The Big Economic Shift: Candidate Senator Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, VT) is serving his third term in the U.S. Senate after winning re-election in 2018. He is currently an independent, but caucuses with Democrats on most major economic issues. In 2015, Sanders ran for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination and his current economic policies are similar to what he ran on previously. He eventually lost to Hillary Clinton, but won 23 primaries and caucuses, garnering approximately 43% of pledged delegates. Previously, he served 16 years in the House of Representatives for Vermont as an independent, making him the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. In 1981, he was elected to the first of four terms as mayor of Burlington. Sanders also lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York before his 1990 election as Vermont’s member in Congress.
Sanders serves on the Senate Budget Committee, Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and a “progressive”. He participated in the first two Democratic debates for president and has qualified for the next round by meeting the requirements of garnering contributions from over 130,000 individuals, coming from 400 unique donors in 20 or more states and reaching 2% in at least four DNC-approved polls. Sanders also participated in the CNN town hall on climate. Currently, Sanders is one of the top 3 candidates in the national polls and Iowa polls.
- Like Buttigieg, Harris and Warren, Sanders’ economic policies stand in sharp contrast to Republican policies, particularly when it comes to corporate and individual tax policies, and regulatory reforms under the Trump administration.
- Like Buttigieg, Harris and Warren, if Sanders is elected there will be a major restructuring of significant portions of the US economy, including the energy and healthcare sectors. Unlike the other three, Sanders is all-in on changing the current structure of the entire economy to reflect his stances on key areas including banking, Wall Street, trade, housing and unions.
- If elected, we can expect both a short-term and a long-term dramatic impact on the structure of the economy, the relationship between companies, government and workers, as well as changes in the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world.
Below are the categories Sanders uses to organize his policy proposals. His policies are primarily aimed at improving workers’ rights, curtailing the influence of corporations and billionaires on the economy, and assisting underserved communities. Most of his policies are focused in two main areas: the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. It’s difficult to discern whether the programs listed in the different sections of his plans are separate from his GND and Medicare for All plans or if they are included. We’ll list out many of the larger plans as if they were separate.
- Health Care for All
- College for All and Cancel All Student Debt
- Fight for Working Families
- Jobs for All
- The Green New Deal
- Expand Social Security
- Commitment to Veterans
- Enact a Responsible, Comprehensive Foreign Policy
- Fight for Women’s Rights
- Fight for Disability Rights
- Fight for LGBTQ+ Equality
- Empower the People of Puerto Rico
- Demand that the Wealthy, Large Corporations, and Wall Street Pay Their Fair Share in Taxes
- Gun Safety
- Justice and Safety for All
- Racial Justice
- Immigration Reform
- Empower Tribal Nations
- Real Wall Street Reform
- Fight for Fair Trade and Workers
- Reinvest in Public Education and Teachers
- Get Big Money out of Politics and Restore Democracy
- Fair Banking for All
- Revitalizing Rural America
- The Workplace Democracy Plan
Economy and Jobs
Under his Green New Deal proposal, Sanders estimates that 20 million new jobs will need to be created to solve the climate crisis. We’ll cover more on the GND under the Energy and Environment section below.
Under the “Jobs for All” section, Sanders states, “When we are in the White House, we will enact a federal jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone is guaranteed a stable job.” Sanders would guarantee jobs that pay living wages to all persons with disabilities who want to work through a federal job guarantee program. He has jobs programs spread across various areas of his plans with accompanying plans to pay for his extraordinary fiscal spending. Cost estimates for this proposed job program range from $560 billion per year to $840 billion per year. The cost of this proposal is more-or-less the same as the current spending on the Defense Department (approx. $700 billion), which is the largest discretionary item in the federal budget.
Under the Rebuild America Act, Sanders also plans to invest large amounts of money into infrastructure ($1 trillion over the next 5 years), with a focus on rebuilding roads, bridges and airports. He believes this infrastructure plan will encourage job creation to the tune of putting 13 million Americans to work. He also proposes investing $5.5 billion in youth job programs, creating 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans.
