Be Like Sweden

Image result for sweden

This is a common rallying cry among Americans (e.g., Bernie Sanders) who are disturbed by income inequality in the U.S. and the supposed excesses of capitalism. So what can the United States learn from Sweden? Swedish author Johan Norberg writes,

As a native of Sweden, I must admit this makes me Feel the Bern a bit. Sanders is right: America would benefit hugely from modeling her economic and social policies after her Scandinavian sisters. But Sanders should be careful what he wishes for. When he asks for “trade policies that work for the working families of our nation and not just the CEOs of large, multi-national corporations,” Social Democrats in Sweden would take this to mean trade liberalization—which would have the benefit of exposing monopolist fat cats to competition—not the protectionism that Sanders favors.

In fact, when President Barack Obama visited Sweden in 2013, the three big Swedish trade unions sent him a letter requesting a meeting. Their agenda: a discussion of “how to promote free trade.” The chairman of the largest Social Democratic trade union scolded the American president for his insufficient commitment to the free flow of goods.

Norberg acknowledges that Sweden is “still-high public spending and high taxes, at least compared to the U.S….The governments provide the citizens with health care, child care, free colleges, and subsidized parental and medical leave. We Scandinavians have our quarrels with these systems and how they function, but at least they have not ruined our societies; indicators of living standards and health are impressive.” So how come this amount of government services doesn’t cripple the economy? Norberg explains,

One reason is that we compensate for them with a more open economy than others. In the summary Fraser Institute rankings, Sweden and Denmark are more economically free than the United States when it comes to legal structure and property rights, sound money, free trade, business regulation, and credit market regulations. We don’t have the multitude of occupational licensing laws that block competition in the United States.

We also pay for the welfare state in a fairly brutal way, but one that doesn’t hurt production as much: by squeezing the poor and the middle class. Unlike the rich, poor and middle-class people don’t flee or dodge when they’re taxed aggressively.

The Social Democrats knew all along that they couldn’t fund such a generous government by taking from the rich and the businesses—there are too few of them, and the economy depends on them too much. So Sweden and Denmark take in lots of revenue via highly regressive value-added taxes at a normal rate of 25 percent of sales—the only tax where the rich and poor pay exactly the same amount in kronor. On the other hand, the corporate tax is just 22 and 23.5 percent respectively, compared to the U.S. rate of 35 percent.

In fact, rich people in Sweden enjoy several economic advantages not offered to their lower-class counterparts. Sweden always admitted very generous tax deductions for capital costs. Labor regulations are tailored to benefit big companies. To attract highly educated specialists from abroad, Sweden now has a beneficial “expert tax” for them, which shields 25 percent of their wages from taxation for a three-year period. “Sure, it is unfair, but we have no better solution,” the Social Democratic minister of finance said in 2000, when he implemented special tax exemptions for individuals and families who owned a large share of a listed company.

Unlike Sanders, Scandinavian socialists have concluded that you can have a big government or you can make the rich pay for it all, but you can’t do both.

The shape of welfare state also has roots in Swedish culture:

Two Scandinavian economists, Andreas Bergh and Christian Bjørnskov, have documented that a high degree of trust is an old legacy, and that descendants of those who emigrated from Scandinavia 100 years before the welfare state are also more trusting. Their conclusion is that trust in others and social cohesion creates the welfare state rather than the other way around, since it is more tempting to give power to politicians and money to strangers if you believe that they are decent people who would never cheat the system.

Scandinavians have always frowned on those who take money they are not entitled to. Sweden is, after all, the country where the leading candidate for prime minister in 1995 had to resign because it was revealed that she had used her official credit card to pay for some small private expenses, even though she always, every month, paid the credit card debt herself.

When asked, “Under what circumstances is one justified in accepting government benefits to which one is not entitled?” in 1991 and 1998, the Nordics led the world in saying “never.” (Only Malta says it is more upstanding, and a brief canvass of Maltese of my acquaintance suggests that they are rather likely to have lied on the survey.) Oh, and the United States is 16th, lower on the list than even the Italians.

