Wealth Inequality Is A Huge Issue. But Is Class Warfare The Solution?
I have had the privilege, look and the misfortune, of living in one of the world’s most successful countries, and one of its least successful ones – one led by a pragmatist guided by reality, the other by an ideologue guided by his own perception. One shepherded his country to the global apex of nearly every indicator of human well-being, the other to economic ruin.
One is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and the other Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Having lived under both these leaders, I can say I would never vote for Bernie Sanders as President of the United States, because I’ve seen first-hand the devastation of ideological leadership characterised by class warfare, and the stunning success of pragmatic leadership characterised by evidence-based policy.
No, I am not saying Bernie Sanders is Hugo Chavez. Unlike the late Venezuelan strongman, Sanders believes in free enterprise and qualifies his socialism as “democratic.” But he does share two traits with Chavez: disdain for big business and a tendency toward class warfare.
I cannot think of a single example anywhere in the world where a government has improved national well-being by declaring war on business. On the contrary, it’s been disastrous wherever it has occurred, from Venezuela to Cuba to North Korea to the Soviet Union.
Lee succeeded in turning Singapore, once a malaria-infested Asian backwater, into a global economic powerhouse by doing whatever worked, at one point declaring “We are ideology-free.” Chavez succeeded in driving Venezuela into the ground by imposing his “Bolivarian Revolution,” deriding the country’s business elites as “squealing pigs” and “rancid oligarchs.”
This is not to say Sanders is wrong when he says income inequality in the United States is the biggest issue facing the country today. He points out, correctly, that almost all new income and wealth created in the United States currently goes to the top 1%, that the top one tenth of 1% hold more wealth than the bottom 90%, and that the top 20 billionaires in the U.S. control more wealth than the bottom half of the population.
“The American people bailed out Wall Street,” he tells his cheering crowds, promising to break up big banks. “Now it’s Wall Street’s turn to help the middle class.”
Sanders promises free health care and university education for all, saying he’ll pay for it by taxing “Wall Street speculation.” The problem, of course, is if his anti-business stance tanks the economy, there won’t be much left to tax. And there are far better ways to address income inequality than attacking the creators of jobs, most notably, higher taxation, stronger social programs, fixing the education system, more job training and stricter business regulation.
I know it’s a cliché, but having lived and worked as a journalist in the U.S., Venezuela, Singapore, Indonesia, Colombia, Israel and India, I’ve learned that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.
Lee had major flaws, to be sure, including a pathological disrespect for democracy and all those who espoused it. And Chavez had his strengths, including incredible charisma and a profound concern for the less fortunate.
But the Singapore Lee built produces elementary school students who score among the top in the world in math, science and reading, and ranks either at the top or near the top globally in health care, life expectancy, per capita income and personal safety.
“Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one,” Lee said while explaining his pragmatism to the New York Times.
The Venezuela Chavez bequeathed, on the other hand, now has the world’s highest inflation rate and among the world’s highest crime rates, not to mention chronic shortages of milk, flour and other necessities, growing child malnutrition, and a shrinking economy despite possessing the world’s largest oil reserves.
Chavez, like Sanders, spoke constantly about “revolution.” History shows we should beware of revolutions.
There are other reasons not to vote for Bernie Sanders, who this past week handily beat Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic Party nomination in the state of New Hampshire, becoming the first non-Christian in history to win an American primary election (Sanders is Jewish). There’s very good reason to believe he would fare poorly in the general election against the Republicans because of his “socialist” label (anyone who thinks a self-described socialist can capture a majority of American votes probably doesn’t understand America very well). That means that a vote for Sanders now could help coronate a President Trump, President Rubio or a third President Bush. And it’s highly unlikely Sanders would be able to push his revolutionary proposals through congress, especially if one or both houses continue to be controlled by Republicans, not to mention his thin record of actually getting bills passed during his 25 years in Congress.
Despite Sanders’ resounding victory over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, his near tie with her in the Iowa caucuses a few days earlier, and his enduring strong support among America’s young, the primary election season now enters territory considered far less hospitable to Sanders. The website www.electionbettingodds.com gives him an 18% chance of winning the Democratic nomination, compared to Clinton’s 78.4%, and just an 8.5% chance of winning the presidency, compared to Clinton’s 49.8%, and behind both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio.
It seems the betting markets are also not too keen on a candidate who would fix the “rigged economy” by declaring war on a class of citizens – rather than the more sensible path of growing wealth, increasing taxation and imposing fair rules for all.
Steven Gutkin is a former bureau chief, senior editor and reporter for The Associated Press, The New York Times, Newsweek and The Washington Post. He now runs Goa Streets along with his wife Marisha Dutt.