He would also reinstate the Civilian Conservation Corps. The purpose of the corps would be to “provide good-paying jobs building green infrastructure, planting billions of trees and other native species, preventing flood and soil erosion, rebuilding wetlands and coral, cleaning up plastic pollution, constructing and maintaining accessible paths, trails, and fire breaks; rehabilitating and removing abandoned structures, and eradicating invasive species and flora disease; and other natural methods of carbon pollution sequestration.”
One of Sanders’ primary goals is to tackle income inequality. He plans to increase the minimum wage to $15, with a proposal that this increase would be introduced over a period of a few years. He states that this would raise the wages of 38% of African American workers and 33% of Latinx workers.
Sanders also proposes to implement the Paycheck Fairness Act so that women and men are paid the same for the same work. He would guarantee paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave, and paid vacation. He also plans to reduce the differences between executive salaries and worker salaries by increasing incentives to pay workers a fair wage. For example, in 2019 he introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing out Subsidies (Stop BEZOS) Act, which would require businesses to pay taxes equivalent to the amount that their employees rely on food stamps.
He would also reimplement the Home and Community Based Settings Rule to reinstitute the bargaining rights of home-care workers. He would also expand the Older Americans Act.
Sanders also supports strengthening unions and the labor movement as a mechanism to reduce income inequality, through the Workplace Democracy Act. This piece of legislation has been continually reintroduced from 1992 to 2018 and would remove obstacles that prevent workers from forming unions. He also proposes supporting more worker-owned cooperatives. He would provide unions the ability to organize through a majority sign up process and would enact “first contract” provisions to ensure companies can’t stop unions from forming. Merging companies would also be required to honor existing union contracts. Federal workers would also have the right to strike, and he would ban the permanent replacement of striking workers (federal and non-federal). Companies would be barred from requiring employees to attend anti-union meetings. In addition, he would eliminate the “Right to Work for Less” (Right to Work laws) and would require the implementation of “just cause” firing rather than “at will” termination.
With regard to education, Sanders would eliminate tuition fees at public universities and colleges and would reduce interest on student loans. He would do this by passing the College for All Act and would put $48 billion towards this goal. He would also cancel the entire $1.6 trillion student debt. He would also provide Pell Grants for low-income students to cover the non-tuition and fee costs of college. After tuition, fees, and grants are eliminated he would create a program in which participating tribes and States are required to cover any remaining cost in obtaining a degree for low-income students. Sanders also proposes to increase the funding for the Work-Study program by triple. He also proposes to fund $1.3 billion to private, non-profit HBCUs and MSIs every year to eliminate or significantly reduce tuition and fees for low-income students. He would also double funding for TRIO programs and increase funding for the GEAR UP program.
With regard to individual taxes, he would end special tax breaks on capital gains and dividends for the top 1% and would substantially increase the top marginal tax rate on incomes above $10 million. (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has floated a 70% tax rate on incomes above $10 million.) Also, he has proposed lowering the estate tax exemption level, increasing the estate tax marginal tax rates, and creating a billionaire surtax. He would pass the For the 99.8% Percent Act to establish this progressive estate tax on multi-millionaire and billionaire inheritances, including a 77% top band estate tax. He has also supported raising the cap on taxable income that goes towards Social Security.
For corporate taxes, Sanders proposes raising the top tax rate from the current 21% but doesn’t explicitly state by how much. He would also eliminate offshore tax dodging by implementing the Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act. He would create a financial transactions tax by placing a 0.5 percent tax on stock, a 0.1 percent fee on bond trades, and a 0.005 percent fee on derivative trades via the Inclusive Prosperity Act.
Sanders also has proposed policies to target Wall Street, including breaking up big banks, limiting financial institutions’ abilities to make risky speculations with insured deposits, and limiting bankers’ abilities to benefit from taxpayer bailouts. Sanders would reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act. Sanders opposes the Export-Import Bank.