Unfortunately, Sweden has recently seen “increased unemployment among immigrants. Now the employment gap between natives and foreign-born in Sweden is twice the European Union average, even though we express less racist and discriminatory attitudes than others. In response, Swedish politicians have recently decided to abandon liberal immigration policies and do whatever they can to scare people away. It was easier to have a one-size-fits-all approach when we were all alike, from the same background, with the same faith and attitude and a similar education. We need a more flexible model now that we are becoming a little bit more like…well, the United States.”

Economist Andreas Bergh mentioned above has documented the economic history of Sweden in hopes of answering the following questions:

  • How did Sweden become rich?
  • What explains Sweden’s high level of income equality?
  • What were the causes of Sweden’s problems from 1970 to 1995?
  • How is it possible that Sweden, since the crisis of the early 1990s, is growing faster than most EU countries despite its high taxes and generous welfare state?

His conclusions?

In many aspects, Sweden is not very different from other countries. The accelerating economic growth in Sweden around 1870 was most likely largely a result of liberalizations and well-functioning capitalist institutions. In this respect, there is no Swedish exceptionalism.

When it comes to equality, the most important conclusion is that most of the decrease in income inequality in Sweden occurred before the expansion of the welfare state. A number of seemingly unrelated reforms, such as land reforms, school reforms and the occurrence of unions and centralized wage bargaining, are likely explanations. Interestingly, at least parts of gender equality in Sweden seem to be an unintended consequence of the need to increase labor supply by using women in the workforce.

Thus, when it comes to the roots of prosperity and equality, the lessons from Sweden are not very different compared to the lessons from mainstream institutional economics: Well-functioning capitalist institutions, especially property rights and a non-corrupt state sector, promotes prosperity. Primary schooling, risk sharing social insurance schemes and labor unions contribute to a more equal distribution of income (pg. 21).

He notes that Sweden’s lagging economy between 1970 and 1995 was due to a

combination of unsuccessful macro-economic policies and a very generous welfare state…During the period of lagging behind, excessive state interventionism hampered structural adjustment and economic development in general. The economy was much less capitalist, rules were unstable, policy unpredictable, and work incentives were weakened by the design of taxes and benefits. This leads to the conclusion that to successfully combine a large welfare state with economic growth, macroeconomic factors are crucial and a high degree of economic openness may actually foster policies that promote competitiveness. Analyzing the fact that Sweden was ranked the second most competitive country in the world according to the Global Competitiveness Index 2010–2011 (just slightly behind Switzerland). Eklund et al. (2011) emphasize the role of market deregulations, inflation control and stricter budget rules – but also some lowering of taxes and benefit levels. The upshot is that the policy implications from the case of Sweden are hard to classify along a simple right-left scale: the welfare state seems to survive because it coexists with high levels of economic freedom and well-functioning capitalist institutions (pg. 22).

So, be like Sweden. But be like it in the right ways.

Brexit, Trump, Sanders

If you Google “Trump” and “Brexit” you’ll get an avalanche of articles suggesting that the explanation of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is an expression of populist outrage, resurgent nationalism, and an admixture of xenophobia to boot. That might not be accurate. Walker’s post highlighted an alternative view.

But let’s roll with it for a minute. Let’s say the headlines like Victory For Brexit ‘Leave’ Shows Us Why Trump Is Succeeding In America or Brexit Should Be a Warning About Donald Trump are on to something. If so, then what?

Well, in that case then we need to add someone else to the list: Bernie Sanders. Because–on issues of nationalism, protectionism, and even xenophobia–Trump and Sanders are reading from the same script.

What am I talking about? Well, let’s look at Sanders’ take on NAFTA.

