Progressives: Beware of Bernie’s Economic Policy Pipe Dreams

If you support Bernie Sanders for president because you want to see his economic policies implemented, you should take note. No president can do the things Sanders claims he will do. Bernie cannot deliver on his promises.

You might support his candidacy because these are the policies you want. But Bernie cannot wave a magic wand and then have all of these policies fall in place.

Bernie’s proposals represent lofty goals. When he talks about structural problems in the economy, I agree with him. When he talks about the sources of these problems, I agree with him.

But he never talks about a process for fixing these problems, other than to reel off a list of specific policies which he claims he will implement if he is elected president. These policies are promises he cannot keep.

The proof is on his website. This is the website he always tells listeners to visit in order to see the details of his plan.

At, the home page has links to his proposals. The very first one is for the issue which he has always talked about - indeed the issue which has brought him into the public spotlight - “Income and Wealth Inequality”. This link is his economic plan.

The “Income and Wealth Inequality” page on starts with a discussion of structural economic problems relating to inequality. These are valid points with which all progressives probably agree. The rest of the page is his “plan”.
Make no mistake. His “plan” is clearly labeled as a set of promises. But they are all promises that he cannot keep.

What follows here is that plan, word for word. I took nothing out of context. His plan is 13 specific points of policy. I am including the full wording of each point, and adding my own notes to each one.

The plan starts out as a promise:

As president, Senator Bernie Sanders will reduce income and wealth inequality by:

Then it moves on to points one through thirteen.

1. Demanding that the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes. As president, Sen. Sanders will stop corporations from shifting their profits and jobs overseas to avoid paying U.S. income taxes. He will create a progressive estate tax on the top 0.3 percent of Americans who inherit more than $3.5 million. He will also enact a tax on Wall Street speculators who caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, homes, and life savings.

All of the policies listed here are policies for Congress, not the president. The president would have the opportunity to sign any bill that reaches his desk. But he can’t do it if Congress doesn’t send him the bills. President Obama would sign such bills. A President Hillary Clinton would sign such bills. There is nothing different which a President Sanders could do. He can’t “demand” that “the wealthy and large corporations” do anything. He could demand that Congress act. That’s the only leverage that a president would have, and Congress has the power to refuse such a demand. It is a matter for Congress. Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for the past 25 years. How can he promise to accomplish these things as a president with no authority when he couldn’t get them done as a member of the body that does have the authority?

2. Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2020. In the year 2015, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.

This too, is a matter for Congress. Many members of Congress oppose this policy. Many economists worry that the economy would be destabilized if the minimum wage were to double overnight. A more modest increase would be more favorable to members of Congress as well as economists. By the way, Bernie should update this point on his website. We are no longer living in 2015.

3. Putting at least 13 million Americans to work by investing $1 trillion over five years towards rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, railways, airports, public transit systems, ports, dams, wastewater plants, and other infrastructure needs.

A large investment in infrastructure is a policy which all progressives support. President Obama has been arguing for this throughout his presidency. A Senator Sanders would have more say in this matter than a President Sanders. It is up to Congress to act.

4. Reversing trade policies like NAFTA, CAFTA, and PNTR with China that have driven down wages and caused the loss of millions of jobs. If corporate America wants us to buy their products they need to manufacture those products in this country, not in China or other low-wage countries.

A president cannot simply reverse trade deals. It’s a matter of law. A president can negotiate a deal. A president can sign a deal, pending approval by Congress. But a president cannot reverse a deal which is already law.

5. Creating 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans by investing $5.5 billion in a youth jobs program. Today, the youth unemployment rate is off the charts. We have got to end this tragedy by making sure teenagers and young adults have the jobs they need to move up the economic ladder.

It’s possible that a president could find a way to create such a program through executive action. But it isn’t possible for a president to give the program $5.5 billion. That’s up to Congress.

6. Fighting for pay equity by signing the Paycheck Fairness Act into law. It is an outrage that women earn just 78 cents for every dollar a man earns.

The Paycheck Fairness Act has been introduced in Congress 10 times over the past 20 years. It has never been submitted for a president’s signature. Hillary would be more than thrilled to sign it.

7. Making tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout America. Everyone in this country who studies hard should be able to go to college regardless of income.

