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A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders holds a sign at a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington, Thursday, March 24, 2016. (Photo: AP/Young Kwak)

Sanders, Socialism, and the Shafted Generation

Behind Bernie's unlikely appeal is a generation marred by precarious employment and economic disruption.

Once again, Bernie Sanders has demonstrated, with a trifecta of big wins in Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington State, that he has broad and enthusiastic support, especially among the young. Equally astonishing is the large percentage of voters who say they are attracted rather than repelled by Sanders’s embrace of socialism.

But if you’d bother to conduct your own focus group among Americans under 40, neither phenomenon should be surprising. Except for those graduating from elite universities, with either full scholarships or wealthy tuition-paying parents, this is the stunted generation—young adults venturing into a world of work, loaded with student debt, unable to find stable jobs or decent careers.

This is also the post-Cold War generation, for whom Soviet communism is a distant memory (along with reliable jobs). For this generation of Americans, capitalism is not exactly a good word, nor is socialism a bad one.

And this is the generation that finds employer-paid health insurance hard to find; often the “Bronze” version of the Affordable Care Act, with its high out-of-pocket payments, is all they can afford; a generation paying too much of unreliable incomes in rent, and putting off the dream of homeownership and having children.

So, when a candidate comes along calling for free college education and free universal health care, and far higher minimum wages, it sounds pretty fine. And if capitalism means the 1 percent making off with everything that isn’t nailed down, then maybe Sanders-style socialism is worth a try. So say the young.

Private frustrations and longings have at last become politicized. And well they should be. Because the reality of the rules of the game turning brutally against the young has nothing to do with technology or the immutable realities of the digital economy—and everything to do with who gets to write the rules.

The policy wonk types like to point out that the Sanders program would require a huge tax increase.

And indeed it would. But as long as the tax hike is on the upper brackets, that only adds to the appeal of the program. During and after World War II, the top marginal tax rate was north of 90 percent, and this was the era of a record economic boom.

At the heart of this generational revolution is the vanishing good job. Until recently, the claims of a new, on-demand economy, made up of short-term gigs, was challenged by economists, even liberal ones.

It was kind of a new category that didn’t show up in the data. You could debate whether Uber and Task Rabbit and kindred companies were good or evil, but they just didn’t affect that many workers.

Now, belatedly, this shift is being confirmed. The economists are right—most of the unreliable jobs are not on-demand gigs. Rather, they are other forms of lousy “contingent” work. That category includes temping, contract work, on-call workers, workers hired by staffing agencies, workers with no job security, and inferior forms of conventional employment like adjunct college professors who can make less than minimum wage, Ph.D.’s and all. (So much for the education cure.)

Yes there is an uptick in entrepreneurship, but for every young person who creates a company like Amazon, there are tens of thousands working in its warehouses.

Jobs that used to pay decently are being turned into inferior jobs, whether in the manufacturing economy or the service economy. Yes there is an uptick in entrepreneurship, but for every young person who creates a company like Amazon, there are tens of thousands working in its warehouses.

The Wall Street Journal, of all places, reports a 60 percent increase since 2005 in the proportion of U.S. workers who have these inferior forms of employment.

The Labor Department, denied adequate funding to update its numbers, had not revised its count of contingent workers. So two eminently mainstream economists, Lawrence Katz of Harvard and Alan Krueger of Princeton (one of the very people carping about the cost of Sanders’ program) hired the Rand Corporation to do what the Labor Department should be doing—surveying actual current workers.

Katz and Krueger analyzed the results. And guess what? They confirmed in rich detail what your local 28-year-old could tell you: Real jobs are getting harder and harder to find. No wonder the uptick in GDP growth is not impressing voters, especially younger ones.

So Sanders is likely to continue making off with the youth vote. Even if he falls short of the nomination, this is bad news for Hillary Clinton. Whatever her other virtues, most young Americans don’t see her speaking to the realities of their condition.

This also presents a real conundrum for mainstream, moderate liberal economists like Katz and Krueger. Altering these trends will require radical reforms, not adjustments at the margins.

Sanders’s program may cost a lot of money. It may be socialistic. And it may require congressional majorities that will be a long time coming. But Sanders has the loyalty of the kids because he is speaking truth.


© 2021 The American Prospect
Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets, The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy, and his newest Going Big: FDR's Legacy and Biden's New Deal.

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