Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 16, 2016

Left-leaning critics of Sanders? Left of Attila the Hun that is

Filed under: Bernie Sanders — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

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When I saw the headline in today’s NY Times “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans”, I bet myself a bottle of good Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand before reading the article that the “left-leaning” economists are not people like Michael Perelman or Richard Wolff. Naturally, given the paper’s backing for Hillary Clinton, this was a safe bet. The wine will go nicely with the Mahi Mahi later tonight that was probably caught in the waters near New Zealand. Yummy.

Before examining the article, I should say that I am very sympathetic to Sanders’s economic program. Calling for universal Medicare and free college education is a perfect way to counter the neoliberal programs of every other candidate and even to force Clinton to shift to the left (mostly rhetorically). That being said, I have not voted for a Democrat since 1964 when LBJ essentially carried out Barry Goldwater’s agenda in Vietnam. It was only three years later when I became a Trotskyist that I fully understood how the American two-party system operated. Unlike the training I got from people like Farrell Dobbs and George Novack, however, I am much more flexible on the type of party I find acceptable. James P. Cannon regarded Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign as “bourgeois” while I consider it a model for the type of party that is needed now. Since Jill Stein’s candidacy for the Green Party is close to that in spirit, that is who I will be voting for.

Turning to the Times article written by one Jackie Calmes, a member of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, it justifies a complaint to the Times ombudsperson at public@nytimes.com. This is like a number of think tanks at Harvard, a marriage of the corporate elite and the media hacks who have scrambled to the top of the heap defending its interests. The center was started with funding by Walter Shorenstein, a real estate developer who was a long time power broker in the Democratic Party. To give you an idea of the Center’s politics, Michael Ignatieff, a major supporter of Bush’s war in Iraq, is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Press, Politics and Public Policy. This is like having someone like David Horowitz being named the Edward Said professor at Columbia University.

The article begins with an attack on Medicare for All that claims that Clinton was not aggressive enough in her charge that it would increase the size of government by 40 percent. It cited a “respected health economist” who said it would be more like 50 percent. So who is this left-leaning critic of Medicare for all?

It is none other than Kenneth Thorpe, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet and had a central role in formulating his ill-fated health care reform proposals.

Next in line to take a whack at Medicare for All is one Austan Goolsbee:

By the reckoning of the left-of-center economists, none of whom are working for Mrs. Clinton, the proposals would add $2 trillion to $3 trillion a year on average to federal spending; by comparison, total federal spending is projected to be above $4 trillion in the next president’s first year. “The numbers don’t remotely add up,” said Austan Goolsbee, formerly chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, now at the University of Chicago.

Left-leaning? Austan Goolsbee? Before Obama was a nominee for President in his first term, I came to the conclusion that his “hope and change” mantra was garbage based simply on the economics advisers he chose for his campaign.

Although it is not widely understood, Obama is pretty much committed to the neoclassical economics outlook of his home-town University of Chicago. Since becoming Senator, he has relied on the advice of a professor named Austan Goolsbee, who calls himself “a centrist, market economist” (Washington Times, July 16, 2007).

Goolsbee has been a columnist for Slate.com and the NY Times, as well as a standup comedian. His economics are not meant as a joke, as I understand it. His columns are written very much in the same vein as fellow U. of Chicago neoclassical economist Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics,” examining everyday problems such as “Why you get stuck for hours at O’Hare.” Most are fairly uncontroversial except for the swipe he took at Michael Moore’s “Sicko”, whose single-payer recommendations violate his free market principles.

Right. Very left-leaning if the comparison is to Attila the Hun, I suppose.

By the way, if you are looking for what genuinely left-leaning analysts think of this business, I urge you to read David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler’s dismantling of Thorpe that appeared in the Huffington Post:

In summary, professor Thorpe grossly underestimates the administrative savings under single-payer; posits increases in the number of doctor visits and hospitalizations that exceed the capacity of doctors and hospitals to provide this added care; assumes that the federal government would provide state and local governments with huge windfalls rather than requiring full maintenance of effort; makes no mention of the vast current tax subsidies for private coverage whose elimination would provide hundreds of billions annually to fund a single-payer program; and ignores savings on drugs and medical equipment that every other single-payer program has reaped.