NAFTA, supported by the Secretary, cost us 800,000 jobs nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs in the Midwest. Permanent normal trade relations with China cost us millions of jobs. Look, I was on a picket line in early 1990’s against NAFTA because you didn’t need a PhD in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour. … And the reason that I was one of the first, not one of the last to be in opposition to the TPP is that American workers … should not be forced to compete against people in Vietnam today making a minimum wage of $0.65 an hour. Look, what we have got to do is tell corporate America that they cannot continue to shut down. We’ve lost 60,000 factories since 2001. They’re going to start having to, if I’m president, invest in this country — not in China, not in Mexico.

Sound familiar? It should. Sanders might stay away from some of the more visceral rhetoric that Trump revels in–he doesn’t slander Mexicans as rapists or promise to build a wall–but his targets (Chinese and Mexican workers) are also two of Trump’s favorite targets and his hawkish stance on trade wars matches The Donald’s.

Of course, that isn’t the only similarity. His grasp of reality is equally as tenuous as Trump’s on this issue, as this article from the Foundation for Economic Education elucidates with charts like this one:


As Daniel Bier puts it:

Not content to merely keep Mexicans from working in the United States (where, thanks to US capital and infrastructure, they could earn three or four times more than they make in Mexico), Bernie Sanders now objects to the right of Mexicans to work in Mexico, if they dare to sell goods and services to Americans — or, God forbid, try tocompete with American firms.

On the specific topic of economic policy, how is this different from Trump? How is it different from the populist outrage that purportedly led the UK out of the EU?

Then again, we could just ask Bernie Sanders how he feels about Trump’s policies. From Slate:

Daily News: Another one of your potential opponents has a very similar sounding answer to, or solution to, the trade situation—and that’s Donald Trump. He also says that, although he speaks with much more blunt language and says, and with few specifics, “Bad deals. Terrible deals. I’ll make them good deals.”

So in that sense I hear whispers of that same sentiment. How is your take on that issue different than his?

Sanders: Well, if he thinks they’re bad trade deals, I agree with him. They are bad trade deals. But we have some specificity and it isn’t just us going around denouncing bad trade. In other words, I do believe in trade. But it has to be based on principles that are fair. So if you are in Vietnam, where the minimum wage is 65¢ an hour, or you’re in Malaysia, where many of the workers are indentured servants because their passports are taken away when they come into this country and are working in slave-like conditions, no, I’m not going to have American workers “competing” against you under those conditions. So you have to have standards. And what fair trade means to say that it is fair. It is roughly equivalent to the wages and environmental standards in the United States. [emphasis changed from the Slate article]

Jordan Weissmann writes:

It is one thing to argue that we should not do business with nations that actively manage or manipulate their currencies… It’s also entirely reasonable to support workers’ rights to unionize abroad or push for stricter environmental protections… But a blanket rule against trade with low-wage nations is different.

Weissmann is right. Sanders’ and Trump’s position makes no sense, morally or economically. Economically, a major benefit (maybe the key benefit) of trade is to allow countries to specialize where they have a comparative advantage. If there’s no comparative advantage and no specialization… what does he think trade is for? And, morally, the idea that you’re going to help people who earn very low wages by taking their jobs away is questionable. It’s about as useful as helping the homeless by making sure they can’t sleep where you can see them.

But I digress. The main point of this post is not to enumerate all the ways in which protectionism is bad. We’d be here all day. The point is to note just how similar Trump and Sanders are on these matters, and to also observe–based on the results of the Brexit vote–that these forces might be globally ascendant.

In many ways, we–all of us humans–are on the threshold of a brighter future. Never has global poverty fallen so rapidly. Never have so many been lifted out of the depths of abject deprivation. Never has the promise of prosperity and peace and freedom been brighter for the entire planet. But–if the Brexit vote and the populist movements of Sanders and Trump are any indication–we might just slam that door shut instead of walking through it, and return to the tribalist, zero-sum mentality that treats trade as a competition to win instead of a policy of mutual benefit.

It’s not clear how far down that road we’ll walk, but we already know where it ends.

How Much Are You Willing to Pay For Free Stuff?

