My Weekend with Bernie

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Sunday night, I felt the bern.

Never having been to a political rally before, I agreed to drive a friend over to Greensboro to see Bernie Sanders in the flesh. It seemed like an appropriate addition to our senior year bucket list and didn’t disappoint.

The convention center had space for 6,000, but by the time we arrived it had filled up easily–the final official tally reached 9,121–so we were herded into an overflow room next door. I found myself next to a middle-aged man in a leather Harley Davidson jacket and just in front of an elementary-aged girl who danced throughout the entire 90 minute stump speech, proudly wearing a gigantic campaign sticker on her forehead.

Although more diverse than I expected, the crowd was still overwhelmingly white. It stood in stark contrast to Sanders’ three warm-up speakers, all women of color. The first speaker, Press Secretary Symone Sanders, was hired in the wake of criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement and suggestions that the candidate has a blind spot when it comes to race.

Perhaps featuring diverse voices at the event was intended to further assuage these concerns, even if Sanders’ cringeworthy pronunciation of the second speaker’s name, Nida Allam, slightly dampened the effect. Sanders’ tricky relationship with addressing racial inequality reemerged later in the speech when he lamented the deaths of “unarmed African Americans who died at the hands of the police or in police custody” before quickly transitioning to concerns that police officers are underpaid and overworked, returning to his more comfortable territory of class inequality.

Listening to Sanders speak, it was easy to understand the hype, to get caught up in the “political revolution” he talked about. “Republican colleagues get very nervous when we talk about redistribution of wealth, but in the last 30 years there has been a massive redistribution of wealth,” he bellowed. “The problem is it has gone in the wrong direction!” Sanders went on to rail against the “starvation wage” of $7.25 and blast the GOP for their commitment to a skewed definition of family values.

But there was something nagging at me, too–the feeling that I couldn’t quite trust everything he was saying. When I got back home, I decided to follow the lead of DPR’s faculty advisor and do some fact-checking. Here’s what I turned up.

Sanders: The US has more income and wealth inequality than any other major country.

First, the term “major” country popped up many times throughout Sanders’ speech and seemed perfectly unspecific for doling out hard-to-verify claims. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs has said “major” refers to nations constituting the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This list excludes such nations as China or Russia that some might well consider “major,” but, for now, let’s accept Briggs’ definition.

The Arizona Republic completed a comprehensive fact check of this claim in July. Their research indicated that Sanders’ statement has merit, although the statistics are by no means definitive.

The OECD issues reports containing Gini scores, a measure of income inequality. The 2012 numbers indicate that the U.S. did indeed top the list for pre-tax income inequality. With taxes factored in, Mexico and Turkey overtake us. The World Bank, on the other hand, placed the U.S. at fourth behind China, Israel, and Mexico in its 2010 calculations.

Wealth inequality is harder to measure, but the OECD’s 2010 numbers indicate the U.S. has the highest share of national wealth held by its top ten, five, and one percent compared to other member countries. These statistics don’t give the full picture, but the most recent Gini wealth scores come from 2006. According to this report, only Switzerland, Namibia and Zimbabwe had higher wealth inequality than the U.S.

Sanders: The top 0.1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; Fifty-eight percent of income created is going to the top 1 percent.

The same Arizona Republic fact check explored Sanders’ claims about who in the US holds the majority of wealth and generated income. Their findings here were less qualified–they determined that studies support both claims.

A Politifact check from April complicates the story. This fact check examined Sanders’ claim during a Fox News interview that 99 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent. The statistic apparently comes from a report by University of California Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez who said that from 2009-2012, 91 percent of income growth went to the top 1 percent. Justin Wolfers, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, calculated the 99 percent figure based on preliminary 2013 numbers.

Saez’s most recent figure for the period from 2009-2014 indicates that only 58 percent of income growth has gone to the top 1 percent, so Sanders has apparently replaced his stump speech stat with the updated version.

Still, Politifact further explains that this figure refers only to “pre-tax, pre-transfer income growth during the economic recovery from 2009-13” that make the figure appear more extreme than is true in reality. Brookings Institution fellow Gary Burtless added that the top earners also lost the biggest percentage of income during the recession.

Sanders: Real unemployment is over 10 percent, nearly double the official statistic of 5.3%.

According to Sanders, “if you include those people who have given up looking for work and the millions of others who are working part-time 20, 25 hours a week when they want to work full-time, if you add all of that together, real unemployment is 10.5 percent.”

Sanders is citing what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the “U-6” statistic, defined as “total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of all civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.” CNBC confirms that the U-6 number does, in fact, remain at 10.5%.

Forbes further clarifies that “marginally attached” individuals are those “not currently in the labor force who wanted and were available for work,” and adds, “The official unemployment numbers exclude them, because they did not look for work in the 4 weeks preceding the unemployment survey.”

Sanders: Americans work the longest hours on Earth.

Politifact debunked this claim back in 2011. Sanders is using data from 1997 to make his point. More recent OECD data from 2008 indicates the US ranked 12th out of 35 countries.

“There’s another caveat,” Politifact adds. “The lists don’t include most developing nations.”

Sanders: The Koch brothers are planning to spend $900 million on the 2016 presidential campaign, more than either major political party.

The figure is apparently closer to $889 million, but we’ll give Sanders the benefit of the doubt on this one. After all, when you’re talking about that kind of money, what’s another $11 million?

According to the New York Times, this goal “would put [the Koch political network] on track to spend nearly as much as the campaigns of each party’s presidential nominee.” Slate gives us more specifics, reporting that in 2012, the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee “spent a total of $657 million” while their “Democratic counterparts, likewise, spent a total of $647 million.” Similar amounts were spent in 2008.

These figures indicate as much about the state of the national parties’ spending as it does about the Koch brothers’. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “Over the past two decades, campaign spending has soared exponentially, even as the actual level of popular support for and participation in the Democratic and Republican parties has declined precipitously.”

And this is perhaps the most exciting and truly revolutionary aspect of Sanders’ campaign: his firm belief in campaign finance reform. The fact checks reveal that he is like many politicians in his willingness to simplify and skew data to fit his talking points. But on this issue he is decidedly different from his opponents on both sides of the aisle, and if the crowd on Sunday night is any indication, his stance is resonating with voters. He has taken the common assumption that you can’t succeed in politics without big money and, rally after rally, proving it wrong. That should scare the Hillary’s and the Jeb’s of the field and, if we’re lucky, might just spark a political revolution after all.

 Your Bernie Rally Playlist: Clips from Sanders’ Stump Speech




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