Does Bernie Sanders’s economic program amount to pie-in-the-sky nonsense? The short answer is no. All of his major proposals are grounded in solid economic reasoning and evidence.
But that hasn’t stopped a major swath of leading liberal economists and commentators to insist otherwise. Paul Krugman has led these attacks from his New York Times perch, charging repeatedly that Sanders makes “outlandish economic claims,” embraces “deep voodoo” economics, is “not ready for prime time,” and so forth. A recent Washington Post article by columnist Steven Pearlstein cites several other liberal economists criticizing Sanders’s support for Scandinavian-style social democratic policies, concluding that his program “promises all the good parts of the Scandinavian model without any of the bad parts.”
Sanders’s economic agenda certainly represents a dramatic departure from what has come out of mainstream Democratic Party circles for a generation, to say nothing, of course, of the Republicans. The key elements of Sanders’s program include a “Medicare-for-all” single-payer healthcare system; an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour; free tuition at public colleges and universities, to be financed by taxing Wall Street transactions; opposition to trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that have weakened the wage-bargaining power of US workers; large-scale public investments to build a clean-energy economy and rebuild the crumbling US infrastructure; and strong Wall Street regulations to promote productive investments and job creation over casino capitalism.
By contrast, the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton embraced an only moderately less aggressive pro-business agenda than the Republicans. Clintonomics featured Wall Street deregulation, NAFTA, and only tepid support for policies benefitting working people and the poor. This is how, over the full eight years of the Clinton presidency, average wages ended up being 2 percent lower than the average under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and nearly 10 percent less than under Jimmy Carter’s “years of malaise.”
Barack Obama’s presidency has certainly delivered important economic policy accomplishments, despite relentless Republican opposition. These include preventing a 1930s-level Depression after the 2008–09 Wall Street crash, steadily bringing unemployment down in the aftermath of the Great Recession, greatly expanding healthcare insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, and promoting clean energy investments. Nevertheless, inequality has continued to rise under Obama; 33 million people still did not have health insurance at the end of 2014; greenhouse-gas emissions causing climate change have not significantly fallen; and average wages for non-supervisory workers remain below their 1973 level, despite average productivity having more than doubled over the past 40 years. Overall economic growth since Obama took office has also been weaker than any comparable period since the Great Depression.