2016 Analysis Domestic Policy Economics Election Speculation

Jonathan Chait’s Nonsensical “Case” Against Bernie Sanders

Jonathan Chait, a smug, center-left blogger of some note among Democrats and moderates, recently weighed in on the Democratic primary. The article, with the self-congratulatory title “The Case Against Bernie Sanders” is worth exploring in some detail because of its bad logic, exaggerated arguments, and extreme cynicism. Ultimately, no one should be convinced by his “case.”

Casual condescension of Sanders’s approach and platform is nothing new, and Chait begins by mockingly asking if we can support him as the Democratic nominee and not “just in his role as lovable Uncle Bernie, complaining about inequality.” He attempts to answer this question though meandering, disjointed statements of (alleged) fact tightly coupled with sour rhetoric, and even upon cursory inspection it’s clearly wanting.

Attempting to undermine Bernie’s “core argument” of economic imperilment under current policy, Chait claims that

The Dodd-Frank reforms of the financial industry may not have broken up the big banks, but they have, at the very least, deeply reduced systemic risk.

Deeply reduced systemic risk” is a strong claim. How many people who weren’t actually causing the systemic risk leading up to the 2008 crash saw that crash coming? Who then is in a position to declare “Mission Accomplished” on reducing systemic risk, much less deeply? The link apparently justifying the claim points to a long Salon article outlining how a “global banking regulator known as the Financial Stability Board” is doing, you know, whatever it’s doing. Salon sucks and I didn’t read the article; but the point is that an international regulator established by the G7, ratified by the G20, and since 2013 codified as a “not-for-profit association under Swiss law” has basically nothing to do with Dodd-Frank or any other US law. Chait goes on:

The penalties for being too big to fail exceed the benefits, and, as a result, banks are actually breaking themselves up to avoid being large enough to be regulated as systemic risks.

Oh lovely! I know most lefties who might be supporting Sanders love it when the argument is that the bad guys are policing themselves now. And the next step after avoiding “being large enough to be regulated” is to figure out how to take advantage of the new Wild West you create outside that regulation. Are we now reassured that everything’s hunky dory? By the way, that link goes to a Wall Street Journal article — those fair-minded critics of capital industries! — which sits behind a paywall.

Chait continues with some mumbo jumbo about how the Great Recession was bad, that “fiscal policy did too little to alleviate” the fallout, but — hey! — things have “recently” improved. Whether this is “the beginning of a sustained increase, or merely a short-lived blip, remains to be seen.” So what?

At the very least, the conclusion that Obama’s policies have failed to raise living standards for average people is premature. And the progress under Obama refutes Sanders’s corollary point, that meaningful change is impossible without a revolutionary transformation that eliminates corporate power.

How long does Chait expect us to wait before drawing conclusions? How would we detect a causal relationship between “Obama’s policies” — whatever those are — and improvement for “average people” if we saw one? And didn’t he just admit that “progress under Obama” might actually be “a short-lived blip?”

So far, Chait’s been arguing that Bernie’s gloom and doom might not be justified, necessary, or even accurate: “The despairing vision he paints of contemporary America is oversimplified.” Now she shifts gears to attack, vaguely warning us that his proposed remedies should not be “considered self-evidently benign.”

Evidence has shown that, at low levels, raising the minimum wage does little or nothing to kill jobs. At some point, though, the government could set a minimum wage too high for employers to be willing to pay it for certain jobs. Even liberal labor economists like Alan Krueger, who have supported more modest increases, have blanched at Sanders’s proposal for a $15 minimum wage.

To oversimplify just a little: “evidence” shows that not doing much doesn’t hurt a lot. But “at some point,” doing something “could” be bad, and “even liberals” think so. Convincing!

After this, the defeatist arguments come in tight succession. Credit is paid to Sanders’s authenticity and populist appeal, but don’t forget the S-word:

His self-identification as a socialist poses an enormous obstacle, as Americans respond to “socialism” with overwhelming negativity.

This argument from cold war fear mongering is about as tired as it is hyperbolic. Amazingly, that link points to an article titled “One third of millennials view socialism favorably” which also claims that about as many hold the same view of capitalism — a far cry from “overwhelming negativity.” By the age breakdown from the poll the article cites, we’re well into Baby Boomer territory before I’d call the disparity overwhelming, with only 15% favorable to socialism against 59% favorable to capitalism for 65-and-olders.