Although he did have some credibility as a left-leaning economist in a previous lifetime, Jared Bernstein sold his soul to the devil when he became Vice President Biden’s economic adviser. Ensconced now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bernstein was called upon to deliver a verdict on a paper by Gerald Friedman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is Sanders’s adviser.

“We need a deep investment in infrastructure, more efficient health care and less student debt,” Mr. Bernstein said. “But when you put it all together, government’s role in the economy goes well beyond anything we’ve ever considered.” He said protecting the Affordable Care Act against Republican opposition should be a higher priority — a critique echoed by Mrs. Clinton.

Just what you’d expect from someone drawing a salary from the Obama administration. Worries over “government’s role in the economy” and protecting Obamacare. Feh.

Calmes also invokes Paul Krugman as a “left-leaning” critic of Sanders. I don’t want to waste any words on Krugman except to say that I stopped reading him about eight years ago when he began focusing most of his wrath on Obama’s enemies in the Republican Party. That was also around the same time I bailed on MSNBC.

Next up in her rogue’s gallery is one Henry J. Aaron, “a longtime health economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington” (Brookings is a dead giveaway that he is a centrist) who belongs to a “lefty chat group”, which you can be assured is not PEN-L or anything remotely resembling it. In that chat group, Aaron has been arguing that fighting for a single-payer plan would destroy his political capital.

Since Aaron is a member along with Jared Bernstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it is worth saying a word or two about this outfit. To start with, its founder Robert Greenstein was one of Bill Clinton’s appointees to the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform in 1994. Co-chaired by the neoliberal war criminal Robert Kerrey and Republican Senator John Danforth, it proposed among other things raising the age for the full benefits for Social Security from 65 to 70. I have no idea how Greenstein voted in the deliberations there but do have to wonder how he was nominated in the first place. I doubt if Sanders would have been picked if you gather my drift.

All these people from Kenneth Thorpe to Jared Bernstein represent “left-leaning” to the political arbiters of the permissible spectrum at the NY Times. Clearly, Sanders falls outside that spectrum in more or less the same way that Trump falls outside the Republican Party spectrum. It is too bad that Sanders lacks the killer instinct of Trump who had the guts to lambaste George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq. I only wish that Sanders had half the gumption to go after the entire Carter-Clinton-Obama Democratic Party neoliberal edifice that is likely to continue with the election of Hillary Clinton. If Sanders would lose votes if he stopped pulling his punches, the real loser would be the American people who need to hear a critique of how we have ended up in such an unequal society that is rotting apart like a dead animal’s carcass in the desert. At least we have Jill Stein who knows how to throw a powerful uppercut (http://www.jill2016.com/plan):

A Green New Deal:

Create millions of jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable agriculture, and conservation.

Jobs as a Right:

Create living-wage jobs for every American who needs work, replacing unemployment offices with employment offices. Advance workers rights to form unions, achieve workplace democracy, and keep a fair share of the wealth they create.

End Poverty:

Guarantee economic human rights, including access to food, water, housing, and utilities, with effective anti-poverty programs to ensure every American a life of dignity.



