SYNDICATED COLUMN: For Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Politics is Personal

Could the clash between Clintonian “realism” and Sandersian “idealism” come down to personal history?

Hillary Clinton’s sales pitch to Democrats is simple:

Get real! The Republicans controlling Congress (and who’ll likely still be in charge in 2017) won’t even allow President Obama to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court. There is no way in hell, she says, that these intransigent SOBs will pass pie-in-the-sky bills like Bernie Sanders’ proposal to replace Obamacare — an insurance company-friendly scheme originally conceived by a right-wing think tank, which Republicans now call socialistic — with Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All,” which would eliminate insurers in an actually socialistic way.

Hillary says she won’t make promises she can’t keep. Maybe that, as opposed to the mountains of cash she collects from Big Pharma and the piles of dough she rakes in from health insurance giants, is why she thinks the United States can’t join the rest of the First World by creating a universal coverage healthcare system.

Or maybe it’s personal. Hillary can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. Should she or Bill ever contract some nasty disease, the Clintons’ $110 million nest egg can easily cover the cost of the fanciest doctors.

She’s always been personally comfortable. Hillary grew up solidly middle class, never worrying where her next meal was coming from. Her family were right-wing conservatives, and so was she: in 1964, she was a fervently anti-communist “Goldwater girl.” She was named a partner of a law firm at age 32. You know the rest of the story.

Smooth sailing, financially if not necessarily romantically.

It wasn’t like that for Bernie Sanders (current net worth $700,000) while he was growing up.

Sanders is a product of America’s huge, rarely discussed, working class — people one paycheck away from eviction and homelessness. Bernie’s father, a salesman who came here from Poland alone (his entire family was later wiped out by the Nazis in the Holocaust), struggled to make a living throughout his life. He and his wife, Bernie’s mom, constantly fought over (lack of) money. “There were tensions about money, which I think is important,” Sanders told me when I interviewed him for my biography, “Bernie.”

“There was no sense of long-term security,” Sanders recalled. “A salesman, things can go up and things can do down.”

Ultimately, marital tensions fueled by money problems drove young Bernie to move out of the family home, an overcrowded apartment in the hardscrabble Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

Bernie doesn’t like to talk about his past. Partly, he views personal biography as a distraction from what he cares about: issues, policies. I suspect there’s another reason. Much of Bernie’s early life was painful.

“My father came to this country with nothing. Economically, what motivated him was security, that is, not losing what he had.” Bernie’s mother Dorothy was American, from The Bronx. “My mother wanted more money and wanted him to get a different job or expand what he was doing. He was very frugal. But if he tried to do that, he would have lost everything.” His parents couldn’t reconcile their worldviews. If they’d been earning a proper living, of course, they wouldn’t have had to.

In poor families — poor families that read and follow the news — left-wing activism is baked in from the start. While Hillary was campaigning for the most right-wing presidential nominee in history, Bernie was marching, and getting arrested, for civil rights. Stretched though he and his family were, he worried about those worse off than himself.

Dorothy Sanders suffered from a weak heart — a health condition aggravated by stress, something the Sanderses had in abundance. Shortly after Bernie graduated from high school, Dorothy died.

Bernie went on to college in Chicago, following the hippie trail to Vermont. But he never forgot where he came from. Poverty, Bernie understands, is a blight. And in a country as spectacularly wealthy as the United States, it’s one that’s completely optional, unnecessary and destructive.

Hillary’s incrementalist “we can do real healthcare later” argument reminds me of people who shoot me a quizzical expression when I explain that, after I broke my knee and my skull in a car wreck in 1985, it took me a year to find out because that’s how long it took me to land a job with health insurance. They’re not evil. They just don’t get it.

Clinton and Sanders represent two worldviews: one for whom wealth and privilege have long been assumed as her due, the other whose sympathies lie with those who suffer and die simply because they had the bad luck to be born into the vast majority of Americans, who are broke.

(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.)


  • “She thinks the United States can’t join the rest of the First World by creating a universal coverage healthcare system.”

    Not to worry–the Neo-Keynesian central planners are ensuring that sooner or later, the whole First World will be together in nonexistence!

