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What Bernie Said, Part I

At the time of this writing

At the time of this writing, legislation to formalize the tax deal between President Obama and congressional Republicans cleared cloture by a large margin, and looked ready to sail through the Senate. Polls indicate a large margin of Americans approve of the deal, and newspapers like the Washington Post are hailing the process as “the most significant bipartisan vote since President Obama took office.”

Not everyone agrees.

Last week, a battery of congressional Democrats rose up in outrage over the deal, specifically protesting not only the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for rich people, but for the attack on the payroll tax, which many see as the beginning of the end of Social Security.

Leading the charge was Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who took to the well of the Senate on Friday to deliver a marathon eight-and-a-half hour denunciation of the deal. As his speech rose and grew, bloggers and “mainstream” media reporters, and then the networks, focused on the fact that it was happening. Articles debated whether this was a “true” filibuster, or merely a very long speech, and a few snippets of what Sanders said were disseminated.

The thing was, if you were not watching C-SPAN, or if you didn’t have eight hours to spare, you probably missed the vast majority of what he had to say. No articles I could find repeated his more salient points at any length, and by the end of the weekend, it was as if the event had not taken place.

Not on my watch, folks.

The speech delivered by Mr. Sanders on Friday ranks among the most important I have ever heard in my life, certainly the single most pertinent expression of fact and outrage that has been delivered in this current climate of “compromise” and collapse. He told more truth in his eight hours than many of us have heard from an elected official in the last ten years, and it would be a disgrace if his eloquence faded into the background without the study and reflection it deserves.

The thing is, Mr. Sanders basically recited a book on Friday; the sheer volume of what he had to say is staggering. I highly recommend reading the entire transcript yourself when you have the time, but make enough time; the full transcript is 124 pages long. In lieu of that, I took the time to cull out and highlight what I consider to be the most pertinent aspects of the speech. Because there is so much, I have broken these highlights into two parts. The second part will run later in the week, whether or not this tax deal passes.

What Sanders had to say is too important to miss. The emphasis added in these passages is mine. He begins below with an examination of the so-called “death tax”:

This agreement includes a horrendous proposal regarding the estate tax. That is a Teddy Roosevelt initiative. Teddy Roosevelt was talking about this in the early years of the 20th century. It was enacted in 1916 and it was enacted for a couple of reasons. Teddy Roosevelt and the people of that era thought it was wrong that a handful of people could have a huge concentration of wealth and then give that wealth, transmit that wealth to their children. He did not think that was right.

Let us be very clear: This tax applies only – only – to the top three-tenths of 1 percent of American families; 99.7 percent of American families will not pay one nickel in an estate tax. This is not a tax on the rich, this is a tax on the very, very, very rich.

If my Republican friends had been successful in doing what they want to do, which is eliminate this estate tax completely, it would have cost our Treasury—raised the national debt by $1 trillion over a 10-year period. Families such as the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, would have received, just this one family, about a $30 billion tax break.

It is all too rare these days to actually hear an elected official jump up and down on the fact that this country has been neatly divided between the scrabbling, scratching majority and an all-powerful micro-minority that gets every break there is to get. Thirty billion for one family? How many schools is that?

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From there, Mr. Sanders moved on to the assault on Social Security:

Even though Social Security contributed nothing to the current economic crisis, it has been bartered in a deal that provides deficit-busting tax cuts for the wealthy. Diverting $120 billion in Social Security contributions for a so-called “tax holiday” may sound like a good deal for workers now, but it’s bad business for the program that a majority of middle-class seniors will rely upon in the future.

While this idea of lowering the payroll tax sounds like a good idea, in truth, it really is not a good idea. This idea originated from very conservative Republicans whose intention from the beginning was to destroy Social Security by choking off the funds that go to it. This is not just Bernie Sanders’ analysis. There was recently – I distributed it recently at a meeting we held – a news release that came from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. The headline on that press release is “Cutting Contributions to Social Security Signals the Beginning of the End. Payroll Tax Holiday is Anything But.” What the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which is one of the largest senior groups in America, well understands is that there are people out there who want to destroy Social Security. And one way to do that is to divert funds into the Social Security trust fund and they don’t get there.

A majority of Americans were against extending tax cuts for the wealthy, and a whole lot of people have been wondering for a while why this administration and this congress have not instead focused as intently as required on the subject of job creation. Mr. Sanders has a simple solution:

As a former mayor, infrastructure does not get better if you ignore it. You can turn your back, if you are a mayor or Governor, on the roads and the highways because you do not have the money to fix them today, but they are not going to get better next year. At some point, they are going to have to be repaired and fixed. We may as well do that right now.

So I believe the money, the very substantial sums of money in this agreement between the President and the Republicans, which goes into tax breaks for corporate America, could be effectively spent on infrastructure.

