The education of Bernie Sanders, millionaire

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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders answers questions at the Fox News town hall broadcast from Bethlehem, Penn., at April 15.

Oh, I like to have my fun with the economic stylings of Sen. Bernie Sanders — his insistence that trade is bad for American workers and consumers, when it’s obviously not, his insistence that medical innovators and drugmakers are simply greedheads, and not least his get-off-my-lawn grumbling about “millionaires and billionaires.”

All of which was made more uncomfortable this week by the 77-year old senator and Democratic presidential candidate’s disclosure that he is, in fact, a millionaire, having earned the big bucks from his best-selling book “Our Revolution.”

As Pogo said in the funny papers, we have met the enemy, and he is us. And when the revolution comes, dear Bernie, youse on the list now — even if your daddy didn’t give you a million by the time youse was eight, like You Know Who.

“I wrote a best-selling book,’ Sanders says, defensively. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.’’

As amused as I am by all this — and not very tempted by railing at Sanders as a hypocrite, as some are doing — I’m mostly wondering why Sanders thinks his being a millionaire is exceptional or even unusual (there are more than 7 million U.S. households with $1 million in assets, even leaving out home equity).

Let alone a bad thing. Sanders is 77. His wife worked. He’s been in Congress for 28 years, making a salary that began at $98,000 and has held at $174,000 since 2009. They’ve been making in the $300,000 a year neighborhood most years since at least 2009.

And people bought his book. No one made them. So, good for him.

But really, how could this guy possibly avoid being a millionaire long before the book, if he were even minimally prudent about money? In America, for all its sins, might opportunity come more easily than the senator thinks? Let alone if he’s actually thrifty, or a good investor? Aren’t these, well, virtues?

Or if he looks at the American economy and has any idea at all what he is seeing? And if he doesn’t, isn’t that the real problem with his becoming president?

Just think about the numbers. By my calculations, Sanders’ congressional salary through the years comes to a shade over $4 million. His and his wife’ joint income was $282,461.52 as long ago as 2009, according to Sanders’ tax filings. According to Slate writer Jordan Weissman’s analysis of tax returns, the Sanderses give away about 3% of their income — less than Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but more than most other presidential candidates.

The incumbent, famously, had his charitable foundation pay his kid’s $7 Boy Scout dues.

Let’s assume that, like anyone with reasonable liquidity and financial sense, the Sanderses saved 10% of their pretax income. You’d get to well over half a million — before making a cent of return or getting employer matches.

Then let’s assume Sanders, whose financial-disclosure report shows stakes in 36 mutual funds and other investments, actually had some idea what he was doing — or even the humility to punt investing decisions and buy index funds.

He’d have to be trying not to be worth $2 million or more, since the S&P 500












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  have risen tenfold since he’s been in Congress (plus dividends!) That’s before he writes a book, or buys a house any time between the 1980s and 2007. Vermont housing prices doubled between 1997 and 2007 — and have recovered to 2007 levels after getting hit in the financial crisis, according to the Burlington Free Press.

Actually, he owns three houses, according to reliable, agenda-free Fox News.

So how is this guy a socialist?

Not that the senator from the State of Virtue — er, Vermont —have been seduced by creature comforts, or bought off — heavens, no good socialist would do that.

But how could he have owned 46 different funds or stocks as long ago as 2013 and never figured out that companies the funds owned did interesting things that made the world better? And created jobs? Specifically, jobs in the workforce where wages, albeit of working folks who may not fit his stereotypes, are actually rising? And that the stories of companies that are shrinking or laying people off are generally more complicated than his morality tales?

How could his solution to (figuratively) everything — trade, financial regulation and health care for starters — still be to limit the range of free-market action, and substitute a form of central planning or industrial policy instead?

It all points to Sanders’ real problem — not that he’s rich, or a hypocrite, but that he doesn’t seem to learn from experience, and nuance is clearly not his bag. In this, he’s very different than Warren, the other left-of-center favorite in the 2020 Democratic race. In Warren’s version of capitalism, taxes rise and regulation tightens but the center holds.

“I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try. This is what’s so interesting to me,” Warren said in an interview last year. “There were years of not perfect but fairly well-enforced rules that were pretty firmly hit and held.”

Warren, the creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and worth $8 million herself) at least understands where wealth and innovation comes from. Or tries to. The CFPB itself is about helping middle-class families manage money and build wealth themselves, without getting hustled.

Sanders, whose net worth was estimated as negative by the Center for Responsive Politics as recently as 2013, shows little sign of understanding that even little people want to do that. That’s a much worse trait than accumulating some money, or even failing to give much of it away.



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