    • Right, so the universal health care systems in e.g. the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sweden, which despite their many differences all have impressive track records for providing robust health care to their people as well as stable environments in which small, medium, and large capitalist firms have blossomed are all going to implode, taking the rest of the economy with them.

      Any day now.

      Still here?

      What’s taking them so long? After all, the Soviet Union imploded after a mere 69 years

      Thus we know that central planning cannot ever work for anything. Evidently. QED.

      And clearly the confusing variety of universal health care models obviously are all Neo-Keynesian in their essence. And obviously Neo-Keynesians are really Central Planning Commies by another name.

      This is indeed so obvious that it must be true in spite of such inconsequential details as some of these systems preceding Keynesianism, let alone Neo-Keynesianism, having been first implemented under Bismarck, that dirty old Commie).

      Conviction is key for what is a man if he can’t trust his instincts about what’s right and what’s left. Duh.

      This is what you sound like to us when you attempt to hijack a thread like that. I have no idea what you were really trying to say.

      • > I have no idea what you were really trying to say.

        Neither does Jack. 😀

      • If you didn’t understand (and it was obvious without you saying so), you could have just asked.

        Do you know what Neo-Keynesianism is?

        Do you know what central planning is?

        Do you know what debt correction is?

        There have always been central planners. Long before Communism or Keynes. I shouldn’t really have to say that. Neo-Keynesians are just the kind of central planner in power now. They believe the answer always is more spending, borrowing, and printing of money, and that this can be done perpetually and indefinitely. But they are not avoiding market corrections, they are only postponing them. And corrections cannot be postponed forever.

        Centralized health care is just one thing central planners borrow and inflate money for. Ours in the US are doing just fine destroying us without it. That was the point of the comment. Health care or no, the current fiscal and monetary policies of, so far as I know, *all* First World nations are unsustainable and self-defeating, but it’s worse than that. For Japan, for example, it is mathematically impossible for them ever to get out of debt. There will be a massive debt contraction, no matter how desperate the desires and actions of the bankers and gov’t. It almost happened in 2008, and by forestalling it, they’ve only made the impending one worse.

        I know full well who created the first welfare state, but do you really understand how they work? It could be said that the politicians bribe us with our own money, but that’s only part of the picture. Why do you think it took so long to create the first welfare state? It wouldn’t be much of a deal if we only got back what we paid in–especially since there’s all the bureaucratic, administrative costs from collection alone–so they promise us wealth paid for by future growth, by our children. “Don’t worry–we’ll borrow and spend today and pay it back with the wealth of tomorrow.” This only became possible with the rapid growth industrialization brought, but growth rates level off. This has always happened once new technologies and energy sources become fully utilized.

        When Social Security began, there were 42 workers for every retiree. Now there’s less than 3. Can you see, perchance, how the planners may have overpromised?

        So, you are saying only once the entire Soviet Union completely collapsed was it a failure. Funny, I’d call it a failure at least by the time millions were starving to death. Same goes for the People’s Republic of China. But it still exists, and it’s still dangerous. Does that mean it was successful?

        Corporate America limps along. Are we successful? I mean, we haven’t collapsed yet.

        The Nazi planners eliminated unemployment by the end of the thirties. Was that a central planning success despite the massive food shortages even before WWII?

        I don’t know of anyone who argues that central planning immediately “fails.” What we argue is that it is destined to fail. The best I can say for it is that planners are very skilled at hobbling along and living in denial of the reckoning that must come.

        I’m rather disappointed, andreas.

      • Just to add fuel to the fire – under the most basic definition, the US was founded as a welfare state. i.e. one in which the welfare of the citizens is a primary responsibility.

        Contrast to most of the rest of the world at the time, where the state existed to serve the needs of the nobility, with the needs of subjects being a secondary concern. (Although it isn’t much fun being king if you don’t have a multitude of peasants to do the heavy lifting.)

        O van B is usually credited with creating the first modern welfare state. An updated version of the type of state created by the US Constitution.

      • Your definition and your link’s definition don’t match.

      • Before the Revolution, i.e. before taxation with representation, the average tax rate was about 3%. Today, government spends about a third of national income.

