Robert B. Reich: Bernie Sanders and the free market

Robert Reich

Robert Reich

Crass distortions of the choices facing the nation sometimes come masked in the media as “political analysis.” But whatever they’re called, they can’t be allowed to stand.

Such was the Washington Post’s front-page piece last week, ostensibly an analysis of the policies proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Sanders, wrote the Post’s David Fahrenthold, “is not just a big-spending liberal. His agenda is not just about money. It’s also about control.”

Fahrenthold claims Sanders’ plan for paying for students’ college tuition at public universities with a tax on Wall Street trades would mean “colleges would run by government rules.”

Apparently Fahrenthold is unaware that three-quarters of college students today attend public universities financed largely by state governments.

And even those who attend elite private universities benefit from federal tax subsidies flowing to wealthy donors. Meg Whitman’s recent $30 million donation to Princeton, for example, is really $20 million from her plus an estimated $10 million she deducted from her taxable income.

Notwithstanding all this government largesse, colleges aren’t “run by government rules.”

The real problem is that too many young people still can’t afford a college education.

The move toward free public higher education that began after World War II with the G.I. Bill and was extended in the 1960s by leading public universities was reversed starting in the 1980s because of shrinking state budgets. Tuition has skyrocketed in recent years as states slashed education spending. It’s time to resurrect that earlier goal.

Besides, the biggest threats to academic freedom these days aren’t coming from government. They’re coming as conditions attached to funding from billionaires and big corporations that is increasing as public funding drops.

When the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University’s economics department, for example, it stipulated that a Koch-appointed advisory committee would select professors and undertake annual evaluations.

The Koch brothers now fund 350 programs at over 250 colleges and universities across America. You can bet that funding doesn’t underwrite research on inequality and environmental justice.

Fahrenthold similarly claims that Sanders’ plan for a single-payer system would put health care under the “control” of government.

But health care is already largely financed through government subsidies — only they’re flowing to private for-profit health insurers that are now busily consolidating into corporate leviathans.

Anthem’s purchase of giant insurer Cigna will make it the largest health insurer in America; Aetna is buying Humana, creating the second-largest, with 33 million members.

Why should anyone suppose these for-profit corporate giants will be less “controlling” than government?

What we do know is that they’re far more expensive than a single-payer system.

Fahrenthold repeats the charge that Sanders’ health-care plan would cost $15 trillion over 10 years. But single-payer systems in other rich nations have proven cheaper than private for-profit health insurers because they don’t spend huge sums on advertising, marketing, executive pay and billing. So even if the Sanders single-payer plan would cost $15 trillion over 10 years, Americans as a whole would save more than that.

Fahrenthold trusts the “market” more than he does the government, but he overlooks the fact that government sets the rules by which the market runs (such as whether health insurers should be allowed to consolidate even further, or how much of a “charitable” tax deduction wealthy donors to private universities should receive, and whether they should get the deduction if they attach partisan conditions to their donations).

The real choice isn’t between government and the “market.” It’s between a system responsive to the needs of most Americans and one more responsive to the demands of the super-rich, big business and Wall Street — whose economic and political power have grown dramatically over the last three decades.

This is why the logic of Sanders’ ideas depends on the political changes he seeks.

Fahrenthold says a President Sanders couldn’t get any of his ideas implemented anyway because Congress would reject them. But if Bernie Sanders is elected president, American politics will have been altered, reducing the moneyed interests’ chokehold over the public agenda.

Fahrenthold may not see the populism that’s fueling Bernie Sanders’ campaign, but it is gaining strength and conviction. Other politicians, as well as political reporters, ignore this upsurge at their peril.


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