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On Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class
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In his speech, Sanders blasted the agreement that President Obama struck with Republicans, which extended the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, lowered estate tax rates for the very, very rich, and set a terrible precedent by establishing a “payroll tax holiday” diverting revenue away from the Social Security Trust Fund, threatening the fund’s very future. But the speech was more than a critique of a particular piece of legislation. It was a dissection of the collapse of the American middle class and a well-researched attack on corporate greed and on public policy which, over the last several decades, has led to a huge growth in millionaires even as the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. It was a plea for a fundamental change in national priorities, for government policy that reflects the needs of working families, and not just the wealthy and their lobbyists.
Finally, Sanders’ speech-published here in its entirety with a new introduction by the senator-is a call for action. It is a passionate statement informing us that the only people who will save the middle class of this country is the middle class itself, but only if it is informed, organized, and prepared to take on the enormously powerful special interests dominating Washington.
Introduction Copyright © 2015 by Senator Bernie Sanders
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A CIP catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. LCCN 2011920256
ISBN: 978-1-56858-554-3 (2015 e-book)
This book is dedicated to my four wonderful children,
Levi, Heather, Carina, and Dave,
and my wonderful grandchildren,
Sunnee, Cole, Ryleigh, Grayson, Ella Jane, and Tess.
May they live long and happy lives in a nation
full of hope, opportunity, prosperity, and security.
Levi, Heather, Carina, and Dave,
and my wonderful grandchildren,
Sunnee, Cole, Ryleigh, Grayson, Ella Jane, and Tess.
May they live long and happy lives in a nation
full of hope, opportunity, prosperity, and security.
All authorial proceeds of this book will go to charitable, nonprofit organizations in the State of Vermont—mostly relating to the needs of children.
Introduction to the 2015 Edition
When I formally announced my candidacy for president in my hometown of Burlington, Vermont, more than 5,000 people showed up to cheer us on. Within weeks, we had 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin. Then there were 15,000 in Seattle, 28,000 in Portland, 27,000 in Los Angeles. As the summer of 2015 wore on, we attracted the largest crowds of any campaign in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire.
People are coming out because the very, very rich are getting richer, while the rest of us are getting poorer—they feel the rigged economy every day. They feel it when they open up their bills around the kitchen table, pull items out of their grocery carts, or tell their kids their jackets can last one more winter.
Traveling around the country, I keep hearing the same thing: Americans are fed up with the way things are going. They're sick of cuts to social services, and threats to vital programs like Social Security, while their hard-earned tax dollars are pilfered to pay for unnecessary wars and corporate welfare. They're sick of working longer hours for lower wages just to line the pockets of the rich—who, in turn, are outsourcing their jobs through bad trade deals and undercutting our ability to bargain for fair wages. And they're sick of corporate greed destroying our political system, as Big Money interests spend unlimited sums of money to elect the candidates of their choice.
In the last two years, 15 people saw a $170 billion increase in their wealth, while 45 million Americans live in poverty. That in my view is not justice. That is a rigged economy, designed by the wealthiest people in this country to benefit the wealthiest people in this country at the expense of everybody else.
And hundreds of thousands of Americans are standing up and demanding change.
What I believe from the bottom of my heart is that I cannot do it alone.
No president can take on Wall Street, corporate America, the corporate media, the Koch brothers, all the Big Money interests, unless there's a mobilized force of millions and millions of people who stand together and demand government work for all of us, not just the wealthiest people in this country.
We've done this by putting people at the center of our campaign—without a Super PAC funded by billionaires, bankers, or Big Business. Our movement doesn't represent their interests and we don't want their money. Instead, we have relied on small contributions from working people.
When we started this campaign, I knew we had a message that would resonate with the American people.
It isn't the first time. There was a similar reaction when I gave a long speech on the Senate floor five years ago.
On Friday, December 10, 2010, I woke up at my usual time, had my usual breakfast of oatmeal and coffee at the Dirksen Senate Building, and then had a typical daily discussion with some of my staff. At 10:30 a.m., I walked onto the floor of the Senate and began a speech. It went on for eight and a half hours—until 7 p.m.