According to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, $225 billion is needed annually for the next 50 years to upgrade our surface transportation system to a state of good repair and create a more advanced system. The Federal Highway Administration reports that $130 billion must be invested annually for a 20-year period to improve our bridges and the operational performance of our highways. At present, one in four of the Nation’s bridges is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. One in four of our bridges is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Yet in this agreement struck by the President and the Republican leadership, to the best of my knowledge, not one nickel is going into our infrastructure. We need to invest in our infrastructure. We need to improve our infrastructure. When we do that, we can create millions of jobs.

From there, Mr. Sanders went on to remind everyone about the nightmare that was the Bush years, and what kind of damage was done to this country because of it. From there, he made several pointed remarks about what he believes to be the true foundations of Republican ideology:

The passage of this agreement would mean we would continue the Bush policy of trickle-down economics for at least 2 more years. That is not a good thing to do because, I think, as most Americans know, that philosophy, that economic approach, simply did not work. The evidence is quite overwhelming. I do not think there is much debate, when median family income during Bush’s 8 years goes down by $2,200, when we end up losing over 600,000 private sector jobs, and all of the job growth was in the Federal level, I do not see how anybody would want to continue that philosophy. But that, in essence, is what will happen if this agreement is passed.

During the Bush years, the wealthiest 400 Americans saw their incomes more than double. Do you really think that after seeing a doubling of their incomes under the Bush years, these people are in desperate need of another million-dollar-a-year tax break? In 2007, the 400 top income earners in this country made an average of $345 million in 1 year. That is a pretty piece of change. That is the average, $345 million. In terms of wealth, as opposed to income, the wealthiest 400 Americans saw an increase in their wealth of some $400 billion during the Bush years. Imagine that. During an 8-year period, the top 400 wealthiest people each saw an increase, on average, of $1 billion apiece. Together, these 400 families have a collective net of $1.27 trillion. Does anybody in America really believe these guys need another tax break so that our kids and our grandchildren can pay more in taxes because the national debt has gone up?

Let me also say there is no doubt in my mind what many – not all but many – of my Republican colleagues want to do; that is, they want to move this country back into the 1920s when essentially we had an economic and political system which was controlled by big money interests; where working people and the middle class had no programs to sustain them when things got bad, when they got old, and when they got sick; when labor unions were very hard to come by because of anti-worker legislation. That is what they want. They do not believe in things like the Environmental Protection Agency. They do not believe in things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Federal aid to education. That is the fight we will be waging.

This point cannot be made strongly enough: What our Republican friends want to do – and they have been pretty honest and up front about it, especially some of the extreme, rightwing people who have been running for office and, in some cases, have won – they have been honest enough to say they want to bring this country back to where we were in the 1920s. Their ultimate aim is the basic repeal of almost all of the provisions that have been passed in the last 70 years to protect working people, the elderly, and children. They believe in a Darwinian-style society in which you have the survival of the fittest; that we are not a society which comes together to take care of all of us. You take care of me in need and I take care of you and your family; that we are one people. Their strategy is pretty clear. They want to ultimately destroy Social Security.

Once again, Sanders dared to raise a subject almost no one in Washington DC has the courage to touch – how much economic damage we have suffered, and continue to suffer, because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

In terms of the Federal budget, when President Bush first took office, he inherited a $236 billion surplus in 2001 and a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. That is what Senator Landrieu was discussing. But then some things happened. We all know that 9/11 was not his fault, but what happened is, we went to war in Afghanistan. We went to war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was the fault of President Bush, something I certainly did not support, nor do I think most Americans supported. The war in Iraq, by the time our last veteran is taken care of, will probably end up costing us something like $3 trillion, adding enormously to our national debt.

So when we talk about Iraq, it is not only the terrible loss of life that our soldiers and the Iraqi people have experienced, let’s not forget what it has done to the deficit and the national debt. We did not pay for the war in Iraq. We just put it on the credit card.

This below was my favorite part. Rather than continuing to deal in abstractions and bland figures, Mr. Sanders laid it on the table and put a name and a face to the greed that has been driving us into the dirt:

Let me personalize this a little bit. This gentleman, shown in this picture I have in the Chamber – I have no personal animus toward him at all; I think I met him once in a large room. His name is James Dimon. He is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Over the past 5 years, Mr. Dimon, who is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, received $89 million in total compensation – a bank that we now know received hundreds of billions in low-interest loans and other financial assistance from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department.

So Mr. Dimon received $89 million in total compensation. His bank was bailed out big time by the taxpayers. But under the legislation the President negotiated with the Republicans, Mr. Dimon – I use him just as one example for thousands; nothing personal to Mr. Dimon – will receive $1.1 million in tax breaks. So $1.1 million in tax breaks for a major CEO on Wall Street, who over the last 5 years received $89 million in total compensation.

Meanwhile – just to contrast what is going on here – 2 days ago, I brought before the Senate legislation which would provide a $250 one-time check to over 50 million seniors and disabled veterans, who for the last 2 years have not received a COLA on their Social Security. Many of those seniors and disabled vets are trying to get by on $14,000, $15,000, $18,000 a year. The total package for that bill was approximately $14 billion that would go out to over 50 million seniors and disabled vets. We won that vote on the floor of the Senate 53 to 45. But just because you get 53 votes in the Senate does not mean you win. Because the Republicans filibustered, I needed 60 votes. I could not get 60 votes. I could not get one Republican vote to provide a $250 check to a disabled veteran trying to get by on $15,000 or $16,000 a year.