He also proposes to introduce post office banking, to offer basic and affordable banking services and make banking services more accessible. He would also cap ATM fees and credit card interest fees at 15%. In addition, he would cap loan interest rates at 15%, and would end payday loans. He would audit the Federal Reserve and make it more of a democratic institution so that it is more responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans. Lastly, he wants to provide support to rural community banks, CDFIs and credit unions.
Sanders would expand social security and would make sure that benefits are paid to every eligible American for the next 52 years. He would also expand benefits including a $1,300 per year benefit increase for seniors with incomes of $16,000 or less. Sanders also suggests increasing the minimum benefits paid to low-income workers when they retire and will increase cost-of-living adjustments to keep up with the rising cost of healthcare and medicine by establishing a Consumer Price Index for the elderly. Sanders would sign an executive order placing a moratorium on future pension cuts and would reduce the cuts to retirement benefits that have already been made.
On affordable housing, Sanders plans to build 7.4 million affordable housing units to close the affordable housing gap. He has introduced legislation to establish the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund and he wants to double funding on HUD’s McKinney-Vento homeless assistance grants. He supports rent control ordinances and their mandates that developers include affordable housing in their new projects.
He also proposes to implement the 10-20-30 approach to federal investments, which would focus substantial federal resources on distressed communities that have high poverty levels. The 10-20-30 formula requires that a minimum of ten percent of federal funds of a particular federal program must go to communities with “persistent” poverty, defined as a county where the poverty level has been 20 percent or higher over the past thirty years. He would end redlining practices (already illegal) and other forms of housing discrimination that still exist.
On rural areas and agriculture, Sanders has three policy initiatives:
1) Policies Leveling the Playing Field for Farmers and Farmworkers
2) Policies to Empower Farmers, Foresters & Ranchers to Address Climate Change and Protect Ecosystems
3) Policies to Foster Investment to Revitalize Rural Communities
The major components of these initiatives follow. For #1, Sanders would enact and enforce Roosevelt-style trust-busting laws to stop monopolization of markets and break-up existing massive agribusinesses. He would place a moratorium on future mergers of large agribusiness corporations and break-up existing massive agribusinesses. He would re-establish and strengthen the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, and like Warren he would ensure farmers have the right to repair their own equipment without needing to go through an authorized repair agent.
For #2, Sanders wants to enact supply management programs to prevent resource shortages and surpluses to ensure farmers make a living wage and ensure consumers receive a high-quality, stable, and secure supply of agricultural goods. He would also re-establish a national grain and feed reserve to help alleviate the need for government subsidies and ensure we have a food supply in case of extreme weather events. He also suggests making sure that a bigger proportion of agricultural subsidies go to small and medium-sized farms. Sanders also puts forward a number of plans to help farmers of color, including $50 million for a Disadvantaged and Beginning Farm State Coordinator program, translation programs, Tribal land access and extension programs. He would also create pathways to citizenship and expanded visas for undocumented farm workers, as well as an end to workplace immigration raids.
For #3, Among many of the programs stated above, Sanders wants to ensure access to high-speed broadband internet for every American.
Energy and Environment
Note: Take a look at the previous research we have published on Buttigieg for a discussion of the costs of the Green New Deal.
In the largest policy section on Sanders’ website, the GND touches almost every facet of all his other plans. He notes that “the climate crisis is not only the single greatest challenge facing our country; it is also our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future, but we must act immediately.”
Sanders is in favor of the Green New Deal, proposed legislation that aims to address climate change and economic inequality. For Sanders, climate issues are major ones and he believes that climate change will lead to an international security crisis if it is not dealt with. It is difficult to discern if his proposed environmental or energy programs are in conjunction with the GND or separate from it.
His plans begin with rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and supporting the scientific findings of the National Climate Assessment and agrees with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings in their assessment reports. He would also create a National Climate Risk Report. He proposes to reach 100% renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030 and complete decarbonization by 2050. Towards these efforts he would invest $16.3 trillion.
