Bernie Sanders and the New American Social Contract

by Charles J. Reid, Jr Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 15.01.2016

The United States once enjoyed a governing policy focused and framed by a strong conception of the common good. From the 1930's to the close of the 1960's, there existed a bipartisan consensus that supported the proposition that American prosperity depended crucially on a government that ensured the prerequisites for human flourishing. A robust safety net protected the needy from destitution. A strong system of public education shepherded several generations of Americans through the schools and into responsible adulthood. Social Security alleviated at least some of the fear of penury that accompanies old age, while Medicare strove to meet the needs of senior citizens for health care.

This was a social contract that was largely drafted and implemented by Democrats, but even Republican administrations respected it. Dwight Eisenhower made peace with the "liberal consensus," and Richard Nixon even expanded its reach, especially in the area of environmental legislation. Only a few dissident right-wingers, men like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, objected.

Beginning in 1980, however, with the election of Ronald Reagan as President, this social contract was attacked in the name of radical individualism. The government itself was declared by Reagan to be "not the solution" but the "problem."

We are now the heirs of Reagan's sorry legacy. Our public education system has been starved for decades. The profit motive has been introduced into places where it doesn't belong, such as the operation of privately-run prisons. The new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is on record as seeking the privatization of Medicare. Many Americans plainly feel the need to reverse these ominous trends.

Indeed, it is the intuitive sense that our social contract must be renewed and that the common good must again become the focus of our political system that explains the polling success Bernie Sanders is presently enjoying. When he announced his candidacy for the White House, few expected a rumpled 70-something from Vermont to run a credible campaign. Yet his poll numbers continue to improve in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Let's consider some of the ways in which Senator Sanders proposes to restore the social contract. Probably the best place to start is education. Nothing is more vital to the future of America than a well-educated public. And it is fair to say that none of the presidential candidates, in either party, knows the needs of primary and secondary education more directly than Bernie Sanders, who actually taught pre-schoolers in the middle 1960's as part of the Head Start program.

Importantly, Senator Sanders knows that primary and secondary education is not only about acquiring knowledge and skills but is also about establishing the context for success. He would tackle the disparities in funding that are the cause of unequal educational outcomes by moving away from local property taxes as a principal means of funding the schools. Teachers, he insists, must be adequately compensated for the vital role they play. And the "teach to the test" mentality created by the No Child Left Behind program should be replaced with educational methods that arouse curiosity and engage children in the learning process.

Higher education, Sanders insists, must be treated as a basic right. Indeed, it is regarded as a basic right in most other developed nations and is generously subsidized for that reason. To ask "who pays for free college"? is not the best question to pose. Much better to ask, "who benefits from low-cost college?" And there the clear answer is that nearly everybody does. Students benefit, of course, but so also do taxpayers and homeowners. After all, a well-educated workforce is a well-paid workforce, better able to pay taxes. And a generation of graduates not saddled with mortgage-level student-loan debt can buy homes and establish independent lives of their own.

Bernie Sanders also knows that we cannot restore the social contract without renewing our commitment to civil rights. African-Americans suffer disproportionately at the hands of the state. They are more likely than others to be the victims of police violence. And they have also been made the target of de-humanizing attacks by extremist elements, such as the neo-Confederate terrorist Dylann Roof who committed an act of mass murder in a Charleston, South Carolina, house of worship.

We need better police training. We must stop racially-motivated terrorist attacks like Dylann Roof's. And once again we must ensure that African-Americans enjoy the political franchise. An activist Supreme Court should not tamper with the Voting Rights Act. Early voting needs to be restored where it has been limited or eliminated. And discriminatory voter ID laws ought to be repealed. Bernie Sanders has made these central issues in his campaign. And if we are to have a social contract good for all Americans, these are steps we must take as a nation.

Economic and social justice are the final parts of the social contract Bernie Sanders is offering the nation. That is a broad rubric so one might do well to highlight a few signature proposals.

First, Senator Sanders is proposing to increase the minimum wage to restore it to what it was once intended to be -- a living wage. The minimum wage, he insists, should be raised gradually, over a period of years, to fifteen dollars an hour. Such a move is advisable for several reasons. Most importantly, of course, is that it will reward people who perform some of the most thankless jobs in American society for the indispensable work they do and will ensure that they no longer labor for starvation wages. But it will also increase their spending power.

Economies benefit when consumers have sufficient resources to spend. Right-wing economists perennially complain that increases in minimum wages kill jobs. We have had the minimum wage for 80 years and if their logic worked our unemployment rate would now be astronomical.

Higher wages do not kill jobs, but they do lead to greater spending, and in a world where deflation seems a bigger threat than inflation, we should all want that form of stimulus. If I have one quarrel with this proposal it is that allowing the minimum wage to be raised gradually may blunt some of its beneficial effects.

Second, Sanders promises to reform Wall Street. He would break up any bank deemed too big to fail. No business must ever be allowed to expand to such a gargantuan size that its failure threatens the health of the economy. He would also tax high-frequency electronic trading, which serves no real social utility and only introduces needless risk into the economic order. I would suggest to Senator Sanders that he might also consider revitalizing the antitrust laws to serve the purpose for which they were intended -- the creation and preservation of competitive market environments for the benefit of the public at large.

Third, Sanders asserts that health care is a human right and must be so regarded at law. He advocates for the adoption of a single-payer system which he has also described as "Medicare for all." We know that single-payer works. It has worked well for Medicare and it works well in other nations. I can personally attest to that. I have done much international travel and have twice had to receive medical treatment abroad. I found the care that I was given under single-payer systems to be prompt, high quality, professional, and inexpensive, even for a foreigner.

In an ideal world, progressives and family-values conservatives alike should be able to support single-payer health care. There is no greater threat to family integrity and well-being than inadequate health coverage. In 2013, medical costs were the reason 1.7 million households filed for bankruptcy. The Affordable Health Care Act has mitigated this problem, but many families still find health care costs an impossible financial burden.

News Flash: Medical costs do not force families into bankruptcy in other nations. Medical costs remain a pressing social problem that we must address here at home, and Senator Sanders' plan is certainly worth considering.

Will Bernie Sanders win the nomination while running on this platform? Can he win a general election? There was a time when Democrats succeeded with just such ambitious programs. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson come to mind. Certainly, in this election cycle the American public appears readier than it has been in two generations to return to its progressive heritage.

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