I had promised to do everything I could to oppose what I believed was a very bad tax agreement pushed by Republicans. At a time when this country had a $14.8 trillion dollar national debt and the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country, it seemed to me totally absurd to provide hundreds of billions in tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.
I decided to object in the loudest way I knew, by mounting what some referred to as a filibuster but what was, in reality, a long speech on a very important subject. I did not want merely to speak about the agreement, nor even about the politics of compromise and concession. I tried my best to state what I thought to be the essential fact of our times: that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families, at a time when tens of millions of Americans struggle to get by and tens of millions more Americans are watching the underpinnings of their middle-class lives take repeated hits, is turning our country into a plutocracy.
What does it say about our economy and the political choices we make about it on Capitol Hill that, today, despite all the huge increases in productivity and technology that we've seen in recent decades, a two-income family now has less disposable income than a one-income family did thirty years ago? Why is it that Americans work the longest hours of any people in the industrialized world?
What is the correlation between the United States having, by far, the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country while we also have more people in jail? Doesn't it make more sense to invest in our kids than in jail construction?
How does it reflect upon our political and legal system when the crooks on Wall Street who caused the horrendous recession now earn more money than they did before their banks were bailed out by the taxpayers? How come none of them are in jail? And what does it mean when three out of the top four "too big to fail" banks in this country are now larger than they were before the Wall Street collapse, with assets of over half the GDP of the country?
What does it mean to the economic future of our country that we're losing factories and millions of good-paying jobs, and that it is harder and harder to buy products manufactured in America? How does it happen that CEOs of large corporations boast about the advantages of outsourcing their production and jobs to China, but when hard times hit, they come running to U.S. taxpayers for a bailout?
And on, and on, and on!
What does it feel like to stand and talk for eight hours when you can't leave the floor, eat, or go to the bathroom—and know that a TV camera is on you all that time? It's hard. The aftereffect hit me a few days later when I found myself very, very tired. During the speech itself, my legs began to cramp up a bit. My voice also became very hoarse.
When I walked onto the floor, I had no idea how long I would stay there. When I was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s, I sometimes gave speeches for as long as an hour. That was it. Would I last three hours, five hours, twenty hours? I really didn't know. What I was clear about in my own mind, however, was that I wasn't going to read from the phone book or sing songs just to eat up time. I wanted to speak for as long as I had something relevant to say. While I didn't have a prepared script for the speech, I mostly worked off of previous speeches I had given or articles that I had written and occasionally excerpts from some books I had read. I would read a few lines or pages and go off from there. Twice, colleagues came to the floor and engaged in what we call a colloquy. I remain grateful to senators Sherrod Brown and Mary Landrieu for their support of my effort.
Let me also warn the good readers of this book that it contains some repetition. This is not an accident. In giving this speech I was more than aware that most people were not going to be listening to it in its entirety. I suspected that most people would tune in for half an hour or an hour and then move on with their lives. I made it a point to keep returning to my basic themes.
Was I surprised about the kind of attention that the speech received? Are you kidding? The phones in both my Washington and Vermont offices never stopped ringing. In Vermont, every one of my eight staff people did nothing else all day but respond to calls—thousands of calls. And e-mails! The Senate servers crashed because of the huge number of people who wanted to watch the speech live online, apparently C-SPAN 2 had an exceptional day. According to the New York Times, my speech was the most tweeted event in the world on that day. There were front-page stories in newspapers around the country and the speech was covered widely in the international media. The number of people who friended me on Facebook doubled the previous total in one day, and visits to my website went sky-high. Some journalists even claimed that Obama held an unscheduled, impromptu press conference with former president Bill Clinton, who defended the tax deal, in order to divert media attention away from what I was doing on the Senate floor.
Despite my best efforts and the hard work of many other members of Congress, we lost the vote and a very bad agreement was signed into law.