He would ban fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure and would ban fossil fuel leases on public land. He would ban offshore drilling, and would end exports of coal, natural gas, and crude oil from the US. In addition, he would divest federal pensions away from fossil fuels. Sanders suggests that he would “make the fossil fuel industry pay” by increasing taxes on fossil fuel income and wealth, raising penalties on pollution from fossil fuel energy generation, and would require fossil fuel infrastructure owners to buy federal fossil fuel bonds to pay for disaster impacts. Sanders would stop building new nuclear power plants.
Sanders would create another Power Marketing Administration and would expand existing PMAs to build more solar, wind, energy storage, and geothermal power plants. $526 billion would be spent on creating a new, modern, underground, renewable electricity grid. He would also invest $964 billion for low- and moderate-income families to invest in cheaper electricity for heating and cooling needs. He previously introduced the Residential Energy Savings Act, which created a voluntary loan program allowing property owners or tenants to finance energy efficient upgrades to residential buildings. Electricity generated through the Green New Deal plan would be publicly owned.
He also proposes to reduce carbon emissions by expanding the passenger rail and public transit systems and encouraging the use of electric vehicles. He would fully decarbonize and electrify the transportation sector including replacing all shipping trucks with electric vehicles at a cost of $216 billion. $85.6 billion would be spent on creating infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations and all new EV stations would be open-access and able to be used with various different payment systems. As part of this transition towards electric vehicles, he would provide grants and trade-in programs for families and small businesses to purchase high-efficiency electric vehicles. School buses would also be replaced with electric buses.
He proposes to dramatically reduce the cost of energy storage and batteries by creating a program called StorageShot, funded with $30 billion. This is based on the previously successful program, the SunShot Initiative, which was run by the Department of Energy in 2011. The intention of the StorageShot plan is to “invest in public research to drastically reduce the cost of energy storage, electric vehicles, and make our plastic more sustainable through advanced chemistry.” Sanders would also invest in a nationwide recycling program. Furthermore, he would place a fee on imported Carbon Pollution-Intensive Goods.
Sanders proposes to support family farms by investing in regenerative and sustainable agriculture. As part of his plan he would also invest $41 billion to help large animal feeding farms to transition towards more regenerative practices, and $41 billion to help socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers who have traditionally been underserved by USDA programs. Sanders also proposes the Rural Energy for America program to promote clean energy options for the agriculture industry. He supports allowing states to require GMO labelling on food products.
He would create a Climate Justice Resiliency Fund. This would require $40 billion in funding and would identify areas with high climate impact vulnerabilities. It would then provide grants to states, territories, municipalities and so on, to be used for climate resiliency projects, backup power, restoration, and environmental hazard reclamation. He would also dedicate significant funding towards fixing the country’s water systems.
Sanders notes that “all projects completed with funding from the Green New Deal will have fair family-sustaining wages, local hiring preferences, project labor and community agreements, including buying clean, American construction materials and paying workers a living wage to the greatest extent possible.” For any fossil fuel industry workers who are displaced by the plan, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit would be provided to employers who hire them. For any displaced workers as a result of this plan, Sanders would also guarantee five years of their current salary, housing assistance, job retraining, healthcare, pension support, and priority job placement. He would invest in infrastructure and programs that are intended to protect the people and communities that will be most affected by climate change, including flooding, wildfires, extreme storms, drought, and sea-level rise.
He notes that communities that need particular assistance in the transition to a clean energy economy would be eligible for additional funding through regional commissions. The idea is that “Green New Deal jobs and job training resources are made available to low-income and disadvantaged communities equitably.” For example, $5.9 billion in funding would be distributed as follows:
- $2.53 billion for the Appalachian Regional Commission
- $506.4 million for the Delta Regional Authority
- $304 million for the Denali Commission
- $405 million for the Northern Border Regional Commission
- $94 million for the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission
- $2.02 billion for Economic Development Assistance Program
Sanders has an ambitious “Medicare for All” policy, which would be a major systemic change to healthcare. This would largely eliminate private insurance and would instead be a single-payer healthcare system. It would have no copay or deductibles.