I think that the word "free" is one of the most misused words. - Milton Friedman
I think that the word “free” is one of the most misused words. – Milton Friedman

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about some polling data on millennials and their (un)willingness to redistribute wealth. A recent poll by Vox and Morning Consult found that while most Sanders supporters (80%) are willing to pay more in taxes, how much more they are willing to pay paints an interesting picture. “When we polled voters, we found most Sanders supporters aren’t willing to pay more than an additional $1,000 in taxes for his biggest proposals [i.e. nationalized health care and free public college tuition]. That’s well short of how much more the average taxpayer would pay under his tax plan.”

Vox explains,

But Sanders’s plan to pay for universal health care coverage would increase taxes on most voters by more than $1,000. He wants to:

  • Add a 2.2 percentage point surcharge on individual incomes. This means marginal tax rates go up for everyone. (After a standard deduction, about a quarter of households won’t have to pay this surcharge.)
  • Add a new 6.2 percent tax on earnings, which employers pay — but will be passed on to workers over time in the form of lower wages, according to the Tax Policy Center’s Roberton Williams.

The kicker for all of this? Some analysts believe Sanders’s plan will cost twice as much as his campaign estimates.

Perhaps even more interesting, “[w]hen you break down the poll results by age, rather than by candidate, it appears older people don’t want to pay as much for universal health care. This is especially interesting because older people have higher premiums, use the health care system more often, and spend a larger portion of their money on health care.” Another finding fits with my previous post: “Older people generally make more money and are more likely to be employed, and our poll shows that people who earn more money would pay less for Sanders’s health care plan — both as a percentage of their income and in dollars.” When it comes to free tuition, 14% of Sanders supporters said they don’t want to pay additional taxes for it with nearly half saying they would only pay up to $1,000 a year.

As the article puts it, “most Sanders supporters don’t want to Feel the Bern in their wallets.” The author concludes,

This isn’t a question of whether Sanders’s ideas are valid. This is a question of how voters are thinking about Sanders’s revolution, which is a radical increase in the scope of what government is responsible for, versus the private sector.

To their credit, some Sanders supporters have done the math and figured out that even with big tax increases, they would end up saving more money from Sanders’s new programs. But many other people were surprised when they used our candidate tax calculator and found out how much additional taxes they would pay under Sanders’s plan.

Yet that’s the revolution — one that promises Medicare for all, public college tuition for all, massive investments in infrastructure, expanded Social Security, etc. Those services require higher taxes, but could also save people money in the long run.

It’s a shift in the way we think about how we pay for social services. But right now, it appears that even Sanders supporters haven’t gotten their heads around what that means for their finances.

Other People’s Money: Millennials and Socialism


There’s been one underlying basic fallacy in this whole set of social security and welfare measures, and that is the fallacy – this is at the bottom of it – the fallacy that it is feasible and possible to do good with other people’s money. That view has two flaws. If I want to do good with other people’s money, I first have to take it away from them. That means that the welfare state philosophy of doing good with other people’s money, at it’s very bottom, is a philosophy of violence and coercion. It’s against freedom, because I have to use force to get the money. In the second place, very few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own. – Milton Friedman


A recent article in The Washington Post looks at the love affair between Millennials, Bernie Sanders, and the polarizing term “socialism.” The Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins explains,

Millennials are the only age group in America in which a majority views socialism favorably. A national Reason-Rupe survey found that 53 percent of Americans under 30 have a favorable view of socialism compared with less than a third of those over 30. Moreover, Gallup has found that an astounding 69 percent of millennials say they’d be willing to vote for a “socialist” candidate for president — among their parents’ generation, only a third would do so. Indeed, national polls and exit polls reveal about 70 to 80 percent of young Democrats are casting their ballots for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist.”

