Correcting David Brooks’ Mischaracterizations of Bernie Sanders’ Proposals

David Brooks penned a column on February 12, 2016, in The New York Times entitled “Livin’ Bernie Sanders’s Danish Dream.” In it, he criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders, arguing that the Danish social democratic system and similar European systems are inferior to our own. Sanders, as we know, describes himself as a social Democrat.

Brooks’ writing on matters of character is eloquent; his book, The Road to Character, was superb. He should stick to matters of character, as his criticism of Sanders’ proposals to bring fairness to our economic and political systems was full of historical errors and inaccurate comparisons to European nations.

To begin with, Brooks states that the US system “… has favored higher living standards for consumers while [Europe] has favored stability for employees and producers.” Where is the evidence supporting the claim ofhigher US living standards in 2016? The US poverty rate exceeds that of the countries he uses for comparison, and US wages have been stagnant for decades. The system Brooks praises has erased millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs through misguided trade agreements boosted by the giants of the US economic system, and has replaced them with far less remunerative service jobs, or no jobs at all. Has the US system Brooks praises provided paid parental leave and support for newborns, as do the countries he derides? The answer is a resounding “no.”

As both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have pointed out in numerous speeches, the American “higher living standard” to which Brooks refers has only benefited the tiniest fraction of the US population. Yes, we have more billionaires and multimillionaires, but the average citizens of the European countries attacked byBrooks live better lives than do our average Americans. Brooks reminds me of a serf of old arguing with another serf over whose lord’s castle is bigger, while ignoring the wretched conditions in which he and his fellow serf and their families live.

Bipartisan Consensus for Our Style of Capitalism

Brooks’ next assertion is that the United States has “…. had a bipartisan consensus that we should stick to our style of capitalism and our style of welfare state.”Really? Beginning with the presidential victory of actor Ronald Reagan (recall his slogan that “government is the problem”), and accelerating through the rise ofperhaps the greatest US propagandist ever, Newt Gingrich, US capitalism has savaged American workers while the so-called US welfare state has been under unrelenting siege … and the siege goes on. Just listen to theproposals of the Congressional Republicans and the Republican presidential candidates. They are an army ofmercenaries for the upper-class, waging relentless war on the middle and lower economic classes. The supporters of our government’s effort to ease the burden of those ground down by this warfare have been fighting an increasingly difficult rear-guard action. If Brooks really wants to know why “… the millennial generation has rejected this consensus,” it is because millenials know that our current system is on life support, and when it ends, they will be left devastated.

One of Brooks’ more interesting criticisms of Europe is its tax burden. To be sure, taxes there are high in comparison to the US, but what is the other side of the coin? An absence of huge personally-paid health-care premiums means more disposable family and individual incomes. At the same time, the existence of a comprehensive system of coverage in Europe achieves better health care outcomes than in the US. The evidenceof this can be found by examining the data of the World Health Organization which ranks our system as 37th in the world. Such an examination would reveal how poorly we stand versus other countries on such things as infant and maternal mortality, and life expectancy. The US rankings are a disgrace, especially as the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development shows that our per-capita health care costs are the highest in the OECD countries: 34th out of 34. 2015.

Educational Opportunity

High European tax rates also allow for free college tuition such as in Germany where tuition was completely ended in 2014. Other European countries also have free or low tuition, and a comprehensive system ofvocational education. If a family does not have to pay tuition, then that also contributes to higher disposable incomes, and the resulting educational opportunities make for improved job prospects in the future. A further benefit of the system of free tuition is a highly educated population which is a necessity for countries to compete in the world economy.

Brooks makes fun of the Sanders proposal for free college tuition at public universities by claiming Germany has “… a legion of eternal students …” Too bad he hasn’t noticed the legion of US non-students who cannot afford a college education, and still more US students trapped in debt for years from having to borrow to pay for their education.

What does this lack of opportunity mean here? The Los Angeles Times of July 2, 2015 reported these developments in the California public university system: 79 percent of California applicants were accepted in 1999. In 2015, it was 60 percent. To make up the difference, California has been admitting out-of-state and foreign students. In-state tuition is $12,200. Out-of-state tuition is $36,900. In 2014, the California public university system admitted 15,317 foreign students, the bulk of whom were from China, Korea and Japan. Why are we facing this reduction in support for our students? Because to provide more college opportunity for American students means (gasp!) raising taxes to pay for it.

Reshaping Our US System and Values

Brooks states that Sanders “…. wants to reshape the American economic system, and thus American culture and values.” Well, surprise! Reshaping has happened repeatedly in our history. There’s nothing wrong with reshaping the US economic system when it becomes stacked against the ordinary citizens of the country, as it so obviously is today.

After all, the preamble to our Constitution includes these words: “… promote the general welfare …” Such promoting has always been done by a government reshaping our system when the need has arisen, not by a government “frozen in the ice of its own indifference,” as Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated at the democratic Convention in 1936.

It’s time to embrace the reshaping of both our economic and political systems if we are to avoid the steady decline of both individual opportunity and our county’s “general welfare.” Brooks’ parade of straw men and non sequiturs is not the answer to our problems, but simply a recipe for avoiding them, which we do at our own collective peril.