Bernie Sanders has, for a very long time, been complaining about economic inequality in America. He has made it a theme of his speeches, his books, his congressional service and his presidential campaigning. During last week’s second Democratic presidential debate, no one was surprised when the senator from Vermont declared, “We have a new vision for America. And at a time when we have three people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America, while 500,000 people are sleeping out on the streets today, we think it is time for change, real change.”
This is where Sanders, a democratic socialist who has sometimes been accused of focusing too intensely on economic issues, is coming from. Voters can agree or disagree with the vision. But it is hard to disagree with the basic premise of the argument, which is based on facts and figures.
Unless, apparently, you are a fact-checker for The Washington Post.
Then, you can dismiss the argument that Sanders is making as “not especially meaningful.” That’s what the Post’s Glenn Kessler and his team did in an otherwise useful fact-checking of the second night of Democratic debating. Here’s how the complaint was presented:
“Three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America”—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) This snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up, but it’s also a question of comparing apples to oranges. Sanders is drawing on a 2017 report from the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, which said that three billionaires—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) and Warren Buffett—had total wealth of $248.5 billion, compared to $245 billion for the bottom 160 million of the United States. The wealth of the three men has gone up even more since then.
But people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. So the comparison is not especially meaningful.
Kessler’s an experienced reporter who ably covered the State Department during the Bush-Cheney years and then wrote a fine book on the era, The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. I’m not inclined to gripe about him or his colleagues as much as I am concerned the general failure of major media outlets to “get” the discussion of burgeoning economic inequality in America. Presidential candidates such as Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren know exactly what they are talking about when they raise this issue. They were on top of the story long before most of the media. Yet, they are often treated as if they are promoting dubious theories—even when they slather their statements in data.
Case in point: the complaint about Sanders. The senator, we are informed, delivered a “snappy talking point,” which, despite the condescending tone of the assessment, is what candidates are expected to do in debates. The point was based on what are acknowledged to be “numbers that add up.” If anything, Sanders was circumspect in his assertion. As a savvy Post analyst, Christopher Ingraham. recently noted—in an article headlined, “Income inequality is rising so fast our data can’t keep up”—“Increases in wages at the top are outpacing economists’ ability to measure them.” With that said, however, Ingraham explained in February that “the available data paints a clear picture of broadening disparities between top earners and everyone else.”
Around the same time, Ingraham ably examined research by University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman, which determined that “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties.”
The concentration of wealth worries Sanders, as it does a lot of Americans—many of them Democrats, but also more than a few Republicans; many of them democratic socialists, but even some of the same rich people referenced by the senator. (As a column published last year by the Post explained, “The pope has deplored it. It’s shifted Chinese economic goals and helped fuel populist political movements around the world. Even some of the world’s billionaires fear what might happen if it continues to rise.”)
So what made this particular presidential contender’s debate statement so meaningless? We are informed that the problem with what Sanders said is that a staggeringly high percentage of Americans have “essentially no wealth.” While three very rich people have stockpiled hundreds of billions of apples and oranges (or, if we are going to be precise, the resources to buy all the fruit and housing and education and health care and luxury goods they could ever want), roughly 150,000,000 Americans are having a hard time accumulating apples, oranges, and the money to send their kids to college and pay their insurance premiums and deductibles.
That, of course, is the point that Sanders has been making. Far from being meaningless, it goes to the very heart of a discussion that the Post’s news and opinion columns suggest must be addressed. It is by comparing the numbers, which add up, which are so scant for the many and so great for the few, that Sanders, Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, and a growing number of political leaders have led millions of Americans to understand that “inequality” is another word for “injustice.” And this injustice is meaningful for all of society.