SYNDICATED COLUMN: How Bernie Can Pay For His Ambitious Agenda? Slash the Military

Late last year, I interviewed Bernie Sanders while working on my biography “Bernie.” I asked him if he planned to reduce the defense budget if elected president. “We will take a hard look at that,” he told me, agreeing that there’s an awful lot of bloat in America’s military spending that ought to be cut.

Why doesn’t he say that now?

A statement detailing his intent to reduce military spending — not just the on-the-books budget of the Pentagon, but also the “off the books” taxdollars that go to wars like the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the National Security Agency and other parts of the surveillance state that have expanded radically since 9/11 — would help answer one of Sanders’ critics’ most potent criticisms: that he’ll be an irresponsible Santa Gone Wild, giving away free college tuition and Medicare for all without a care in the world for how to pay for it.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign, already reeking of desperation, is turning ugly. Bill Clinton, of all people, accused Bernie of lying, and his supporters of sexism. Clinton surrogate Madeleine Albright called female Sanders supporters traitors to their gender. The once-respected Gloria Steinem called them sluts, implying they were hanging out at Bernie’s big rallies to get laid by hunky Bernie bros.

Pathetic. But Hillary remains a potent force. She’s the mathematical favorite. When she casts herself as the realist (“a progressive who likes to get things done”), her argument that Bernie’s promises are politically unrealistic and fiscally irresponsible carries weight with Democrats who are still on the fence.

If Bernie can answer this two-part question, he wins the nomination: how will he get his far-left programs (by American standards, not those of the rest of the world) through Congress? How will he pay for them?

The first question, I think, isn’t as big a hurdle as the corporate punditry seems to think. Most voters can imagine a sustained progressive movement centered around street activism — Sanders’ “political revolution” — that pressures Congress so that, as Sanders puts it, Mitch O’Connell sees hundreds of thousands of people marching outside his window whenever he plots to thwart the people’s will.

Like Occupy Wall Street, except that the president is encouraging the movement rather than ordering the cops to beat up its members.

Anyway, liberal Democrats are angry. Hillary’s “half a dream” sales pitch isn’t half as enticing to them as Bernie’s ambitious agenda. Come on, Hill: did you take half a bribe from Goldman Sachs? Even if Bernie’s idealism gets dashed on the rocks of Republican intransigence, progressive Dems don’t care; they want to see Bernie try. Democrats haven’t watched a Democratic president push for radical change since LBJ.

The second question of the skeptics is: show me the money! Where is the cash to pay for free public college tuition and a single-payer healthcare system?

Sanders has said he would cover the $75 billion per year cost of his college reform program by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation. He would almost certainly increase taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals as part of moving the tax code back to a more progressive, pre-Reagan structure. Everyone would pay a higher tax rate to cover Berniecare, though working-class people would pay less than they’d save.

At the risk of sounding like a Republican, there’s waste throughout the federal budget. There is, for example, no evidence that the NSA has ever done its job by preventing a single terrorist attack. Meanwhile, as Edward Snowden informed us, they’re spying on all our phone calls and emails. Shut them down; save $10 billion a year or more. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security could be trimmed to a fraction of its current size or eliminated, with its tiny portion of useful activities transferred to other agencies, including law enforcement.

Last year’s defense budget was nearly $600 billion, or 54% of discretionary federal spending. That’s more than the next nine countries combined, including China and Russia. Conservatively, at least half of that is spent on waste and fraud by DOD contractors, so there’s $300 billion right off the bat. I bet we could cut it 90% and still not have to worry about a foreign invasion, something that hasn’t happened since 1812.

These cuts could easily cover the several hundred billion shortfall between Bernie’s tax increase on the rich and the cost of his healthcare plan.

Nothing says fiscal conservatism like pacifism. As of 2015 the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the most expensive in U.S. history, cost more than $1.5 trillion. More than $1 billion a year is still going down those ratholes. Bernie has said ISIS must be “crushed,” but he may want to revisit that. As of November, the anti-ISIS air and jihadi-training campaign had cost $5 billion and counting.

And obviously don’t start any new wars of choice.

Studies have shown that high student loan debt hobbles economic activity, delaying the age at which college graduates can afford to buy their first cars and homes. Freeing college graduates and their parents from exorbitant tuition bills would stimulate the automobile and real estate markets in particular, as well as the overall economy.

The same is true for healthcare costs. Every dollar you don’t spend on health insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays is one you have for something else. That’s a lot of potential stimulus.

I don’t know why the Sanders campaign hasn’t issued a detailed plan explaining how President Sanders would cover the costs of free college tuition and Medicare for All. Maybe they’re worried about getting attacked as weak on national security by the hawkish Secretary Clinton and, in the general election, by the Republican nominee (probably Trump or Cruz).

Though a valid concern, it should take a back seat to plugging the Bernie-is-just-a-dreamer narrative Hillary’s camp is framing him with. He’ll never be able to out-militarist Hillary or the Republicans, who will try to brand him as the second coming of Vladimir Lenin anyway. Why bother to try?

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Bernie” is now on sale online and at all good bookstores.)



  • alex_the_tired
    February 8, 2016 3:55 PM

    The short answer? Same as it was with the e-mail server. Sanders isn’t letting them distract him — or the conversation. The economy is rigged. If he doesn’t keep reminding people of it, they will get distracted by “issues.” And Clinton will lure them away with promises to “eventually” make college “affordable.”

