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Bernie Sanders on America’s ‘grotesquely unfair’ society

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a town hall meeting at Trinity Episcopal Church while campaigning in Charlottesville, Virginia May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Jay Paul

Bernie Sanders is challenging a longstanding tradition in American politics, that major-party presidential candidates must all push for faster economic growth. In a sense, he's inverting tradition -- saying that the nation should worry first about changing the economy to direct more of its spoils to workers and less to the wealthiest Americans. I recently interviewed Sanders at length about inequality; the conversation is edited for length.

Jim Tankersley: You’ve been talking about inequality for a long time. Why is it resonating as a national issue now?

Bernie Sanders: The American people understand that it is grotesquely unfair – we are a society that prides itself on fairness, that prides itself on equal opportunity, and people are looking out and seeing, since the Great Recession of 2008, 99 percent of all new income going to the top 1 percent. So you’re seeing people working in my state, all over this country, two jobs, they’re working three jobs, and they’re getting nowhere in a hurry. They’re working hard. They can’t afford to send their kids to college in many instances. They can’t afford child care for their little babies. They’re worried to death about retirement.

And meanwhile, they see incredible wealth disparities such that the top one tenth of one percent owns almost as much as the bottom 90 percent.

The basic issue of an American society which is fair, which is providing opportunity for all, is now being replaced by the correct perception that we’re living in a rigged economy - where it doesn’t matter how hard you worked, the result will be all the income goes to the people at the very top. It’s leading to a lot of frustration and anger, and people want some fundamental changes to the way we do economics and growth.

Tankersley: In every presidential campaign I can remember, candidates have talked about how we need more growth. Do you think we need more growth?

Sanders: That’s another issue. When we look at climate change and other environmental issues, growth for the sake of growth – especially when 99 percent of all new income generated by that growth goes to the top 1 percent – becomes less significant. What we need to do is create economic policies that benefit the middle class and the working families in this country. And right now that’s not happening. So, yeah, we need economic growth, but we need growth that works well for everybody, not just the people at the top.

Tankersley: How do we achieve that kind of growth?

Sanders: Let me bore you for a minute with some facts.

Tankersley: You can’t bore me – I’m an econ reporter.

(Laughter) If the bottom 90 percent – that is a very broad definition of the middle class – had simply maintained the same share of wealth that it did in 1985, that bottom 90 percent would own $10.7 trillion more in wealth than it does today. Meanwhile, from that same period, the top one tenth of one percent has seen its wealth increase by about $8 trillion.

So we have to very straightforwardly and unashamedly address this wealth inequality. We have come up with some tax proposals already, which begins that process – a transaction tax on Wall Street, a program that would end the ability of corporations to stash their money in the Cayman Islands. We’re working on a comprehensive bill right now on individual tax rates, which obviously in my view have got to go up.

When we are seeing a massive redistribution of wealth since 1985 from the middle class to the top one tenth of one percent, our economic goals have got to be to redistribute that wealth back to the people who had it. How do you do that? You start, you have to create decent-paying jobs. I have introduced legislation that would spend about $1 trillion over the next five years to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. That would create about 13 million new jobs and maintain some jobs. Clearly, we’ve got to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, which would be $15 an hour. We need pay equity for women.

We’ve got to do what every other major country on earth does and have a medical and family leave program. We have got to have sick leave for workers. We have got to do what every other industrialized nation does and that is guarantee at least 10 days of paid vacation. We’ve got to change our trade policies, so countries aren’t shutting down here and moving abroad.

Tankersley: Do you worry that if all you do is redistribute, you don’t fix the market mechanisms that cause inequality in the first place?

Sanders: If you have a tax system that’s fairer than you already have, and you have a mechanism, as I have proposed, to make tuition free in colleges and universities, I think you are dealing with changing the infrastructure of the inequality that’s going on now.

Tankersley: Are you willing to accept some decline in efficiency in the labor market, by enacting more regulation?

Sanders: By efficiency, many conservative economists mean, ‘the best way for large corporations to make excessive profits.’ So if efficiency means that they shut down the Washington Post today and move it to China, because people there are willing to work for lower wages, that’s efficient, isn’t it? Ok. Those are quote-unquote efficiencies. They’re efficient for the people who own the corporations. They’re not particularly efficient for the people who have been thrown out on the street. So if you’re talking about maximizing corporate profits, that’s not what I think the economy should be about.

Tankersley:  If we are in a ‘rigged’ economy, how did we get here?

Sanders: For the last 40 years, there has been a massive attack by the wealthiest people in this country, by the Koch brothers, by corporate America, against the middle class. And the result of that has been they have seen a huge transfer of wealth that has gone from the middle class to the top one tenth of one percent.

Tankersley: We’ve seen inequality widen in the wake of the Great Recession. What has gone wrong in the Obama years?

Sanders: In many respects, the president was not strong enough on many issues. For example, he’s wrong on the trade issue, dead wrong. Also, the president made a mistake, that after his brilliant campaign of 2008, he essentially said to his most motivated supporters, thanks very much for electing me, but I’ll go from here on my own. I’ll sit down and negotiate with Boehner and Mitch McConnell and I really don’t need you anymore. Terrible mistake. Because the only way forward, to bring forth a progressive agenda, is to have the American people mobilized.

Jim Tankersley:  Let’s go back to growth and the environment. Are you worried we’re at a moment like Naomi Klein describes, where industrialized economies need to stop growing in order to avoid the worst of climate change?

Sanders: Yes. I am. The point is, there’s growth and there’s growth, but unchecked growth – especially when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent – is absurd. Where we’ve got to move is not growth for the sake of growth, but we’ve got to move to a society that provides a high quality of life for all of our people. In other words, if people have health care as a right, as do the people of every other major country, then there’s less worry about growth. If people have educational opportunity and their kids can go to college and they have child care, then there’s less worry about growth for the sake of growth.

Do you think we can decarbonize the economy and keep growing people’s incomes?

Sanders: Yes. Yes I do.