Economic illiteracy is getting to be a central theme in the early stages of the 2016 presidential race. The two candidates with whom the public and media are most fascinated at the moment are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both are veritable case studies in delusional economic reasoning. I have already devoted two posts to Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination (both posts appear at the link in reverse order). At the time of the second of those posts, I recall hoping desperately that someone or something would rescue my blog from him. I have managed, since then, to resist devoting more attention to his campaign. In this post, I’ll focus on Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, currently the top rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination.
It’s ironic that Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, shares several areas of acute economic illiteracy with Donald Trump. There is a strong similarity between Sanders and Trump on foreign trade (and both candidates are pro-Second Amendment). Like Trump, Sanders demonstrates no understanding of the reasons for trade, as Kevin Williamson notes:
“The incessant reliance on xenophobic (and largely untrue) tropes holding that the current economic woes of the United States are the result of scheming foreigners, especially the wicked Chinese, “stealing our jobs” and victimizing his class allies…. He describes the normalization of trade relations with China as “catastrophic” — Sanders and Jesse Helms both voted against the Clinton-backed China-trade legislation — and heaps scorn on every other trade-liberalization pact. That economic interactions with foreigners are inherently hurtful and exploitative is central to his view of how the world works.“
Sanders lacks an understanding of trade’s real function: allowing consumers and businesses to freely engage in mutually beneficial exchanges with partners abroad, and vice versa. Trade thereby allows our total consumption and standard of living to expand. It is not based on “beating” your partners, as Sanders imagines. It is cooperative behavior.
Opposition to free trade nearly always boils down to one thing: avoiding competition. That goes for businesses seeking to protect or gain some degree of monopoly power and for unions wishing to keep wages, benefits and work rules elevated above levels that can otherwise be justified by productivity. The result is that consumers pay higher prices, have access to fewer goods and less variety, and have a lower standard of living. It is no accident that trade wars deepened the severity of the Great Depression domestically and globally. But Sanders, like Trump, has failed to learn from the historical record.
Another area of Sanders’ deep economic ignorance is his position on wage controls. He advocates a mandatory $15 federal minimum wage with no recognition of the potential damage of such a change. Kevin Williamson has this to say:
“Prices [and wages] in markets are not arbitrary — they are reflections of how real people actually value certain goods and services in the real world. Arbitrarily changing the dollar numbers attached to those preferences does not change the underlying reality any more than trimming Cleveland off a map of the United States actually makes Cleveland disappear.“
The minimum wage was the subject of a recent post on Sacred Cow Chips. A higher minimum is a favorite policy of well-meaning leftists and social justice warriors, but they fail to address the realities that the least-skilled suffer adverse employment effects, that a higher minimum wage hastens the substitution of capital for unskilled labor, and that the policy often benefits non-primary workers from middle and upper-income households. It’s a lousy way to help the impoverished. Moreover, minimum wages were originally conceived as a tool of racial exclusion and in all likelihood still act that way. Most of the research supporting minimum wage increases focuses on short-run effects or on sectors that are less capital-intensive. Findings about long-run effects are much more negative (see here, too). It’s a given that Sanders understands none of this.
Other elements of Sanders’ platform are essentially freebies for all: universal health care (see the first link from this Bing search), free college tuition for all, and expanded social security benefits. And of course there is a promise to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, taking full advantage of the myth that our infrastructure is so decrepit that it must be replaced now. All of these ideas are costly, to say the least, and there is nothing adequate in Sanders’ platform to pay for them. He’ll raise taxes on the 1%, he says. Just watch the capital fly away. Ed Krayewski of Reason discusses Sander’s rich promises and the lack of resources to pay for them in “Bernie Sanders, the 18 Trillion Dollar Man“:
“The Wall Street Journal spoke with an economist at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who acknowledged taxes would have to go up for the middle class too to pay for Sanders programs.“
Middle class tax hikes would undoubtedly be accompanied by a lot more public debt, and ultimately inflation. Freebies for whom? As Krayewski says, Sanders “wants taxpayers to ‘feel the Bern’“.
In fairness, Sanders suggests that some of the needed revenue can be diverted from military spending. Possibly, but the military budget has already been reduced significantly, and it is not clear that much fat remains for Sanders to cut. There will certainly be demands for greater military spending given the significant threats we are likely to face from rogue states.
Sanders’ promise to transform our energy system is another one that will come with high costs. What Sanders imagines is a widespread fallacy that green energy can be produced at little cost. However, we know that renewables carry relatively high distributed costs and their contributions to load are intermittent, requiring base load backup from more traditional sources like fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Like President Obama, Sanders would impose new costs on fossil fuels, but the poor will suffer the most without offsetting assistance. And subsidies are also required to incent greater adoption of expensive alternatives like home solar and electric vehicles. Sanders would authorize this massive diversion of resources for the purpose of mitigating a risk based on carbon-forcing climate models with consistent track records of poor accuracy.
If free speech is your hot button, then Sanders’ promise to “overturn” Citizen’s United won’t make you happy. Why should an association of individuals, like a union or a corporation, be denied the right to use pooled resources for the purpose of expressing views that are important to their mission? Sanders is proposing an outright abridgment of liberty. From the first Kevin Williamson link above:
“… criminalizing things is very much on Bernie’s agenda, beginning with the criminalization of political dissent. At every event he swears to introduce a constitutional amendment reversing Supreme Court decisions that affirmed the free-speech protections of people and organizations filming documentaries, organizing Web campaigns, and airing television commercials in the hopes of influencing elections or public attitudes toward public issues.“
It is hard to take issue with Sanders’ call for an end to police brutality without a clear sense of his attitude toward law enforcement. I believe all fair-minded people wish for zero police brutality, but critics often minimize the difficulty of police work. No doubt there are gray areas in the practice of law enforcement; some police officers take their powers too far, which cannot be condoned. If institutional reforms can help, so much the better. But the police must be given the latitude to do a difficult job without fear of unreasonable legal reprisal.
On a related note, Sanders advocates an end to the war on drugs, a reform that I wholeheartedly support. Go you Bernie!
Finally, here is a more general illustration of Bernie Sanders’ backward views on economics. It is a Sanders quote I repeat from the second Kevin Willamson link above:
“You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on.“
Sanders’ complaint about the plethora of choices in consumer goods fails to recognize that they reflect real differences in consumer preferences, as well as an economy dynamic enough to provide for those preferences. Far from causing hunger and poverty, that dynamism has lifted standards of living over the years across the entire income distribution, even among the lowest income groups, to levels that would astonish our forebears. And it created the wealth that enables our society to make substantial transfers of resources to low income groups. Unfortunately, those very transfer programs are rife with incentives that encourage continued dependency. Other government interventions such as the minimum wage have diminished opportunities for work for individuals with little experience and skills. Meanwhile, regulation and high business and personal taxes undermine the continued growth and dynamism of the economy that could otherwise lift more families out of dependency. Sanders would do better to study the history of socialism in practice, and to look in his own socialist mirror to identify the reasons for persistently high levels of poverty.