Was my eight-and-a-half-hour speech worth the effort? Absolutely! If this country is going to move forward in a new direction, if we're going to save the middle class and change our national priorities, we have got to cut through the obfuscating fog created by the corporate mainstream media and start focusing on the life-and-death issues that working families really care about.
The very strong response to my speech in 2010 and our campaign tells me that the hunger for a discussion about economic truths, for a counterattack on the ferocious assaults that are taking place against working families, and for a practical plan on how we can reverse the obscene politics that favor the rich over the middle class and disadvantaged in our nation is growing all over America.
When I announced I was going to run for president, I said that it would take a political revolution for the junior senator from Vermont to win the presidency. A lot of pundits thought that was an acknowledgment of impossibility. It wasn't. It was a statement of what would be necessary to undo the damage that has been done and to reclaim our country from the oligarchs. The pundits and the political consultants still have a hard time understanding this. But the people get it. They are turning out by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, for our rallies. They are sending contributions of $5 or $10 because they understand that if we all give what we can, then we might yet be able to beat the billionaire class.
I decided to run for president because I believed it was necessary to do so, because I believed that this campaign could bring about a political revolution, and I believed we could win. We did it in Burlington. We did it in Vermont. And we are doing it in America. Change comes, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And the recognition of the changes we have already made, of what we have won, inspires us to fight even harder.
If we don't stand together today, working Americans will continue fighting an uphill battle just to make ends meet at the end of each month. We cannot settle for establishment politics and stale ideas. Now is the time to transform America.
That's what I believe from the bottom of my heart.
Senator Bernie Sanders
(Senate-December 10, 2010)
Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, as I think everyone knows, President Obama and the Republican leadership have reached an agreement on a very significant tax bill. In my view, the agreement they reached is a bad deal for the American people. I think we can do better.
I am here today to take a strong stand against this bill, and I intend to tell my colleagues and the Nation exactly why I am in opposition to this bill. You can call what I am doing today whatever you want. You can call it a filibuster. You can call it a very long speech. I am not here to set any great records or to make a spectacle; I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have to do a lot better than this agreement provides.
Let me enumerate some of the reasons I am opposed to this agreement.
First, as everybody knows, this Nation has a recordbreaking $13.8 trillion national debt at the same time as the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing. And I think it is important to say a word—because I am not necessarily sure a lot of Americans know this—about how we got to where we are today in terms of the national debt.
I know there are some people who think this all began the day President Obama took office. Well, that is not quite the case. When President Clinton left office, this country was running, in fact, a very significant surplus, and the projections were that we were going to continue to run a surplus. During the eight years of President Bush's administration, for a number of reasons—the primary reasons being the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country, a Medicare Part D prescription drug program, the Wall Street bailout, among other things, all of which were not paid for—we saw an almost doubling of the national debt. Since President Obama has been in office, we have passed a stimulus package which has also added to the deficit and national debt.
But here we are today with a $13.8 trillion national debt, a $1.3 trillion deficit, and almost all Americans are in agreement that this is a very serious issue. So the first point I would make is that it seems to me to be unconscionable—unconscionable—for my conservative friends to be driving up this already too high national debt by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who don't need it, and in a number of cases they don't even want it.
Here is one of the interesting ironies. There are lists of many very wealthy people who have come forward and said: Sure, I want a tax break. Everybody wants a tax break. But you know what, there are other priorities in this country, and I don't need it. Two of the wealthiest people in the world—and these are billionaires—Bill Gates of Microsoft and Warren Buffett of Berkshire, say: It is absurd. We don't need a tax break.
All over the country, you hear a lot of folks who have a lot of money saying: Don't drive up the deficit and force our kids to pay higher taxes to pay off the national debt in order to give tax breaks to the richest people in this country.
We have been told not to worry too much because the extension of these tax breaks for the wealthy will only last two years—not to worry. Maybe that is the case. But given the political reality I have seen in Washington, my guess is that two years from now these tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country will be extended again. What happens around here is that the argument will be made that if you end these tax breaks you are raising taxes. That is what we are hearing right now. I see no reason why, in the middle of a Presidential election, those arguments will not be made again and I see no reason not to believe that those tax breaks will be extended again.
