Bernie Sanders has brought economic injustice back to progressive politics

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Paul Krugman -- Nobel Prize economist, New York Times columnist -- does it regularly, especially when a U.S. election impends. He's superb on his own beat; few are better at dissecting the negatives of austerity. But then he gets the classic theorist's itch for power, to be Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great. I can picture him seething: at least Stiglitz got that three-year gig plus martyrdom at the World Bank. (Joseph Stiglitz also has an economics Nobel, then the World Bank fired him for holding views much like Krugman's -- Aarrgh!)

So in 2008, Krugman snuggled in behind Hillary Clinton during her race for the nomination, criticizing Barack Obama. It was the wrong choice. In 2014, he declared Obama a great president but that, too, yielded no appointments. Now he's onside with Hillary again, disparaging Bernie Sanders. "The Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil ... The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil ... but it isn't the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful ... As you might guess, I'm on the many-evils side of this debate."

It sounds so rational, who wouldn't prefer multi-sided to monolithic? It's the fulcrum of their current debate over who's truly "progressive." Sanders sounds like a blinkered dinosaur -- what an image. Yet he keeps gaining on Hillary. What's behind this "debate"? Here's a historical reconstruction:

For most of the 20th century, left politics centred on economic justice. That applied to authoritarian Soviet communism as well as democratic socialism in Scandinavia or the NDP. By the 1980s, it was clear that the right, the capitalist side, was going to "win." Their worldview would become the world's. Many on the left made a strategic shift, from an economic focus to other issues: race, gender, human rights, identity politics.

It meant you could still declare some victories. In South Africa, apartheid was overthrown and white business leaders accepted it -- providing the economy went untouched. Those were the Bill Clinton years in the U.S.: total capitulation to deregulated capitalism alongside a sensitivity to the pain felt by minorities. It was a trade-off, that's the hard point to admit. It wasn't Krugmanian many-sidedness. You essentially caved on economic fairness, focusing on other stuff.

This is where Bernie starts looking like Barney. He won't cave on the economics. It isn't that he doesn't rejoice over "other" victories. He was arrested at civil rights protests in the 1960s, not Hillary. But on economic justice and fairness, he remains a hard-ass. And it resonates. Why?

Because it kept getting worse. Temporary fixes like loading on consumer debt for the house or the kids' university ran dry or crashed in 2008; the neoliberal economic "fundamentals" -- free trade, globalization, deregulation -- widened the gulf and injustice. No matter how much satisfaction you take from other noble causes, if you awake each morning with a sick feeling because you've lost or might lose your job, your wage is declining, you have to cut back and back, it's like attending to your sports team's plight instead of your own: it only works so far. It's unsuccessful in the long run, at most it helps short term. Sanders brought the economic focus back because its time had come again.

Last December, a teenager and I went to buy the Christmas tree. The guy we buy it from was in his trailer on the phone with a buddy who was retiring from 35 years at GM. "He'll have a good pension," he told us. He said he used to work there too but it wasn't for him; now it'll never be the same because new hires don't get the same contract terms. We tied the tree on and left. I said, "That guy is a vanishing breed." "Is he what you call a FOOF?" said the kid: a Fine Old Ontario Family. "No," I said, "they still exist, in places like Rosedale. He's your basic Anglo, working-class, pro-union Canadian." "When did they start vanishing?" he asked. "Probably in the late 1980s," I said, "after free trade." "I think I'm finally starting to understand your obsession with free trade," he said. "It wasn't just about the economy, was it?" he went on. "It was about the shape of the whole society" -- as our car continued to bump along over countless potholes, the tree jiggling above us.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr

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