Ekins makes a couple of important observations:

  • “[M]illennials tend to reject the actual definition of socialism…”
  • Countries like “Denmark aren’t socialist states (as the Danish prime minster has taken great pains to emphasize)…” In fact, Denmark “outranks the United States on a number of economic freedom measures such as less business regulation and lower corporate tax rates…”

But the real question is whether or not this youthful infatuation with socialistic policies will last. Ekins provides reasons to think not:

There is some evidence that this generation’s views on activist government will stick. However, there is more reason to expect that support for their Scandinavian version of socialism may wither as they age, make more money and pay more in taxes. The expanded social welfare state Sanders thinks the United States should adopt requires everyday people to pay considerably more in taxes. Yet millennials become averse to social welfare spending if they foot the bill. As they reach the threshold of earning $40,000 to $60,000 a year, the majority of millennials come to oppose income redistribution, including raising taxes to increase financial assistance to the poor. Similarly, a Reason-Rupe poll found that while millennials still on their parents’ health-insurance policies supported the idea of paying higher premiums to help cover the uninsured (57 percent), support flipped among millennials paying for their own health insurance with 59 percent opposed to higher premiums. When tax rates are not explicit, millennials say they’d prefer larger government offering more services (54 percent) to smaller government offering fewer services (43 percent). However when larger government offering more services is described as requiring high taxes, support flips and 57 percent of millennials opt for smaller government with fewer services and low taxes, while 41 percent prefer large government.

If previous generations are any indication (“both baby boomers and Gen Xers grew more skeptical of government over time”), the Millennial approval of big government may dwindle when they start having to pay for the programs they advocate. But an even greater takeaway–in connection with the notion that the world is getting better–is that “college students today are not debating whether we should adopt the Soviet or Maoist command-and-control regimes that devastated economies and killed millions. Instead, the debate today is about whether the social welfare model in Scandinavia (which is essentially a “beta-test,” because it hasn’t been around long) is sustainable and transferable.” In other words, “in the 20th-century battle between free enterprise and socialism, free enterprise already won.”

The Populist Trade Problem

A recent article in Vox outlines the problem of anti-trade populism:

Bernie Sanders sells himself as a champion of the little guy. But talk to economists and development experts, and you hear something different: Sanders’s policies on trade would hurt the very poorest people on Earth. A lot.

Here is the basic issue. Sanders has, correctly, recognized that freer trade with countries like China has hurt a subset of American workers (while benefiting others). As a result, he opposes most efforts to open American markets to more international competition, and promises to roll back a number of previous trade agreements the US had made.

There’s one big problem, according to development economists I spoke to: Free trade is one of the best tools we have for fighting extreme poverty. If Sanders wins, and is serious about implementing his agenda, he will impoverish millions of already-poor people in China and Central America.

What’s worse is that the actual ways Sanders might roll back these agreements could lead to serious reprisals from the affected countries. The nightmare scenario, experts say, is a global slide toward protectionism, wherein China and other countries take cues from the US and impose their own retaliatory tariffs. That would devastate economies in the developing world, dooming many more millions to a lifetime of crushing poverty.

The piece demonstrates how trade has benefited the global poor, while recognizing it may negatively impact some American jobs (though the benefits of increased purchasing power through cheaper goods may outweigh the costs). However, Sanders is not the only candidate with backward policies when it comes to trade. Donald Trump, according to The New York Times, “is bringing mercantilism back. The New York billionaire is challenging the last 200 years of economic orthodoxy that trade among nations is good, and that more is better. He is well on his way to becoming the first Republican nominee in nearly a century who has called for higher tariffs, or import taxes, as a broad defense against low-cost imports.” These positions show why Trump and Sanders are far more conservative and far more alike than some would care to admit. This is perhaps why some political scientists are recognizing Trump supporters as populists: a label usually reserved for Sanders supporters. “Trump supporters share anti-elitism with only one other group: Sanders’s voters,” write one pair of political scientists in The Washington Post. “But where Trump is a populist, we would argue that Sanders is not. Despite the fact that Sanders often gets called a populist, his voters do not conform to the populist stereotype. They generally trust experts and do not identify strongly as Americans.” This may be true of Sanders supporters in some cases, but when it comes to economics, they reject the expertise and consensus of economists and embrace U.S.-centric protectionist policies.

From Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics, 7th ed. (pg. 32).

A socialist Democrat and a Republican businessman drawing from the same economic playbook. I’m sure most didn’t see that one coming.


Close-Minded Christians Protest Bernie Sanders… Oh Wait…

825 - Bernie Sanders at Liberty

Jesse Singal makes a simple but worthwhile point at NYMag: Liberty University Students Survived the Unsafe Space Created by Bernie Sanders and His Pro-Choice Views (somehow). The backstory is simple: Bernie Sanders came to speak at notoriously conservative Liberty University and, although he faced tough questions from a generally hostile crowd, no one protested to deny him the opportunity to speak and no one interrupted his speech. Contrast that as Singal does, with basically any liberal-dominated college you can think of:

For example, Emily Yoffe, who has written about the connection between alcohol and sexual assaulthad a speaking offer at a West Coast college rescinded after a student organization told her that her presence would make victims of assault “feel unsafe.” At my alma mater of the University of Michigan, for example, a showing of American Sniper wascanceled (though later un-canceled) after students complained that the movie’s depiction of Iraqi Muslims would make “students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” Unsuccessful attempts to get Bill Maher and George Will canceled as speakers at the University of California – Berkeley andMichigan State, respectively, involved similar arguments about creating dangerous-feeling environments.

There are plenty more examples where those came from, of course.

I’ll tell you one thing: the word liberal sure doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

824 - You Keep Using that Word

Black Lives Matter vs. Bernie Sanders

850 - Netroots Nation Protesters
Black Lives Matter protesters at Netroots Nationa. Photo fom Al Jazeera coverage:

About two weeks ago, Bernie Sanders (who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination) had a run in with protesters at Netroots Nation, and things got controversial.

If you’re not familiar with Netroots Nation (I wasn’t), it’s an annual political convention for progressive activists run by the Daily Kos. (Netroots Nation used to be called YearlyKos.) The hecklers came from Black Lives Matter, an activist group that was founded in the aftermath of George Zimmerman‘s acquittal (in 2013) for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin. So you might be a little confused that Black Lives Matter was protesting at a convention of their allies, and that confusion is exactly why the story garnered so much publicity. So, why did Black Lives Matter target Netroots Nation? I’ll leave that to BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullous, who said (in an interview posted at Daily Kos), that part of the reason was that “we wanted to stage an intervention in the progressive movement that’s largely led by white folks around the conversation of having a new racial justice agenda.”

The protest took place during a session which was scheduled to have a pair of interviews two Democratic presidential contenders: Martin O’Malley (former governor or Maryland) and Bernie Sanders. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas was doing the interviewing. While O’Malley and Vargas (but not Sanders) were on stage, Black Lives Matter demonstrators streamed into the room and began taking over. As CNN covered it:

“What side are you on my people?” they sang in unison as they approached.

Tia Oso of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, who represented the demonstrators, climbed onto the stage, secured a microphone, and delivered a speech while O’Malley looked on.

“We are going to hold this space. We are going to acknowledge the names of black women who have died in police custody. And Governor O’Malley, we do have questions for you … As the leader of this nation, will you advance a racial justice agenda that will dismantle — not reform, not make progress — but will begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States?”

“Yes,” O’Malley replied, but before he could say more, the demonstrators in front of the stage shouted over him by reciting names of black women who have died in police custody. While they shouted, O’Malley stood in silence.

The event really showed the tension and strain in the coalition between white Democratic politicians and black Democratic activists. This comes across in lines like this one: “Conference organizers begged them to allow O’Malley to respond.” Then there was O’Malley’s attempt to align with the protesters, which they rejected out of hand:

“I think all of us as Americans have a responsibility to recognize the pain and the grief throughout our country from all of the lives that have been lost to violence, whether that’s violence at the hands at the police or whether that’s violence at the hands of civilians,” O’Malley said, before being interrupted again.