He would allow Medicare to negotiate with big drug companies directly, with the Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act. He would allow patients, pharmacies, and wholesalers to buy prescription drugs from Canada and other safe industrialized countries, with the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act. Sanders proposes pegging drug prices in the US to the average of five major countries: Japan, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. He would also require companies to disclose the cost of clinical drug trials.
He also has a focus on ensuring that medicine and medical care for seniors is cheaper and more accessible. He would also support seniors being able to stay at home for longer if they wished to do so, under Medicare for All. Lastly, Sanders believes that mental health services should be available to all Americans regardless of income. As part of this, he would expand mental health services for veterans.
Sanders thinks that free trade policies should be ended. He would not rejoin the TPP (Asia) or CPTPP (Europe). He believes that agreements like USMCA, NAFTA, CAFTA, and the PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) have forced American workers to compete against desperate and low-wage labor around the world. He believes these agreements have led to massive job losses in the US.
He believes that the current trade policy with China is detrimental to American workers. Sanders thinks that the massive trade debt with China is also an issue. He also believes that the US needs to work with other international powers to stop Chinese military buildup. He believes that the US should support Tibet and should call on China to respect fundamental human rights in Tibet.
He proposes a new type of trade policy, that would eliminate the incentives for corporations to “ship jobs overseas”, such as getting tax deductions for moving factories abroad. He would also expand “Buy American”, “Buy Local”, and other policies that would increase jobs in the US. Sanders believes inequality and authoritarianism are linked, and that to combat this a global democratic movement should be implemented, ousting authoritarian leaders. His vision is to incorporate tackling economic inequality into foreign policy positions.
Sanders believes that human rights, as well as binding labor and environmental rights should be written into all trade agreements, as well as rules against currency cheating. He would also lead and encourage international financial institutions in the adoption of sustainable energy practices.
Sanders believes that with the growing African population, the US and the world should create room for Africa to play a greater role in setting the global agenda.
Senator Bernie Sanders has plans to change a significant portion of the US economy and restructure many of its key industries. In this summary, we’ll cover only the major policy impacts from his plans. Unlike Warren and Harris, Sanders is a full-throated progressive socialist and his plans reflect his beliefs of redirecting government to change the economy to benefit workers and the environment. Sanders has massive new spending programs and massive new tax changes to pay for those programs. The big caveat to all his programs is the ability to get them through both houses of Congress.
The best paradigm to compare to Sanders’ plans would be the 1930s FDR series of programs known as the New Deal. Sanders’ plans would be the largest intervention of the federal government into the private sector that we would see in our lifetimes. While the New Deal programs were directed to arrest the collapse of the US economy and create the conditions for job growth, the United States currently has a low unemployment rate (3.7%), 7 million job openings and GDP growth of +2%. As Sanders attempts to re-work the US economy, the total impact of his policies is difficult to assess. His policies carry the reward of things like environmental justice, pay equality, reduced racial discrimination, the increase of affordable housing, free (?) healthcare and free (?) college. The risks come in the form of inefficient government spending, reduced investment via higher regulation, inflation caused by his job programs in a low unemployment era, and reduced energy production. As stated under our research on Warren (see the Summary page for Warren), the effectiveness of his policies becomes a question of trade-offs: does the spend match the cost/benefit/risk?
On the positive side, Sanders’ infrastructure plans, under the Rebuild America Act, invest large amounts of money ($1 trillion over the next 5 years), with a focus on rebuilding roads, bridges and airports. This is a level of investment that is necessary for leading the country to rebuild commensurate with the need. As with all of his plans, it is a question of how to pay for it. If it was funded via a gas tax increase or a user fee, this tax or fee would be correctly applied to the outcome or project and to those who use the roads (the idea is that those that benefit, pay). The argument against this funding mechanism is that in some areas these fees can unfairly or disproportionately fall on low- to medium-income workers as a percentage of their incomes.