      • > Your definition and your link’s definition don’t match.

        “a social system based on the assumption by a political state of primary responsibility for the individual and social welfare of its citizens

        “one in which the welfare of the citizens is a primary responsibility.


      • The first definition says:

        “government is responsible for [particularly] the economic and social welfare of its citizens”

        The third is:

        “a nation or state characterized by the operation of the welfare state system”

        I am unaware of a “welfare state system” in fledgling America.

        Even when you use the second definition, you are still off. You say “[generic] welfare of the citizens is a primary responsibility.” That is not the same as, “a social system based on the assumption by a political state of primary responsibility for [particularly] the individual and social welfare of its citizens.” More importantly saying that the state has *a* primary responsibility is hugely different that saying that it is primarily responsible for citizens’ social welfare because the first means that citizens may still be primarily responsible for themselves while in the second instance, they are at best secondarily responsible for themselves.

        “Promoting the general welfare” hardly equates to being responsible let alone *primarily* responsible for both particularly economic and social welfare. General welfare can refer to protection from fraud, or bodily or property harm. And even supposing I’m wrong about that, promoting something is hardly the same as taking complete responsibility for it anyway.

        Words mean things, CH.

      • That’s right, Jack – words mean things. In particular the words “promote the general Welfare” mean:


        The constitution defines the state that the founders intended. The first sentence defines the primary responsibilities of that state.

        “I am unaware of a “welfare state system” in fledgling America.”

        No shit?

      • @ Jack

        While I understand that you are disappointed, in my defense it took you about 500 words to spell out your throw-away sentence – while still drawing heavily on a world view that you know that few at Ted’s site subscribe to. I would probably take thousands of words more to further spell out our disagreements.

        Certainly a lot of the concerns that you raise, presumably drawing on Hayek and fellow travelers, are shared by many leftists, especially anti-authoritarians, an-archists, etc. In particular, distrust of bureaucracies tending to uncouple from the concerns of people and expand on their own momentum, etc. Disdain about funny money, pyramid schemes, debt-peonage etc. are also broadly shared by the left.

        Reading your post I am struck by a curious mismatch. Ironically you at times come across as displaying the very certainty about complex historical developments and elaborate insurance systems that we both would count as evidence that central planners purely reason by ideology rather than having an ear to the ground.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all a fan of current politics, economic and otherwise, not that our rulers would particularly care for my support. And I agree I have a hard time seeing how many of those current policies, e.g. Japan’s debt-to-GDP-ratio could be sustainable. Ironically it was Keynes who famously stated that what can’t go on forever won’t go on forever.

        But Keynes also quipped that in the long run we’re all dead – his main point against the neo-classical mathematical models with their “corrections” that would “eventually” set in. I understand lots of people have been going broke betting on Japan defaulting or imploding. Apparently they do have a robust positive trade balance (unlike, say, the U.S.) and stubbornly haven’t defaulted or imploded, as of yet. It seems to me we don’t know whether they are going to “correct” anytime soon, nor do we know about the nature of that “correction” if and when it will occur – will it be a soft or hard landing, negotiated default or renegade action? Perhaps something else is going to occur first that will force this prediction to be “corrected” instead. In other words Japan (and the U.S. and the E.U. …) will quite likely drastically change their policies at some point in the future unless other things change first in which case something else may happen. This seems to me a far cry from “mathematical proof” (sic).

        While I certainly share your concerns about recurring crises, I think we should resist the temptation to feel superior and in-the-know in the face of the apparent insanity of the world. Again don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of vision of how the current systems could be drastically changed. For example, cutting the work week to 10 hours while shrinking the economy by the, say, 70% of unproductive crap from advertising to the military so people have more time to engage in actually productive activities such as playing the guitar sounds like a solid start to me.

        I still have to admit I have very little idea about what the Japanese government should have done differently, nor what exactly would have happened had they been pursuing other policies within the confines of the global and local trends they found themselves in. It seems actually quite plausible to me that things might well be worse off if they had not engaged in anti-cyclical spending.

