Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Silver Lining of Bernie Sanders?

Bernie Sanders has proved to be a deeply interesting and polarizing figure this election cycle. On the left, some see him as a hopeless idealist that could endanger the viability Democratic Party. And on the right, his advocacy of democratic socialism is viewed as the antithesis to what America stands for. But in an election cycle where voters have gravitated towards anyone that didn't seem like a regular politician, he has emerged as a real contender. And while it remains to be whether he can beat the well-resourced Clinton for the nomination, a Sanders Presidency is worth contemplating.

At this point, it seems there are essentially four candidates that are likely to win the nomination: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the Republican side, and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. And of these remaining major candidates, it is our view that Bernie Sanders is probably the least bad option remaining.

Given the avowed libertarian leanings of this publication, this choice may seem surprising at first. But Bernie has some potential upsides that many have dismissed. (And before we proceed, I would like to clarify that Bernie is not my first choice among the major party candidates (which would be Rand Paul), but merely suggesting he's probably the best option in the top-tier. I also happen to live in a state where my vote has essentially zero probability of impacting either the primary or the general election.)

With those disclaimers aside, let us proceed. In particular, we'll touch on two major items: foreign policy, and economic issues.

Foreign Policy: Bernie's not Ron Paul, but he's also not Hillary
Bernie Sanders is not nearly as antiwar as he is often described. He voted against the Iraq War in 2003, and he supported the Iran Deal, which are undeniably positive things. But he's also taken many other positions that are contrary to the cause of peace. This article offers a helpful summary with many links, and I'll repeat some of the highlights here:

  • Supports sanctions on Russia over Ukraine
  • Voted in favor of an aid deal to the post-coup Ukrainian government
  • Supported the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014
  • Supported the War in Kosovo
  • Supports the Saudi offensive on Yemen
  • Supports Obama's (confusing) policy on Syria
The general theme here is that Bernie tends to follow the Democratic Party line on most matters of foreign policy. Indeed, if you read Bernie's published platforms on foreign policy, I would challenge you to find much of anything that isn't mainstream rhetoric for Democrats. It's just not his top priority, so his basic plan seems to be continuing Obama's policies.

To drive this point home, it is instructive consider what he said in an interview on Meet The Press last fall. Here's how he responded to a direct question on foreign policy:
CHUCK TODD: What does counterterrorism look like in a Sanders administration? Drones? Special Forces, or what does it look like? 
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, all of that and more. 
CHUCK TODD: You're okay with the drone? Using drones-- 
BERNIE SANDERS: Look, drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? Not only doesn't do us-- It's terrible. 
CHUCK TODD: But you're comfortable with the idea of using drones if you think you've isolated an important terrorist? 
CHUCK TODD: So that continues? 
Chuck Todd actually pressed him on the question, as if he expected a different answer. And yes, Bernie mentions concerns about civilian casualties, but President Obama does that too. Paying lip service to civilian casualties doesn't make Bernie antiwar; it just makes him a Democrat. And clearly, Obama's stated concerns about civilian casualties haven't been sufficient to stop his assassination policies.

With all that said, however, we mentioned at the outset that we are not discussing Bernie in a vacuum. The Republicans who have suggested targeting terrorists' families (Trump) and nuking Syria (Cruz) are clearly not going to be the best candidates for peace. But if we turn our focus to Bernie's main competitor, Hillary Clinton, it doesn't get much better. Clinton vehemently advocated for the disastrous overthrow of Libya, wants to strengthen the US's relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, called for new sanctions on Iran immediately after the Iran Deal was implemented, and has called for a no-fly zone over Syria.

In other words, what I'm saying is that Sanders basically wins on foreign policy by default. Sanders is not an antiwar candidate by any stretch of the imagination. But the rhetoric and records of his fellow contenders suggests that Bernie would probably kill and starve the fewest civilians. It's a low bar, but that's all it takes to be the least bad choice on foreign policy in race for the Presidency.*

Revolution vs. Gridlock -- A Win-Win
On economic issues, it's initially difficult to see Bernie's proposals as anything but catastrophic from a libertarian or free market perspective. In this area, Bernie and Trump are certainly competing to have the most destructive policies, but I think Bernie wins that contest. This owes partially to the fact Bernie has actually fleshed most of his policies out with legitimate proposals while Trump seems to just casually throw out bad ideas for attention.