Another positive is Sanders’ plan to build 7.4 million units of affordable housing, to address the key problem of lack of supply. It is a similar approach to the one that Sen. Warren has taken versus the rent subsidy plan by Sen. Harris. (See Warren for further discussion)
Sanders’ programs to supply broadband to every American and to support rural community banks, CDFIs and credit unions also has merit. Broadband is crucial for farming (GPS, hedging, etc.) and is also important to rural communities for a wide range of services and job opportunities. Given the rise of telecommuting, broadband provides a basic tool for workers to be employed anywhere in the country. On the banking side, access to credit is key for both rural consumers and businesses.
Lastly under the Green New Deal and environment, he proposes the StorageShot plan to reduce the cost of energy storage and batteries. The plan is to “invest in public research to drastically reduce the cost of energy storage, electric vehicles, and make our plastic more sustainable through advanced chemistry.” Solving the issue of storing electricity would radically change all energy production and greatly enhance the world’s ability to reduce carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect on the planet. By storing electricity, you move the energy production from fossil fuels to photoelectric or solar panels. The cost is the delivery infrastructure, not the production (Sun is free). Once you have storage for power generation, then it becomes a question (not small) of creating miniature versions of these storage units for trucks, cars, planes and tankers.
On the negative side, there will be tremendous uncertainty generated by Sanders’ plans. This will be reflected in the financial markets and in the US dollar as investors attempt to understand the breadth of his plans and how they will impact sectors of the economy. From his policies, Sanders believes in allowing the government to direct social change via powerful intervention into the private sector.
As stated in the Warren research, Sanders (and all of the Democratic candidates supporting Medicare for All) would significantly change a large section (+17%) of the US economy. Sanders has stated he believes his health program would cost between $30 and $40 trillion over a 10-year period. As a reminder, Medicare for All would replace the current mix of private and government insurance with a single-payer system. It would transform the sector and mandate dramatic changes in the way patients receive care and how health-care providers do business. It has numerous issues with costs, but the biggest one is the assumption that our current Medicare system would be able to be super-sized for the entire healthcare sector and be able to maintain the lower fee structure.
Previously stated, the Green New Deal would create similar change and lead to high levels of uncertainty for businesses during the transition period. Reverting back to the Paris Climate Agreement and the Clean Power Plan would move the United States towards a cleaner, more sustainable energy structure (with all the accompanying benefits to health and environment), but at a significant cost to the current energy sector and to consumers paying for energy. As an example, ending fracking risks a shut-off of a crucial energy supply that would initially drive the price of crude and natural gas higher due to reduced supply. This would hurt low-to-medium income workers and perversely encourage more global investment in fossil fuels. Finally, any executive orders Sanders issues on his energy policies would risk being unwound by the next Republican president and may be subject to court challenges.
With regard to Sanders’ tax proposals, upper income earners have the capability to adjust their behavior to avoid some of the taxes Sanders proposes. On estate taxes, his changes would fuel behavioral changes for investments to reduce tax liability not to drive economic growth. This would eventually reduce growth rates and investments in family owned businesses like auto dealerships and farms. Still, the tax change would generate tax receipts to pay for his programs, but not likely at the levels Sanders projects.
On corporate taxes, the challenge is to balance being globally competitive when it comes to encouraging business formation and trying to stop companies from leaving the United States. A financial transactions tax will likely raise tax receipts but will also likely be borne by consumers in the form of higher fees on stocks trades and IRA fees.
On trade, Sanders has similar policies to President Trump with similarly negative potential outcomes. Free trade has its issues, but growing trade globally is generally the best path for economic growth, job creation and geopolitical stability. While the problems with China over IP, rule enforcement and services access, completely shutting down all free trade agreements is a destructive economic path.
Without question, Sanders proposes the largest policy changes of all the candidates we have reviewed to date and would represent the largest shift in policy since the Great Depression.