(The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore assumed the chair.)
Mr. SANDERS. Clearly, we have a number of Republicans who want to make that extension permanent. Whether it will ever be made permanent I don't know. But the point is, when you hear folks say it is only a two-year extension, I suggest you take that with a grain of salt.
Let me say, if in fact we do what the Republicans have wanted to do right now as we enter this debate—they wanted a 10-year extension—that would add $700 billion to our national debt. I have four kids and I have six grandchildren. None of them has a whole lot of money. I think it is grossly unfair to ask my kids and grandchildren and the children all over this country to be paying higher taxes in order to provide tax breaks for billionaires because we have driven up the national debt. That is plain wrong. I think the vast majority of the American people, whether they are progressives like myself or whether they are conservatives, perceive that concept of giving tax breaks to billionaires when we have such a high national debt makes no sense at all.
Furthermore, it is important to point out that extending income tax breaks to the top 2 percent is not the only unfair tax proposal in this agreement. This agreement between the President and the Republican leadership also calls for a continuation of the Bush-era 15 percent tax rate on capital gains and dividends, meaning that those people who make their living off their investments will continue to pay a substantially lower tax rate than firemen, teachers, nurses, carpenters, and virtually all the other working people of this country. I do not think that is fair. That is wrong. If this agreement were to be passed, we would be continuing that unfair arrangement.
On top of all that, this agreement includes a horrendous proposal regarding the estate tax. That is a Teddy Roosevelt initiative. Teddy Roosevelt was talking about this in the early years of the 20th century. It was enacted in 1916 and it was enacted for a couple of reasons. Teddy Roosevelt and the people of that era thought it was wrong that a handful of people could have a huge concentration of wealth and then give that wealth, transmit that wealth to their children tax free. He did not think that was right.
Furthermore, it was a source, a progressive and fair source, of revenue. Under the agreement struck between the Republican leadership and the President, the estate tax rate, which was 55 percent on the value of estates over $1 million under President Clinton—and let's all remember, we had problems with the economy under President Clinton but very few will deny that during those years we were creating a heck of a lot more jobs than we did under President Bush. That is the fact—over 20 million jobs were created under President Clinton. We lost over 600,000 private sector jobs under President Bush. During the Clinton era, the estate tax rate was 55 percent on the value of estates over $1 million. What this arrangement would do is lower that tax rate to 35 percent, with an exemption on the first $5 million of an individual's estate and $10 million for couples.
Here is the important point I think many people do not know. I have to confess my Republican friends and their pollsters and their language people have done a very good job. This is the so-called death tax. I think all over America people say this is terrible. I have $50,000 in the bank and I want to leave that to my kids and the Government is going to take 55 percent of that, 35 percent of that. What an outrage.
Let us be very clear: This tax applies only—only—to the top three-tenths of 1 percent of American families; 99.7 percent of American families will not pay one nickel in an estate tax. This is not a tax on the rich, this is a tax on the very, very, very rich.
If my Republican friends had been successful in doing what they want to do, which is eliminate this estate tax completely, it would have cost our Treasury—raised the national debt by some $1 trillion over a 10-year period. Families such as the Walton family, of Walmart fame, would have received, just this one family, about a $30 billion tax break.
I find it hard to believe when we are talking about massive cuts in programs for working families, when we have this huge national debt, that anybody would be agreeing to lowering the estate tax rate to 35 percent with a $5 million exemption. That is what this agreement does and I think that is a very bad idea.
Once again, while the agreement on the estate tax is for two years—once again, there is very little doubt in my mind that the Republicans will continue to push for lower and lower estate tax rates because that is what they want. I think Senator Kyl has been pretty clear about this. They want to permanently repeal that tax. That would add about $1 trillion to the national debt over a ten-year period and would only benefit the top three-tenths of 1 percent. I think we are down a bad path there and that is another reason why this agreement does not make a whole lot of sense.