  • > I don’t know why the Sanders campaign hasn’t issued a detailed plan explaining how President Sanders would cover the costs of free college tuition and Medicare for All.

    ‘cuz of all the whining & moaning it would cause. (I’m assuming he *does* have a plan or at least a calculator, but that’s not a sure thing by any means.)

    We could enforce the frikkin’ corporate taxes already on the books; it’s absolutely criminal when corps get an effective zero-percent tax rate on billions in profits. Hell, make it a sales tax – if we track how much money they rake in it doesn’t matter what kind of shell games they play afterwards.

    Get rid of the loopholes that render the estate tax meaningless. Reinstate the 95% tax bracket we had back when the American economy was booming (and all were benefiting therefrom)

    • There it is in black and white, folks. CH believes that it is perfectly moral for the state to confiscate 95% of what someone earns. His version of freedom I suppose.

    • Don’t worry your little head about it, Jack – when you get to high school they’ll explain how tax brackets work.

      • So the problem as you see it is just that that portion of their income is too much and so they only get to keep 5% of that. They must be penalized for earning in excess. After all it isn’t really their money anyway.

        Guess what? That’s still 95% of their income. I didn’t say total income.

      • > 95% of what someone earns.
        > That’s still 95% of their income.
        > I didn’t say total income.

        :: giggle ::

        > They must be penalized

        So … the guy who lives in a mansion is being penalized, while the guy who lives in a cardboard box is being rewarded? If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather be penalized.

        You keep complaining about the system being rigged while simultaneously defending it to the hilt. Don’t you think that’s rather silly?

        I do.

      • I think tax rates should be minimal for everyone. That’s fair, but what would you care about fairness?

  • Bernie is probably keeping the details of his plans somewhat close to the vest because of the very reasons you state. He will be grilled for being a pacifist, commie by the MSM and the right. But it is already happening. He needs to just embrace it.

    The comment by Albright to shame young women though is the one that has really got to me. Madeleine Albright saying that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women is a riot. There is no bigger authority on special places in hell than Albright. This is the woman who said half a million dead Iraqi children due to US sanctions was “worth it”. What a supporter of women! Or are we to believe that by some sheer coincidence that all the dead Iraqi children were boys? Or that the sanctions did not have a crippling effect on Iraqi women and mothers? Hey, special place in hell! Your dungeon master is on the loose again.

    • I was sorry to see Gloria Steinem jump on that bandwagon as well. Usually she’s got her head on straight.

      So now they’re telling us that we should vote on candidates based on their gender rather than their qualifications. I thought they were against such things.

      • I can help, CH. They were always against men. And always believed women deserved anything and everything regardless of qualifications. Hope I cleared that up for ya.

  • 1: You can’t reduce the size of the military until you have real jobs for veterans to go to, not just the police and border patrol. For now it would be better to keep personnel and eliminate vastly overpriced programs that don’t have a lot value….F35, the new Coastal Frigate. Spend more on equipment for the infantry and make sure everything is made in the US or in NATO nations or close allies like Japan, no lo balling to Chinese subcontractors. Once real jobs are ready for veterans then modest personnel cuts are possible make sure highly trained pilots and support personnel are retained. Skills that can be relearned quickly can be filled by more reserve troops and less active duty troops, saving funds and using personnel to strengthening the military and civilian economy. The US Navy has no close rival so that is an area to look at for cuts and mothballing ships.

    2: As I said before no free college, it will turn off older voters that don’t understand you can’t work your way through college anymore. Free college will also angry recent graduates with loans upset they missed out on the deal. A year or two of community service worked into the college schedule for students that want tuition and books covered, students that want out they can pay or take a loan.
    Controlling book cost is another matter.

    3: To gain voters let former students into community service program to get the loans off their backs. Stop loan interest for the rest of the former students, let them pay off the principle.

    • I like point one. The less money spent on unproductive uses, the more available for productive ones. It bears repeating. Not all spending is equal in value.

    • alex_the_tired
      February 17, 2016 1:02 PM

      On point 2. I might be angry that I “missed the boat” on free tuition. But I will be happy enough with “at least no one else has to go through it.”

  • Anyone with any sense would vote for Senator Sanders. But, as Adlai Stevenson said, ‘One needs a majority to win.’

    Just look at the 9/11 hijackers.

    Secretary Clinton strongly supported the war that overthrew the dictator of Iraq, the one who ordered the second largest number of attackers on 9/11/’01, and turned Iraq from a terrorist tyranny into a peaceful, prosperous democracy. She also supported the war that overthrew the dictator of Libya, who also sent some of the attackers of 9/11/’01, and made Libya peaceful and prosperous. And she’ll do the same for Syria, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China, who also sent some of the 9/11 hijackers.

    As I keep saying, just look at where all the 9/11 hijackers came from: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia, and China:

    Secretary Clinton, after she is elected president, will see that those who sent the 9/11 hijackers are all properly punished.

    After which, the world will be very, very peaceful.

    And I’m sure that every cockroach will be very, very grateful that Secretary Clinton will be the next US president.

  • >He’ll never be able to out-militarist Hillary or the Republicans, who will try to brand him as the second coming of Vladimir Lenin anyway. Why bother to try?

    Especially when he can just invoke Eisenhower. This will work for wanting to expand social programs (like Eisenhower wanted to) and to cut subsidies for industry and our military industrial complex.