“Don’t generalize this s***!” one person shouted back.

O’Malley’s biggest mistake, however, was replying to the “Black lives matter” mantra by saying, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” This was a big mistake, politically at least, and as CNN goes on to report:

O’Malley later apologized for the remarks, telling This Week in Blackness, a digital news site, that he “meant no disrespect” to the black community.

“That was a mistake on my part and I meant no disrespect,” O’Malley told the outlet. “I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue.”

Things didn’t go any better for Bernie Sanders when he took the stage, and his back-and-forth with the protesters was even more prickly. “Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” said Sanders. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”

There’s a lot going on here, and I don’t want to try and analyze every aspect in this one post. I have mixed feelings, and I’m still mulling things over. I have tremendous respect for the passion of those who stand up and scream “black lives matter” with obvious pain and commitment. I also think the fundamental critique of white Democrats as co-opting and/or ignoring black interests is valid. It’s very close to my own opinion of social justice ideology. I was struck, for example, by the protesters reviling notable figures like Al Sharpton and saying instead that, “My sisters got this.” Most conservative analysis of this protest has been superficial, as far as I’ve seen, never getting beyond schadenfreude in seeing progressive protesters interrupt progressive politicians.

On the other hand, the idea that you have to apologize for saying “black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter” is disconcerting even if it’s understandable, and a lot of the criticisms of Bernie Sanders (O’Malley doesn’t get criticized as much largely because he’s not as politically relevant, I think) are problematic. This article from The Week gets into why: What Black Lives Matter gets wrong about Bernie Sanders.

In the article, Ryan Cooper argues that focusing on race to the exclusion of class is a mistake. He concedes that “upwardly mobile or even wealthy blacks are still routinely victimized by the police,” but then digs deeper into the differences between race and class with some cold, hard numbers.

Consider the criminal justice system, a major focus of Black Lives Matter. One rough way to consider the bias of this set of institutions is by overall lifetime likelihood of imprisonment of men by educational attainment — reasonable proxies for the levels of oppression and income, respectively. A 2009 statistical comparison between two cohorts of men on this measure, one born from 1945-49, and another born from 1975-79, provides a window into how such rates changed, since the latter cohort came of age just as the incarceration rate was reaching its peak.

Over that time, the overall imprisonment risk for men with some college, either white or black, didn’t change much, increasing from 0.4 to 1.2 percent, and from 5.3 to 6.6 percent, respectively. That is a large disparity to be sure, but the numbers are nothing compared to the staggering rates among black high school dropouts, which increased from 14.7 to 68 percent. (White dropouts went from 3.8 to 28 percent.) As Berkeley sociologist Loïc Wacquant points out, this implies that the class gap within race groups is larger than the gap between them. In the 1975-79 cohort, blacks are five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites overall, but black high school dropouts are 10 times more likely than blacks that have completed some college.


Cooper goes on to say that while “there is much bald racial prejudice revealed here… poverty is an equal if not greater factor” and concludes that “Money, quite simply, is power.” He’s right. And, what’s more, the difference matters.

It matters for two reasons. First, because to the extent that we misdiagnose social inequality, we can’t propose policies to fix it. Policies proposed based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem are just as likely to make things worse as to make things better, and can’t possibly succeed other than through sheer, dumb luck. Second, misdiagnosing social problems can, in this case at least, make them worse. To the extent that racism rather than poverty is seen as exclusive or even primary driver of suffering, the understandable reaction is a lot of rage. Which in turn leads to lack of communication, lack of cooperation, and in the end becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of mutual racial alienation.

My point is not that racism doesn’t exist, isn’t a problem, or shouldn’t be addressed directly. Neither is Cooper’s. My point is that there’s a lot more going on than can be explained by racism (even by systemic racism) and that we are in grave danger if we do not acknowledge that fact.