Third—and this is a very important point that I think has not yet gotten the attention it deserves—this agreement contains a payroll tax holiday which would cut $120 billion from Social Security payroll taxes for workers. There are a lot of folks out there who say: This is pretty good. I am a worker, my contribution will go from 6.2 percent today down to 4.2 percent. I will have more money in my paycheck. It is a good idea.
Let's take a deep breath and let's think about it for a second and understand what this whole thing is about. This payroll tax holiday concept, as I understand it, originally started with conservative Republicans. I know the Vice President recently made the point this was originally a Republican idea. Why did the Republicans come up with this idea? These are exactly the same people who do not believe in Social Security. These are the same people who either want to make significant cuts in Social Security or else they want to privatize Social Security entirely. Here is the point: They understand that if we divert funding that is supposed to go into the Social Security trust fund, which is what this payroll tax holiday does, this is money that goes into the Social Security trust fund that is now being diverted, cut back, in order to provide financial support for workers—but that is a lot of money not going into the trust fund.
What the President and others are saying is not to worry because that money will be covered by the general fund. That is a very bad and dangerous precedent. Up until now, what Social Security has been about is 100 percent funding from payroll contributions, not from the general tax base. Once again, this is a one-year program. The loss of revenue going into Social Security can be covered by the general fund. But we have a $13.8 trillion national debt. How much longer will the general fund put money into Social Security? Is it a good idea for the general fund to be doing that?
I would argue this is not a good idea. This is a very dangerous step forward for those of us who believe in Social Security. But this is not just Bernie Sanders saying this. One of the more effective and I think important senior groups in America is called the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. I don't know exactly how many but they have many members all over this country. I know they are active in the State of Vermont. I want to read to you from a press release they sent out the other day. This is the headline on it, from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare: "Cutting Contributions to Social Security Signals the Beginning of the End. Payroll Tax Holiday Is Anything But."
This is what they say. This comes from Barbara Kennelly. Barbara came from the House of Representatives. I have known her for years. She is now the president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, one of the strongest senior groups in the country.
"Even though Social Security contributed nothing to the current economic crisis, it has been bartered in a deal that provides deficit-busting tax cuts for the wealthy. Diverting $120 billion in Social Security contributions for a so-called 'tax holiday' may sound like a good deal for workers now, but it's bad business for the program that a majority of middle-class seniors will rely upon in the future."
That is what the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare says about that agreement and I agree with them. For all of us who understand that Social Security is life and death for tens of millions of Americans today and will be vitally important for working people as they reach retirement age, it is important that we understand that Social Security has done a great job. A few minutes ago the Presiding Officer was on the floor talking about the strong work that our Federal employees do, and he is absolutely right. Sometimes we also take for granted that Social Security has been an enormous success. It has done exactly what those people who created it have wanted it to do—nothing more, nothing less. It has succeeded. It has taken millions of seniors out of poverty and given them an element of security. It has also helped people with disabilities maintain their dignity. Widows and orphans are also getting help.
For 75 years it has worked well. It has a $2.6 trillion surplus today and it can pay out benefits for the next 27 years. It is strong. We want to make it stronger. This payroll tax holiday I am afraid is a step very much in the wrong direction and that is one of the important reasons why this agreement between the President and the Republicans should be defeated.
Included in the agreement are a number of business tax cuts. I am not going to say that some of them may not work. Some of them may work. Some will work better than others. There is a whole list of them. But this is what I will say. Economists on both ends of the political spectrum believe that if we are serious about addressing the horrendous economic crisis we are in now, 9.8 percent unemployment, there are far more effective ways of creating the jobs we have to create than those tax proposals. With corporate America already sitting on close to $2 trillion cash on hand, it is not that our friends in corporate America don't have any money, we have to help them. They have $2 trillion cash on hand. The problem is not in my view that corporate taxes are too high; it is that the middle class simply doesn't have the money to purchase the goods and products that make our economy go and create jobs.
- On Sale
- Dec 22, 2015
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Bold Type Books