying their fair share in estate taxes.” Bernie’s proposed legislation (S. 3533) suggests that restoring the estate tax would bring in at least $319 billion over a decade to help reduce the national debt.

Tax Code Loopholes: Bernie would also like to close loopholes in our tax code that he says are so egregious that, “some middle-class Americans are paying higher effective tax rates than huge, profitable corporations and multimillionaire Wall Street Hedge fund managers.”  In fact, in February 2015 Bernie wrote a letter to President Obama which identified six specific tax loopholes that should be closed immediately by executive order. One of the loopholes Bernie identified is the “check-the-box” loophole which allows corporations to designate their foreign subsidiaries as “disregarded entities” which are exempt from taxes. The Center for Effective Government explains that, “By strategically positioning these subsidiaries in low-tax countries and filtering profits through them, multinational corporations can largely avoid their tax-paying responsibilities.” Since Bernie has provided specific examples of the types of loopholes he would like to see closed, let’s take a look at a real world example of what he is talking about. From 2009 to 2012, Apple used the “check-the-box” loophole to shelter $44 billion in offshore income from being taxed. As you can imagine this caught the attention of Congress, who eventually launched an investigation into the company’s structure and practices. The National Journal did a great job explaining how it works:

The IRS tracks the transactions of American companies and their foreign subsidiaries, but it doesn’t keep going down the food chain—in other words, it ignores transactions among the subsidiaries’ subsidiaries. At the same time, under check-the-box rules, the IRS gives corporations some say in how they map out their organizations. As a result, a company can tell the IRS that its foreign subsidiaries are actually all divisions of one foreign umbrella company—all by checking a box on a form. That’s what Apple did. The company simply said that its foreign subsidiaries—Apple Singapore, its European retail stores—were part of its low-tax Irish company. Just like that, transactions among those companies disappeared from the IRS’s gaze.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by Chairman Senator Carl Levin and Ranking Minority Member John McCain, issued a memorandum on Apple’s offshore profit shifting and U.S. tax code:

Apple products sold in Asia were not shipped to Ireland from the third-party manufacturer and then shipped back to Asia for sale. Rather, ASI took title to the manufactured products while they were being shipped to Apple’s Asian distribution centers. When they arrived, ASI sold the products to Apple Singapore at a substantial profit. Apple Singapore then resold the products, in turn, to Apple retail entities or end customers. In other instances, the Apple products were shipped directly from the third-party manufacturer to end customers without any Apple intermediary taking prior physical possession.

Transferring title in this manner allowed Apple to retain most of its profits in Ireland, where it has negotiated a favorable tax rate and maintains entities claiming to have no tax residence in any country, and limit the income it reported in the non-tax haven countries where the company did most of its business. For example, in 2011, Apple reported $34 billion in income before taxes; however, just $150 million of those profits, a fraction of one percent, were recorded for Apple’s Japanese subsidiaries, even though Japan is one of Apple’s strongest foreign markets. ASI, meanwhile, reported $22 billion in 2011 net income. Those figures indicate that Apple’s Japanese profits were being shifted away from the United States to Ireland, where Apple had negotiated a minimal tax rate and maintained two non-tax resident corporations.

 

Minimum Wage: Bernie Sanders is an advocate for increasing the federal minimum wage, and has endorsed raising it as high as $15 dollars an hour. To be fair, Bernie is not calling for the minimum wage to increase to $15 dollars an hour over night. Rather, he envisions, along with support from the Congressional Progressive Caucusprogressively raising the minimum wage over time and reaching $15 an hour by 2020. Bernie has said, “It is a national disgrace that millions of full-time workers are living in poverty and millions more are forced to work two or three jobs just to pay their bills. In the year 2015, a job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it.  The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised to a living wage.” He also noted in a press release that increasing minimum wage would benefit 62 million workers who currently make less than $15 an hour, including over half of the African-American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers. Prior to his speech near the Capital on minimum wage, over 200 economist and labor experts released a letter endorsing Bernie’s progressive minimum wage increase. It’s also worth mentioning that Bernie has challenged President Obama to increase the minimum wage by executive order.

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In the current economic climate raising the federal minimum wage makes a lot of sense. Despite the fear-mongers attempts to reduce investor confidence, reducing the federal minimum wage would not cause people to lose their job. Writing to the president and congress, more than 600 economist, including 7 Nobel Prize winners, explain, “the weight of evidence now showing that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market. Research suggests that a minimum-wage increase could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth, and providing some help on the jobs front.”  In addition, a July 2015 study shows that 3 out of 5 small businesses  support a gradual increase in the federal minimum wage. Largely because small businesses agree that low-wage works will turn around and spend the additional income on things like housing, food and gas, which would boost demand on goods and services. The only reservation we have with Bernie’s plan is his willingness to use an executive order, which we discuss in further detail in the summary below.

