The Old Testament portrays the role of the prophet as one called by God to preach repentance and redemption, first by to pointing out mercilessly the failings of the People of God.
The role Sen. Bernard Sanders is playing in our time bears some resemblance to that of the ancient prophets. He has built an entire presidential campaign on an enumerating his view of the failings of American society. His catalog of transgressions includes the concentration of wealth in “the top 1 percent” of our society, the untenable burden thrust on college students and graduates who find themselves drowning in debt without jobs to pay it, the inhumanity of masses of Americans who are locked out of decent health care by high costs, and the overall plight of the “middle class”, whose livelihood has been forever high-jacked by lower-cost workers overseas.
Like the ancient prophets, Mr. Sanders’ message of social injustices has found great resonance with many Americans.
The problem is his solutions. A prophet does not really have to solve the problems he points to — his job is to raise awareness of these problems. Bernie, as a modern politician, of course, must propose solutions, even though his primary value may be, in the long run, his articulation of some real social inequities.
There are two fundamental obstacles to the righting of the wrongs he highlights.
The first is the resistance of many Americans to the idea of the government providing basic services at public expense. Traditionally, Americans are expected to be strong individualists who can and should provide for their own needs, our heritage from the agricultural age.
The survival net advocated by Ronald Reagan and modern conservatives has already been extended, in this view, beyond the capacity of needy citizens to absorb it without unduly depending on it. Today’s welfare society has, they believe, already undermined the virtues of self-reliance among our population to the extent that many Americans are becoming lazy and given to drugs to ease their feelings of worthlessness and lack of direction.
The most obvious alternative explanation for this addictive behavior is another of Mr. Sanders’ themes, namely the lack of satisfying and well-paying jobs available for the 94 million or so unemployed adults in our nation. His solution of raising the minimum wage, however, seems wholly inadequate.
The other objection to Mr. Sanders’ welfare agenda is entirely different: We can’t afford it. The politicians’ habit for the past 50 years has been to create deficit budgets and then finance them by “borrowing” from the Social Security and Federal Highway Trust Funds, justified by paying interest on these “loans”. These “loans” now amount to over $19 trillion, and the interest is threatening to dominate the entire federal budget.
One of the principal suggestions for reducing the federal budget is to reduce the benefits to those Social Security beneficiaries whose money has been used by the same Congress to fund the deficits. Not exactly an ethical solution, in the eyes of Bernie the Prophet (and many others).
Nevertheless, the idea of adding major new entitlements to this burden right now is harrowing at best. Mr. Sanders wants to “fund” his ideas by raising taxes on the wealthy. “But it’s a fantasy to imagine that raising taxes on the rich will solve our deficit problem. If the IRS grabbed 100 percent of [all Americans’] income over $1 million, the take would be just $616 billion. That’s only a third of this year’s deficit. Our national debt would continue to explode.” as Fox News’ John Stossel points out. (Forbes, April 3, 2012). The only way tax revenues can be realistically raised in today’s political climate is through a raise in individual incomes supported by a radical revision of the tax code.
Spending has to be reduced, not expanded. The place to start is with a “zero-based budget” Congressional appropriation process, as advocated by Speaker Paul Ryan, to reduce the proverbial “waste and abuse” in the federal budget,
Yet, once our house is in order, Bernie the Prophet’s priorities should be remembered and seriously considered. His argument that tuition-free post-secondary education (I would add trade schools to colleges) and universal health care are human necessities in today’s America is hard to deny.
His concern with the middle class is well placed, but much more difficult to cure. The historical reality which is the touchstone of all the discussion about middle class wealth is the period of 1948 to 1974, approximately the work life of the youngest WWII G.I.’s. This was a unique era in American history, although most people today view it as the norm for middle class prosperity.
Before 1948, Americans had survived a long Depression, followed by World War II, followed by a post-war recession (1946-48), the first of several recessions which occurred about every 10 years or so thereafter (with a couple of exceptions).
In 1945, America found itself an industrial giant in a world of dwarfs, the only developed nation in the world which had a commercial and governmental infrastructure intact, unaffected by the war’s destruction, with a whole generation of healthy, unemployed young men available, along with one of the world’s greatest abundance of natural resources. In addition, it was heir to the astonishing wealth of science and technology which had been developed during the war. No wonder times were good.
That generation then created a strong labor union movement which won for a huge swath of the middle class life-long employment with generous compensation and the best fringe packages in human history. With this head start, Americans were able to maintain their economic ascendency for the next generation.
The first major crack in the wall occurred between the oil shortages of the 1970’s and the Reagan Recession (1981-3), when the Federal Reserve plunged the country into a deep recession to offset the unimaginable inflation caused by the previous decade. Both situations, along with the disastrous Vietnam War, were occasioned by foreign influences, which showed many Americans for the first time that America was not immune to OPEC oil shortages, Mexican devaluation of the peso, or a Vietnamese civil war.
But the final blow came with the Information Age. Gradually other countries became capable both culturally and technologically of developing their own industrial and technology centers. With the ready expansion of international communications, they began to woo American capital and to supply the resulting labor forces to support those capital investments.
They were now competing with both American manufacturing, the core of American middle class prosperity, and American labor. Without unions and using devalued currencies, these countries eventually denuded America of much of its industrial base and the jobs which it supported.
The result was that America became a predominantly service economy, with no unionized workforce and a major chasm between the level of expertise possessed by the “experts” whose services generate the wealth and the workers who simply follow orders. Americans have yet to adjust these changes in the world economy, but that adjustment is the key to restoring the prosperity of the middle class.
The basis of America’s adaptation to the new world of the 21st century is the recognition of America’s technology knowledge base which has catapulted America to international leadership in innovation for both technology and the financial infrastructure to support it. This recognition requires, among other things, organized training and preparation of America’s youth for implementing, maintaining, and expanding our knowledge base. This challenge has yet to be met by American education, especially by postsecondary colleges and trade schools. This is the case for Bernie the Prophet’s insistence on free education.
Thus America’s struggles to raise the standard of living for America’s workers are more complicated than rescinding free trade agreements and taxing American companies for their overseas profits. Mr. Sanders has dramatically articulated the problems, but not adequate solutions. Yet that service has a value all its own.