  1. Typical readers of The Unrepentant Marxist and Counter Punch may feel that Bernie Sanders “is pulling his punches” with regard to countering Hillary Clinton’s campaign hysterics (and their echoes in the NYT and similar organs of the apparatchikarchy). But, Bernie (and his campaign tacticians) may in fact be calibrating his fire just right, because there are overwhelmingly more Americans who are not so politically turbocharged as UMers and CPers, and the present level of intensity of Bernie’s rhetoric seems to be very effective at waking them up and drawing them in. A more strident presentation by Bernie now might strike the blacks and women in the Carolinas (and beyond) as insulting and off-putting (as for instance Trump’s attacks are for many despite their sympathy with his politics). Bernie is an experienced politician and (like a cobra) knows it is important to keep his limited amount of venom in reserve, and not spit it all out against lesser provocations early in the hunt, but to save it for a fatal strike nearer the end of the chase, and at the crescendo of the drama. Many of the Republicans and Hillary now look increasingly impotent because they spit out big wads of their venom early, which were quickly seen by the public to be ineffective (lies, hissy fits, clumsy fumbles), and these failures shifted the public image of such candidates from being powerful leaders to being pathetic losers. Bernie is doing so well in corralling the public consciousness because he is pursuing his own agenda as regards delivering his message, rather than allowing himself to be distracted and diverted into taking red herring poisoned bait tossed in his path by the despairing Clintonites. In brief, in this election cycle Bernie’s campaign is the most successful of any candidate so far (he must be doing something right), AND there is still a long way to go.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — February 16, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

  2. I don’t know if he is exactly doing anything right except to articulate the sort of left-liberalism you hear on MSNBC or read on Salon.com. None of this can possibly translate into a radical movement of the kind that can challenge the two-party system. I hate to sound jaded but I went through this back in 1984 with Jackson’s campaign. Once the convention nominates Clinton as it surely will, the Sanders “movement” will evaporate just as quickly as the Rainbow Coalition. Sanders, like Jackson, is a Democrat. Once upon a time he was a radical, not exactly the same kind of radical as me but enough to foster the development of a genuine 3rd party movement in Vermont. Those days are long gone. As someone once said, that was in another country and besides the wench is dead.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 16, 2016 @ 11:53 pm

  3. I’m voting for Jill Stein also.it will be the second time I have done so. It is very satisfying. First, because it is a reasonable compromise with the ideologues of new age capital, and second, because it confirms for me that I am in no way the purist people tell me I am, being a Marxist who swings wildly between Mariategui, clr james, Rosa Luxemburg And situationism. And finally, because I know for fact that a vote for the democrats this year is not a compromise, which would imply some give and take. Here I stand, said Paul robeson. I can do no more. On Feb 16, 2016 8:53 AM, “Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist” wrote:

    > louisproyect posted: ” When I saw the headline in today’s NY Times > “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans”, I bet > myself before a bottle of good Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand reading the > article that the “left-leaning” economists are not people ” >

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — February 17, 2016 @ 12:31 am

  4. Bernie Sanders is younger than most politicians, pundits (whether unpaid freelance amateurs or professional touts), lobbyists, and professionals of every sort: the people who are all set, the people whose youth is behind them. Sanders is like Michael Moore in this regard. Like the childish youth who didn’t need a weatherman to tell them which way the wind blew in 1989, and chiseled away at the Berlin Wall, Sanders is like all kids when told by mommy and daddy “no, you can’t do that” and asks: “why not?” Is there some law of physics preventing it? It is obvious why he carries the youth vote: anyone with any future yet to be achieved wants to support a politics that favors their aspirations in the here and now. The insurmountable barrier seen by the people who are all set is entirely a mental one, an inertia anchored in place by habits and “investments.” I have children aged between 16 and 34, and I view the political scene through the potentialities for their futures, as do they (it’s not about old me or my sophisticated political tastes). If the sclerotic politburo of the Democratic Party ultimately thwarts progress and puts Hillary up as the candidate, I’ll vote for Jill Stein. There are still 11 months to go before I have to consider that; much can happen between now and then. If Bernie is ultimately sidelined, his movement won’t actually go away because the “movers,” the “youth” who still want futures (my children included), will still be there. They (we) will just shift to other vehicles to carry on the fight. Bernie has already done a lot, many millions of people have been awakened.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — February 17, 2016 @ 1:30 am

  5. Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — February 17, 2016 @ 4:38 am

  6. No substantive disagreements, although Dean Baker is supportive of his friend Jared Bernstein in his Beat the Press blog post on the same article. I would only add that the CBPP is a good place for data, do with it ideologically what you will.

    Comment by David Green — February 17, 2016 @ 10:13 pm

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