Perhaps more interesting is that disparity among partisans: nationally, it’s 26 for socialism to 52 for capitalism — clear bias but not overwhelming — but among democrats it’s tied at 43 for both. Republicans hate socialism overwhelmingly — 9 to 79! — but no Democrat, S-word or not, is going to swing many of them. Factoring them out the equation makes things look a lot better than Chait misleads. Self-identified “independents” mirror the national trend at 22 to 52, so they surely pose some risk to Sanders’s electability by arbitrarily recoiling to a word, but none of this justifies the argument that he’s a no-go because “Americans respond to ‘socialism’ with overwhelming negativity.”

Continuing the specious criticism, Chait attacks Sanders’s health care policies as being unrealistic with some similarly charged defeatist rhetoric [emphasis mine]:

Sanders has promised to replace Obamacare with a single-payer plan, without having any remotely plausible prospects for doing so… As Sarah Kliff details, Vermont had to abandon hopes of creating its own single-payer plan. If Vermont, one of the most liberal states in America, can’t summon the political willpower for single-payer, it is impossible to imagine the country as a whole doing it. Not surprisingly, Sanders’s health-care plan uses the kind of magical-realism approach to fiscal policy usually found in Republican budgets, conjuring trillions of dollars in savings without defining their source.

But the Kliff report outlines how the Vermont plan died because the necessary tax hikes — the final analysis called for needing to double state tax revenue — were actually unrealistic in a small state. It’s misleading to declare a lack of political willpower, and that same calculus obviously doesn’t apply to the richest nation in the world basically burning money with a standing military that Vermont doesn’t have to worry about. Now, it does seem that Sanders’s health care plan is currently somewhat ambiguous and might not deliver as specified, but I frankly can’t see how that matters very much. Sanders isn’t running as a policy wonk with a spreadsheet detailing cost allocations; he’s running as an ideologue with some basic policy goals. The details just won’t matter to general election voters unless there’s some smoking-gun deficiency in the goals or approach. Either way, Chait is snarky and dismissive without enough to conclude the plan isn’t “remotely plausible.”

There’s also a fair amount of false equivalence and outright misrepresentation, coupled with a sudden disappearance of substantiating links, in Chait’s defeatism. He questions why Sanders’s grassroots campaign — one he calls “a hoary political fantasy” — can succeed where Obama’s “far larger” mobilization effort failed. But actually Sanders holds the record for individual donations so far into an election cycle. By what measure was Obama’s grassroots campaign “far larger”? Chait calls Sanders’s campaign a “revolution of rising expectations,” which might be fair to say. But he claims that in 2008

the prospect of simply taking back the presidency from Republican control was nearly enough to motivate the party’s vote. The potential to enact dramatic change was merely a bonus.

I don’t think Chait remembers Hope and Change and Yes We Can if he believes that 2008 was explicitly partisan and not about dramatic change except as a mere bonus. And this bizarre disingenuity is a segue into the biggest and final defeatism of the piece. Congressional Republicans, he says (emphasis mine), will render the

prospects of important progressive legislation impossible… what the next president won’t accomplish is to increase taxes, expand social programs, or do anything to reduce inequality… [but instead] will be mostly defensive… what little progress liberals can expect will be concentrated in the non-Sanders realm [read: foreign policy].

So even if you fervently endorse Sanders’s policy vision… he has chosen an unusually poor time to make it the centerpiece of a presidential campaign… it seems bizarre for Democrats to risk losing the presidency by embracing a politically radical doctrine that stands zero chance of enactment even if they win.

Chait’s foundationless, house-of-cards arguments against Sanders’s position ultimately culminate in the depressing argument that Democrats should really just be scared stupid about losing what little they have. They ought instead continue a holding pattern of opposing Republican obstructionism because Sanders has chosen “an unusually poor time” to fight for the marginalized with a bold progressive agenda. But if not now, then when? I suppose Chait would rather Sanders had run in 2000 or 2008? Or should he wait for things to miraculously improve on their own in four or eight more years?

Chait is just another partisan hack selling cynicism and defeat from his comfortable perch as an establishment pundit. No wonder then that he argues against Sanders’ optimistic policy visions, which he admits in conclusion “for the sake of full candor” he does not “fervently endorse.” I’m glad he set the record straight on that! Will cynicism and holding-pattern strategy sway the Democrats and ultimately the general electorate? I think it’s too soon to tell, but that strategy is unlikely to get out the vote so it doesn’t seem very smart to me. Either way, no one who isn’t as poisonously cynical and gratuitously unfocused as Chait, or who remembers the 2008 election, should give his “case” against Sanders much weight.

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