        More concretely – as I suspect neither of us really know the first thing about Japan – let’s reflect on your point about the 3 workers – down from 42 – having to toil per retiring boomer. While those numbers sound indeed frightening at first sight, people getting older is actually a good thing, is it not? Also why don’t we incorporate children as well as the elderly? My point is, someone managed to wipe the assess of all those boomers when they were little, and likely at an at least equal numerical proportion than our generation faces having to wipe their assess again should it come to that.

        Fundamentally, I think the focus on generational burden – with the subtle implication that our generation may well get ripped off working for our grandparents well-being with no-one to pass the buck to – does not do justice to the insurance system at all. First and foremost, it is the healthy who support the sick and the people who die young who subsidize the elderly. While this sounds like adding insult to injury – your father is gone before his time plus your family hardly saw anything of the premiums he had been paying for all those years – it effectively ensures that getting old will not be a burden on you or your family. Individual saving accounts for old age seem insane to me – how many years should one budget for? So the logic of universal insurance seems to me to be quite valid in principle, and the required book-keeping elegantly simple. Empirically, Western public insurance systems are funded for years to come, decades even given very slight adjustments (Dean Baker has written on this extensively). The major concern I would have is for planners to cultivate a sense of “entitlement” to the dedicated savings of the people and come to use it as a slush fund to finance wars of choice and other subsidies to their corporate friends. But this is just one more reminder why we should assert control over “our” government from the super-rich and connected.

        More importantly, I think there are some things which are more tangible than abstract models, including growing food, delivering babies, concerted public health responses, and carrying bags for the elderly. I would distrust any model that tells me that such activities, however centralized our current models, aren’t sustainable on the communal level. And even if it should turn out that such programs would be “unprofitable”, I would still be fine with investing in those, diverting money from the “real” economy.

        While I am dreaming of – and try to be involved in actual practice – alternative arrangements that engage local groups and individual agency over faceless bureaucracies, my experiences with universal insurance has been unfailingly positive. Even though I’m loathe to admit it, the denial of individual choice is central here: I support people who get hit by lightning so now I don’t have to worry about paying medical bills in case lightning strikes me. No opting out, full stop. I really don’t have anything with a solid track record to offer as an alternative to that system right now, and I still have no clear idea at all about what your alternative proposal would look like.

        My presenting of these issues may well look one-sided if not bizarre to you – again it would probably take years for us to nurture an understanding of the world view of the other. In a nutshell, while I also distrust central planners as they exist right now, I would ironically rejoice if more of them would actually try to look into the future beyond the upcoming quarterly report or election cycle, rather than revel in the futility of predicting or managing the world-system. Then we might at least begin concerted preparations for the ecological crises that are likely going to occur in the not so far future.

      • The original comment was just my thought on the column. I had no intentions to incite anything, nor to explain myself. I gave a long reply to match yours since you and prolecenter are the only two here seemingly capable of a genuine discussion.

        And on the contrary, I do not need thousands more words to understand you. I held your positions most of my life. There is no reconciliation possible because our ethics are entirely at odds.

        We know that central planning is workable on a small scale. Large scale central planners are insulated from budgetary constraints as well as feedback on their policies and the consequences of their failures. It is also impossible for anyone or any group of people to know enough about such a complex system to make informed decisions. These are non-factors on the communal level. But the Law of Unintended Consequences still applies. As does the Principle of Nonaggression, which is typically a deal breaker for me. Unless a community plans completely by consensus, which anyone knows is hardly practical.

        Keynesianism also brings us an unwarranted emphasis on consumption in addition to debt, when the truth is it is production and trade that generate wealth.

        Japan has actually never recovered from the crash in the late eighties.

        And you really should know better than to believe planners in a democracy would ever look beyond the next election. The short term is what it’s all about. And hey, we’ll all be dead even if our descendants will not. Funny that the American goal once was to leave better opportunities for our children.

      • > Keynesianism also brings us an unwarranted emphasis on consumption in addition to debt, when the truth is it is production and trade that generate wealth.

        If you want to throw around words like “Keynesianism” you really should take a course in economics so that know what it actually means. It would certainly go a long ways towards making you capable of rational discussion, let alone “genuine”

        First off, Keynesian economics do not “emphasize debt” – Keynes held that short term government debt was a way to prime the pump of a broken economy, such as a depression or recession.

