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    Friday, October 18, 2019-10:51:21A.M.






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OPINION | Defining socialism down

PART of Bernie Sanders’ apparent political appeal is his authenticity. He may be a socialist, but at least he’s honest about it. Then again, his speech on Thursday defining his idea of democratic socialism may begin to erode that reputation.

The Vermont senator presents himself as the ideological descendant of FDR, whom many seniors still revere and millennials incorrectly believe rescued America from the Great Depression. Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee and energy-industry takeover? Mr. Sanders says they are merely an extension of New Deal programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“Like today, the quest for transformative change was opposed by big business, Wall Street, the political establishment, by the Republican Party and by the conservative wing of FDR’s own Democratic Party,” the Democratic Socialist declared. “While he stood up for the working families of our country, we can never forget that President Roosevelt was reviled by the oligarchs of his time, who berated these extremely popular programs as ‘socialism.’” We can understand why Mr. Sanders wants to define socialism in this way, since the polls show the word is politically toxic for most Americans. But he’s underselling his own contributions. FDR’s social programs were based on the principle of work in return for benefits. Workers chipped in part of their payroll to finance their own retirement many years hence. The benefits are unsustainable now, but at least they require someone to work.

Mr. Sanders pitches Medicare for All as an income transfer program. Take from “billionaires” like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and give to everyone else. But there aren’t enough Bezoses to finance government health care for everyone, so Bernie will eventually have to go after the middle class. This did not show up in his Introduction to Socialism lecture.

As striking was his failure even to mention some of the world’s leading exemplars of socialism. Venezuela and Cuba made no appearance. You’d think a candidate pitching “democratic socialism” would at least want to distance himself politically from those socialist failures — if only as self-protection. The oversight was especially notable because Mr. Sanders went out of his way to label American capitalists like Mr. Bezos (and of course) Donald Trump as “oligarchs” and “authoritarians.” Most of Venezuela’s wealth is generated from petrodollars and skimmed off by President Nicolas Maduro, his cronies and top government brass. Why not condemn them as oligarchs who don’t represent socialism?

Mr. Sanders also left out any comparisons to the Nordic European states, which he has praised in the past. Perhaps this is because his endorsement has caused journalists and others to point out that Sweden isn’t all that socialist anymore. Sweden’s corporate tax rate is 21.4 percent — close to the U.S. rate of 21 percent that Mr. Sanders calls an abomination and wants to raise.

Sweden has no inheritance tax, while Mr. Sanders wants government to tax just about everything you have at death. Or perhaps Mr. Sanders doesn’t want voters to figure out that Sweden, like most European cradle-to-grave welfare states, imposes a 25 percent VAT that soaks the middle class.

Like other universal government-run health care systems, Sweden rations care. But at least people can utilize private care if they choose. Mr. Sanders recently said there would be no exceptions for Americans to his Medicare for All plan. Sweden also offers universal school vouchers, which may be why its students outperform those in the U.S. Mr. Sanders wants to ban charter schools and force kids into union-run public schools.

Mr. Sanders’s socialism was a political novelty in 2016, in part because so few took his campaign seriously. His challenge now that he’s a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination is that his ideas will get a more thorough vetting. Maybe this is why he’s decided to define his brand of socialism down.