But Mr. Dimon, who made $89 million in the last 5 years, will get a $1 million tax deduction if this agreement is passed. Now, that may make sense to some people. It does not make a lot of sense to me.

In America today – we don’t talk about this too much, but it is time we did – we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the industrialized world. I haven’t heard too many people talk about that issue. Why not? Our Republican colleagues want huge tax breaks for the richest people, but the reality is the top 1 percent already today owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. How much more do they want? When is enough enough? Do they want it all? We already have millions of families today who have zero wealth. They owe more than they own. Millions of families have below zero wealth. We are living in a situation where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. That is simply unacceptable.

According to the Citizens for Tax Justice, if the Bush tax breaks for the top 2 percent are extended, these are some of the people who will benefit and what kind of benefits they will receive: Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corporation, would receive a $1.3 million tax break next year. Mr. Murdoch is a billionaire. Do we really think he needs that? Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, whose bank got a $29 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve, will receive a $1.1 million tax break. Trust me, Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, is doing just fine. Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citigroup, the bank that got a $50 billion bailout, would receive $785,000 in tax breaks. Ken Lewis, the former CEO of Bank of America – a bank that got a $45 billion bailout—the guy is already fabulously wealthy – would receive a $713,000 tax break. The CEO of Wells Fargo – these are the largest banks in America; the CEOs of these banks are already making huge compensation. John Stumpf, who is the CEO of Wells Fargo, would receive a $318,000 tax break every single year. The CEO of Morgan Stanley, John Mack, whose bank got a $10 billion bailout, would receive a $926,000 a year tax break. The CEO of Aetna, Ronald Williams, would receive a tax break worth $875,000.

Mr. Sanders has been leading the push to expose the insane lending policies practiced by the Federal Reserve during the onset of the financial crisis. Trillions of dollars were doled out to American companies as well as foreign companies and banks, with no oversight and no accountability, while Americans debated the comparably meager $700 billion bailout, having no idea what was going on in the Fed. When Sanders tried to get answers, he was told by Fed officials to go pound sand. On Friday, he let us know about it:

After years of stonewalling, the American people have learned the incredible, jaw-dropping details of the Fed’s multimillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street and corporate America – not just Wall Street. It is one of the things we learned. As a result of this disclosure, in my view – we are going to get into what was in what we learned—Congress has to take a very extensive look at all aspects of how the Federal Reserve functions and how we can make our financial institutions more responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans and small businesses.

Then, on top of that, a number of the wealthiest individuals in this country also received a major bailout from the Fed. The “emergency response,” which is what the Fed described their action as during the Wall Street collapse, appears to any objective observer to have been the clearest case that I can imagine of socialism for the very rich and rugged free market capitalism for everybody else.

Furthermore, what we now know is the extent of the bailout for the large financial corporations. Goldman Sachs received nearly $600 billion. Morgan Stanley received nearly $2 trillion. Citigroup received $1.8 trillion. Bear Stearns received nearly $1 trillion. And Merrill Lynch received some $1.5 trillion in short-term loans from the Fed.

Furthermore, I think the American people are interested to know that the Fed bailed out the Korea Development Bank, the wholly owned, state-owned Bank of South Korea, by purchasing over $2 billion of its commercial paper. The sole purpose of the Korea Development Bank is to finance and manage major industrial projects to enhance the national economy not of the United States of America but of South Korea. I am not against South Korea. I wish the South Koreans all the luck in the world. But it should not be the taxpayers of the United States lending their banks’ money to create jobs in South Korea. I would suggest maybe we want to create jobs in the United States of America. At the same time, the Fed also extended over $40 billion for the Central Bank of South Korea so that it had enough money to bail out its own banks.

After the cloture vote, Mr. Sanders released a statement explaining why he voted “No”:

It makes no sense to me to provide huge tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires while we drive up the national debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. I further object strenuously to the lowering of rates on the estate tax, which only benefits the top 0.3 percent, the very, very wealthiest people in this country. I also am concerned about a significant precedent which diverts $112 billion in payroll taxes away from the Social Security trust fund. Our goal now must be to strengthen Social Security, not weaken it. Of course we must extend unemployment benefits and the tax breaks that the middle class desperately needs, but in my view we could have and should have negotiated a much stronger agreement.

As previously stated, the entire transcript from Friday is well worth a long, close read, for Mr. Sanders went into much greater detail and at greater length than has been provided above. This is just a taste, but what a taste. The sad realities and hard truths provided by Mr. Sanders must be spread far and wide, passed from hand to hand, repeated ad nauseam until everyone within reach of your arm is aware of what is really going on today. He had the courage to tell it straight. We must not let his words fade away.

Part II will be coming later this week.

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