Web Only / Features » February 8, 2016
The New Yorker’s Blind Shooting at Bernie Sanders
Sanders’ appeal to millennials isn’t “retro”—it’s because eight years after the Great Recession, young people are still feeling the squeeze.
This post first appeared at FAIR.org.
It’s clear that Bernie Sanders has gotten many mainstream types upset. After all, he is raising issues about the distribution of wealth and income that they would prefer be kept in academic settings, certainly not pushed front and center in a presidential campaign.
In response, we are seeing endless shots at Sanders’ plans for financial reform, healthcare reform and expanding Social Security. Many of these pieces raise perfectly reasonable questions, both about Sanders’ goals and his route for achieving them. But there are also many pieces that just shoot blindly. It seems the view of many in the media is that Sanders is a fringe candidate, so it’s not necessary to treat his positions with the same respect awarded the views of a Hillary Clinton or a Marco Rubio.
The New Yorker is clearly in this attack mode. It ran a piece by Alexandra Schwartz asking, “Should Millennials Get Over Bernie Sanders?” You can guess the answer.
But the piece runs into serious problems getting there. It tells readers:
[Sanders’] obsession with the banks and the bailout is itself phrased in weirdly retro terms, the stuff of an invitation to a 2008-election theme party. As my colleague Ben Wallace-Wells points out, we voters under 30 have come of political age during the economic recovery under President Obama. When I graduated from college, unemployment was close to 10 per cent; it’s now at 5. Sanders’ attention to socioeconomic justice is stirring and necessary, but when his campaign tweets that it’s “high time we stopped bailing out Wall Street and started repairing Main Street,” you have to wonder why his youngest supporters, so attuned to staleness in all things cultural, are letting him get away with political rhetoric that would have seemed old even in 2012.
Those familiar with economic data know the labor market, which is the economy for the vast majority of the public, is very far from recovering from the recession. While the unemployment rate is reasonably low, this is largely because millions of workers have dropped out of the workforce.
And, contrary to what is often asserted, these are not retiring baby boomers or people without the skills needed in a modern economy. The employment rate of prime-age workers (ages 25–54) is still down by 3.0 percentage points from its prerecession level. Furthermore, this drop is for workers at all levels of educational attainment. Employment rates are even down for workers with college and advanced degrees. Other measures of labor market strength, like the percentage of people involuntarily working part-time, the quit rate and the duration of unemployment spells, are all still at recession levels.
Furthermore, the huge shift from wages to profits that we saw in the downturn has not been reversed. As a result, wages are more than 6.0 percent lower than they would be if the labor share had not changed.
If this stuff is hard for New Yorker editor-types to understand: If workers lose 6.0 percent of their wages to profit, it has the same impact on their living standards as if they faced a 6.0 percentage point increase in the payroll tax. Would the New Yorker think that today’s young people have anything to complain about if they had seen an increase in the payroll tax in 2009–10 of 6.0 percentage points, which still remains in place today?
If the answer to that one is “yes,” then its editors should be able to understand why millennials in 2016 are unhappy about the state of the economy, and why they might find a figure like Senator Sanders attractive.
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Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and co-author of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000).