This is one of the items in the highly-criticized “free stuff” list which has generated questions about funding Sanders’ proposals. It cannot be accomplished through presidential edict, and it has many opponents.

8. Expanding Social Security by lifting the cap on taxable income above $250,000. At a time when the senior poverty rate is going up, we have got to make sure that every American can retire with dignity and respect.

The cap on taxable income has existed since the inception of Social Security. It is currently set at an amount established through a formula – by Congress. The president cannot lift it.

9. Guaranteeing healthcare as a right of citizenship by enacting a Medicare for all single-payer healthcare system. It’s time for the U.S. to join every major industrialized country on earth and provide universal healthcare to all.

Only those ignorant of the history of the American healthcare system and reform efforts would suggest that this proposal would go anywhere, yet it is listed as a “promise”. It’s a promise that can’t be kept. If it were this simple, it would have been done a long time ago. Many people in the past have put much more thought into healthcare proposals -including Hillary Clinton.

10. Requiring employers to provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave; two weeks of paid vacation; and 7 days of paid sick days. Real family values are about making sure that parents have the time they need to bond with their babies and take care of their children and relatives when they get ill.

Perhaps a president can dictate such policies for employees of federal agencies through executive order; perhaps not. But the president has no say in such policies in the private sector. Again, it would be up to Congress.

11. Enacting a universal childcare and prekindergarten program. Every psychologist understands that the most formative years for a human being is from the ages 0-3. We have got to make sure every family in America has the opportunity to send their kids to a high quality childcare and pre-K program.

Where would he get the money for such a program? It would either come from eliminating other federal education programs, or it would come from…Congress.

12. Making it easier for workers to join unions by fighting for the Employee Free Choice Act. One of the most significant reasons for the 40-year decline in the middle class is that the rights of workers to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits have been severely undermined.

At least this is a promise to fight for legislation rather than a promise to pass legislation. I’m not sure how only fighting for it would be the same as “making it easier for workers to join unions’, though. President Obama has fought for it too. Obama was one if the bill’s original sponsors when he was a member of the Senate. But guess what? Congress, not the President, is holding it up.

13. Breaking up huge financial institutions so that they are no longer too big to fail. Seven years ago, the taxpayers of this country bailed out Wall Street because they were too big to fail. Yet, 3 out of the 4 largest financial institutions are 80 percent bigger today than before we bailed them out. Sen. Sanders has introduced legislation to break these banks up. As president, he will fight to sign this legislation into law.

This point answers its own question as to why a president cannot accomplish what Sanders promises to do if he were to become president. What, exactly, does “fight to sign the legislation into law” mean? Why would a president have to fight to sign something? Perhaps it’s because there’s nothing to sign; it is something which only Congress has the authority to act upon.

Bernie Sanders has been a tremendously positive voice in the Senate. I understand how he has received a large following for telling the truth about inequality. In my writings about the economy, I rail against the same problems he does. I talk about the same sources of these problems. I even agree that many of his proposals are policies which would work towards fixing these problems.

But it’s one thing to be a demagogue. It’s quite another thing to be able to implement policies from the White House. Policy changes require more than just a vision. A process is involved in policymaking, and implementing policies which are consistent with that vision requires an understanding of the necessary process.

For the most part, the differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on these issues represent a difference in procedure, not a difference in goals. Bernie and Hillary share the same progressive goals. But Bernie doesn’t have a plan for accomplishing these goals, other than to claim that he will do things which he simply cannot do. His “plan” is a pipe dream.

If you listen carefully to the debates, you hear Bernie talking about the problems, and you hear Bernie talking about his proposals. He has framed his proposals in the form of promises. But you don’t hear Bernie talking about any process for making these promises a reality. Regardless of who is in control of the next Congress, I see no path which would allow Bernie to keep his promises regarding economic policy.

At the same time, Hillary also talks about problems and proposals. But as Hillary elaborates, her talking points reflect knowledge of the necessary process for turning proposals into policy.

Hillary’s plan is to support workable policies which will take us, one step at a time, towards the overall goals. Hillary’s plan is consistent with the way things get done. Bernie’s plan is to promise the moon with no real plan, and no real authority.

Jerry Wyant