Income and Wealth Inequality: 

Once Bernie has taxed wealthy estates, closed tax loopholes and raised minimum wage to $15 an hour, he will have only knocked out three of his thirteen steps to reduce income and wealth inequality. It is clear that Bernie has some big ideas in this department, he would like to: invest $1 trillion dollars over five years rebuilding infrastructure, 5.5 billion in a young jobs program, free tuition at public colleges and universities, expanding social security by lifting the cap on taxable income over $250,000 and that’s just a few. We understand why Bernie was asking for more nationally televised debates so there can be, “serious discussion about the very serious issues facing our country today.” While researching Bernie’s positions for this post it became clear that the sum of Bernie’s solutions for income and wealth inequality, are an improvement for our community, however they require additional conversation and clarification. Which could be why, at the grassroots level, there is a lot of discussion about Bernie and his bold ideas. Which leads us perfectly into our last issue…

A Political Revolution

If you go to the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign website and click on ‘contribute’ you’ll notice, in the middle of the page a big bold lettered question. Ready to Start a Political Revolution? It’s no secret that the Sanders campaign relies heavily on mobilizing a countrywide grassroots movement. He lacks the Chipotle eating campaign machine Hilary enjoys, so he’s banking on individuals feeling inspired enough to organize local and online events to get the word out. According to the Campaign Finance Institute Bernie received 77% of his money from donors who gave $200 or less.

Bernie also talks about increasing political consciousness and using the political system as a vehicle to remedy the dissatisfaction middle and lower class Americans feel about government. Bernie would argue that the government is being used as a tool, a weapon, to safeguard and perpetuate the wealth of the rich. A Bernie victory in the primary is predicated on educating and organizing the aforementioned demographic.

Explaining to the Los Angeles Times how he measures success Bernie said:

The truth is that political consciousness in this country is pretty low…. To the degree that we can help educate and organize people around the most important issues facing their lives and show that there is support for fundamental changes in the way we do business in the United States of America in terms of income inequality, in terms of low wages, in terms of disastrous trade policies, in terms of being the only major country not to have a national healthcare program — that’s success.

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When people hear Bernie talk about being a “democratic socialist” and starting a political revolution they get nervous and think, that a Sanders presidency, will mean government will take all of their land away. They’ll note that socialism is one step away from communism and neither approach has been historically successful. Objectively, if we wish to accurately characterize Bernie’s position, we must note, that Bernie is not asking for all economic and social activity to be controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party. Far from it. Like many other political terms (e.g. democrat and republican) the meaning of these terms can evolve over time. Bernie’s unapologetic use of these terms appears to be a ploy to desensitize the stigma Americans have towards them. Think more along the lines of Ronald Reagan with respect to investing in social services programs and tax relief. Social security and medicare are technically “socialist” programs, in that they take money from everyone (taxes) and the funds are use collectively to benefit society. Regardless of race, gender or religious beliefs, we all can appreciate the need for maintaining a fundamental standard of living. To that end, the minimum standard of living today is undoubtedly different then when FDR signed the Social Security Act in 1935 and taxes were collected in January 1937. Does that mean each and every American is entitled to a free house, free college tuition, $15 an hour pay and a free cell phone, as the most basic and fundamental standard of living? We believe that the way government is using our collective resources to mitigate unemployment, provide for our veterans, maintain equal access to education, discourage discriminatory lending and housing practices, and promote community policing, in many cases are not achieving adequate results. Or in some instances, such as income inequality, policing and sentencing, the system merely maintains a very poor level of life and constrains advancement for certain groups. We agree with Bernie that the government is merely a resource, a tool, a vehicle that can be used by the American people to address the most pressing issues of our time. More recently, we have seen this tool be used to bailout banking institutions, cultivate and maintain wealthy estates, provide support for foreign nations, secure equality for same-sex marriage couples, and militarize our local police forces. A broad range of issues benefiting a broad range of characters. Our community would benefit greatly by working together in this fashion, identifying and committing to priorities, and utilizing government as a catalyst to effectuate change. 