I happen to agree that most of Bernie's economic policies would be devastating and generally harmful to the very people they are trying to help. You may not agree with that, but let's set that aside for another day. If you accept this premise, it leads to an interesting conclusion.

Since Bernie seems to have at least some principles on domestic issues, it is unlikely that he would do much compromising. Thus, there appear to be two likely scenarios in a Sanders Presidency. Either, he gets the political revolution he's hoping for and is able to successfully pass most of his ideas. Or, he gets utterly mired in gridlock and fails to achieve anything at all. I would like to suggest that this is actually a win-win scenario.

Let's take the revolution scenario first. In this case, Bernie manages to pass most of his economic program into law. That would include some or all of the following:
  • Dramatically increased minimum wage
  • Significant tax increases, especially (though not exclusively) on high-income earners
  • Single-payer healthcare, financed largely by higher payroll taxes
  • More protectionist trade policies (making imported items more expensive)
  • Expanded regulation, targeted especially at the financial and energy sectors
As a firm believer in free market-oriented understanding of economics, I am quite confident that these policies would be a calamity. They would create strong disincentives to productive activity (due to new taxes) and raise costs for businesses and consumers (regulations and trade restrictions). Further, if the tax rates are high enough, many individuals and companies will likely put more effort into avoiding taxes, legally or otherwise.

So as a result, if enough of Bernie's ambitious proposals are implemented, I believe the net result would be a sharp decline in the economy, which would lead to tax revenues that are lower than his campaign is projecting. This in turn, means larger deficits sooner and will further increase the US debt to even more unsustainable levels. And at some point, the US will no longer be able to borrow without consequences. I'm not so arrogant as to suggest I know what that level is, but I think it's a real possibility a Sanders Presidency could get us there.

In the short-run, this would be a disaster for the country and for me personally. (I work in one of the most cyclical industries in existence, and would almost certainly lose my job.) But the longer-term political consequences could be beneficial. Usually, when there's a crash in the economy, politicians are able to find a way to blame the free market. But if Bernie implemented radical reforms on a wave of progressive sentiment, and the economy failed and/or the US Government defaulted on its debt, shortly thereafter, it seems the culprit would be undeniable to everyone. The ensuing recovery would certainly be harsh, but a clearly government-made crisis could clear the way for dramatic free market reforms. If a short-term recession led to a major shift in opinion towards libertarian economic principles, I think an argument could be made that it would be worth it.

Before moving on, it's important to note that Bernie is the only one that could conceivably have the above persuasive effect. If the economy failed under a Clinton or Trump Presidency that did not see large progressive policies implemented, we would see a repeat of 2008 politically. The government's role would almost certainly be ignored and the proposed solutions would be more government, not less.

On the other hand, what if the revolution never comes? If Bernie's proposals were too radical to get any steam, then we would just have a preservation of the status quo. It's far from perfect, but it would be nice to get through one President without having any massive new programs. If all Bernie achieved was to complete legislative gridlock in Washington--and especially if that gridlock extended to foreign policy issues and prevented new wars--he could accidentally go down as the most libertarian president in the modern era.

Summing Up
No honest person should describe Bernie Sanders as a true antiwar candidate; his record and his official platform positions both disqualify him from such an honorable label. But of the individuals currently leading in the polls, it seems that Bernie is the best we'll get on this issue. When it comes to his domestic economic agenda, his policies are again problematic. However, I believe that the radically progressive nature of Bernie's domestic platform offer an accidental silver lining that the other leading candidates do not: gridlock or a government-owned economic crisis. In the former case, nothing happens except that the public continues lose faith in the Federal government's capacity to fix problems. And in the latter case, a short-term collapse could pave the way for sea change in public opinion back toward free market principles.

Cheering for the least bad option is never fun, and I don't expect any libertarians to shift their support to Bernie on the basis of these considerations. But if you're going to root for one of the top-tier candidates over another, the democratic socialist might be the best choice--not for what he stands for, but for what might come afterwards.

*Again, I'm here speaking exclusively of the top-tier candidates. Rand Paul and presumably almost any Libertarian Party candidate would be better on foreign policy on this metric.

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