        Secondly, ALL economic theories believe that production creates wealth. It’s not in any way unique to Smithian economics, Marx and Keynes and even the Physiocrats knew that.

      • “Consumption” is a necessary element in the system, without it production doesn’t get you anywhere.

        The belief that trade generates wealth is part & parcel of Mercantilism. It’s pretty much discredited today. In order to have something to trade, you first need to produce it – as covered by more modern theories.

        Moreover, traders do not generate wealth – they simply move goods from one place to another. They, themselves, garner a profit – but in order to do so, they need to find someone who wants to consume those goods, and who has produced something to trade for it.

      • @ CrazyH

        Right, that would have been my intuitive reply as well… Especially the focus on consumption doesn’t resonate with leftism, quite the opposite:
        The labor theory of value (LTV) is a heterodox economic theory of value that argues that the economic value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of socially necessary labor required to produce it, rather than by the use or pleasure its owner gets from it. At present this concept is usually associated with Marxian economics, although it is also used in the theories of earlier classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo and later also in anarchist economics.

        Likewise, the crown jewel of the New Deal was the Public Works Program – it was a later, neo-liberal administration that effectively said “Keep calm and go shopping”.

        I suppose there is another way of seeing things. If all went wrong (or in this case, left) with Keynes/FDR, than the Neo-Liberalism could be regarded as a continuation of a wrong direction, rather than the hostile successor to Keynesianism.

        Admittedly, there are certain continuities, e.g. in that the Neo-Liberals set out to take over big government, not renounce it, so they did incorporate “Keynesian” ideas to an extent. Still, I have a hard time as seeing Neo-Liberalism as remotely on the left, it being the nemesis of the Left for as long as I can remember.

        @ Jack Heart

        Thanks for your explanations.

        I also didn’t regard consensus as remotely practical until I participated in and experienced consensus-driven discussions and decision making on a large scale. Now this has become one of the kinds of workable relationships I consider much more humane than our current system, and one of the main reasons I’m attracted to “the left”.

        Perhaps you may want to revisit the notion that your younger self has seen all there is (or could ever be) to the left before graduating to a new/old world-view in the footsteps of Hayek et al. 😉

        At least two major currents of the Left (communism and anarchism) don’t even like Keynes – at most, we grudgingly accept that saving Capitalism from itself was the right thing to do at the time, even though it didn’t bring us closer to a Socialist society.

        Even social democrats aren’t necessarily all big government types: as long as there is something to balance the power of big business, they’d be totally happy with town houses as the biggest structure (seriously, visit Scandinavia). If anything, social democrats fetishize work – i.e. they were at the forefront of restructuring society around 2 breadwinners per family – rather than consumption. [Whereas social democratic labor unions typically demand higher wages and more jobs, anarchist labor unions typically demand more free time away form work and more control of the workplace]. In theory social democrats following Keynesian scripture were supposed to save during a boom and spend during the bust so as not to amass debts. Admittedly, they were all too willing to be sucked in by Neo-Liberalism, but that love affair may have come to an abrupt end…

        So maybe we’re not all that bad 😉

        also btw, maybe Japan isn’t a basket case, either. A lot has happened since the 1980s, a time when they still produced much of the electronics now assembled in China. Nowadays they’ve become more like a high wage bastion of managers, researchers, designers, controllers, logisticians, high tech workers, and so on riding on top of China’s low wage workforce. They certainly could have done a lot worse than stagnation in the face of that transformation (think Flint, Michigan). Plus suffering natural disasters and nuclear meltdown(s) didn’t help.

        In a nutshell, I’m not convinced that those numbers tell the whole story. While their debt is quite real (as imagery numbers go), history is full of examples of countries getting out and/or writing down debt with the consequences ranging all the way from catastrophic to success stories. Yet you certainly may be right – I wouldn’t know…

  • drooling zombies everywhere
    February 16, 2016 9:04 PM

    In case anybody forgot, Jack Heart is still a Nazi.

  • > won’t make promises she can’t keep.

    However, she can make promises she won’t keep.

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