Campaign Urban Candidate Score: 3/5

Summary: First, we must give Bernie Sanders credit for having a rather robust library of material for us to digest. Many politicians and candidates like to use colorful rhetoric to paint an imaginary picture of the way life should be, however they lack the substantive details on how we go about reaching that destination. From his campaign website to his sub-reddit page, all of them are loaded with his position and solution to issue after issue. His campaign has even shown the flexibility to adjust things and add details on the fly, which is highlighted by the fact #blacklivesmatter challenged him to start discussing issues of race, income inequality and police militarization. His response? He hires Symone Sanders (no relation), a black criminal justice advocate, to work as his press secretary and then drops a lengthy piece outlining his positions and solutions to racial justice. Okay Bernie you got our attention.

Bernie Sanders is an energetic and passionate political figure, who has spent a large portion of his life playing the political game. The number one question most people have with the Bernie campaign is whether he has a legitimate shot at securing the democratic nomination and defeating Hilary Clinton. I think even Bernie would admit that his campaign, to date, has exceeded his own expectations. With little support from big donors, little to no support from big name democrats, and down double digit poll numbers nationally, Bernie has his work cut out for him. But there is no doubt that if Bernie were elected president, and if, given a mandate from the American people to make wholesale changes to education, banking, taxes, healthcare, defense and infrastructure, that a Sanders presidency could be fruitful for our community. Realistically, it would take a special set of circumstances for all of those “if’s” to come true.

Cause for pause? One area that has us pumping the breaks is his general willingness to make law via executive order.  On a number of occasions, as outlined above, Bernie has suggested making law by executive order when Congress wont take up the issue. Executive orders were designed to be used when there was an emergency, then the president has the power to override congress and issue direction. Abraham Lincoln used an executive order in order to fight the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson issued one in order to arm the United States just before it entered World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt approved Japanese internment camps during World War II with an executive order. Although over the years we have seen the scope of this power expand, it definitely makes us question the long term stability of these laws. What happens when a president, with different ideas then the last, gets into office and lacks congressional support? Are they going to pass new executive orders rewriting or undoing the laws of the previous administration? If we use executive orders as a means to raise minimum wage, close tax loopholes and mitigate police violence against black and brown people, is it possible things could change every 4 or 8 years? The reason we don’t see this kind of thing happen in Congress is that the logistical steps of getting both houses to vote and approve legislation is complicated, long and difficult. Unlike executive orders where only one person, the president, gets to unilaterally review, approve and ink law into existences. When it comes to resolving issues that require implementing a multi-year plan, we should be skeptical of candidates who are overly willingly to push the executive order button. Executive orders are often criticized by both parties and can be seen as a short term solution to a long term problem.

Mo money, mo problems: Bernie believes that many social issue can be resolved by fixing income inequality and economic violence. Bernie’s appeal to blacks and Hispanics is largely built on the economic appeal of lower taxes and higher wages. More money, meaning a higher quality of life and happiness by increasing their financial capacity, allowing them to be more judicious with how their money is spent. In simple terms, if blacks can get access to more money and have greater flexibility with how that money is spent, businesses will have to make more of an effort to provide services that meet the standards of the black consumer. However, as #blacklivesmatter activists have pointed out, the movement is not about obtaining a higher minimum wage or expanding social safety net programs. Rather it’s about having a serious discussion about institutional racism and taking the appropriate steps to remedy these issues, within the framework of the constitution and without completely discouraging free enterprise. Recent history has shown us that institutional racism does not discriminate based on credit score or how much you make per hour. Take James Blake for example, a black high-profile retired tennis player, who was not having financial difficulty when an undercover NYPD officer mistakenly took him for a suspect involved in a theft, and proceeded to slam him on the concrete, arrested him, then paraded him through the streets. Having money, professional success and wearing socially acceptable clothing does little to mitigate the feelings of unequal treatment. Irrespective of the challenges our community faces, in terms of, financial planning and wealth management. According to Sports Illustrated, 78% of all NFL (National Football League) players face bankruptcy or serious financial stress within two years of leaving the game. A league where nearly 70% of all players are black. The numbers don’t get better as you zoom in on the demographics. Resolving the disparities minorities feel with respect to income and wealth inequality will not be sufficient to resolve the unequal treatment they feel socially.

Conspiracy or strategy? 

Often discussed as a long shot candidate, some have made the argument that the Sanders campaign is about capitalizing on the current political climate by using the presidential stage as a platform to lobby for ultra populist progressive ideas. Therefore even a competitive showing in the primary helps influence the narrative going into the general election. The democratic establishment wins by setting the agenda for their party approved front-runner and Bernie wins by putting a (D) next to his name and not having to compromise his political values on the campaign trail.

Do you agree with Campaign Urban’s Candidate Score? Tell us what you think!

 

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