Civil rights, Democracy, Elections, Politics

Sanders & Socialism: Debate Between Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman & Socialist Economist Richard Wolff

Feb 24 2020

By AMY GOODMAN – Democracy Now!

As Bernie Sanders’s runaway win in Nevada cements his position as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the Democratic Party establishment and much of the mainstream media are openly expressing concern about a self-described democratic socialist leading the presidential ticket. His opponents have also attacked his ambitious agenda. Last week during the primary debate in Las Vegas, Bernie Sanders addressed misconceptions about socialism. Invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sanders decried what he called “socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

For more, we host a debate on Bernie Sanders and democratic socialism, featuring two well-known economists. Paul Krugman is a New York Times op-ed columnist and author of many books, including his latest, “Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future.” One of his recent columns is headlined “Bernie Sanders Isn’t a Socialist.” Richard Wolff is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and visiting professor at The New School. He is the founder of Democracy at Work and hosts the weekly national television and radio program “Economic Update.” He’s the author of several books, including “Understanding Socialism.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at Senator Bernie Sanders’ runaway victory in Nevada, which cemented his position as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. As Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination looks more and more likely, the Democratic Party establishment and much of the mainstream media are openly expressing concern about a self-described democratic socialist leading the presidential ticket. His opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, are also on the attack.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Senator Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.

JOE BIDEN: I ain’t a socialist. I ain’t a plutocrat. I’m a Democrat.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Joe Biden and, before that, Pete Buttigieg. They were speaking on Saturday night after the results from the Nevada caucuses rolled in. Well, last week, during the primary debate in Las Vegas, Bernie Sanders addressed misconceptions about socialism.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let’s talk about democratic socialism. Let’s talk about what goes on in countries like Denmark, where, Pete correctly pointed out, they have a much higher quality of life in many respects than we do. What are we talking about? We are living, in many ways, in a socialist society right now. Problem is, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, we have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Wait a second.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: When Donald — let me finish. When Donald Trump gets $800 million in tax breaks and subsidies to build luxury condominiums, that’s socialism for the rich. When Walmart —

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Wait a second.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We have to subsidize Walmart’s workers, who are on Medicaid and food stamps, because the wealthiest family in America pays starvation wages. That’s socialism for the rich.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Business —

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I believe in democratic socialism for working people —

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: OK, no.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: — not billionaires — healthcare for all, educational opportunity for all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Bernie Sanders.

For more, we host a debate on Bernie Sanders and democratic socialism. With us in our New York studio is the Nobel Prize-winning economist, the op-ed columnist for The New York Times, Paul Krugman. His latest book is just out. It’s called Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future. One of his recent columns is headlined “Bernie Sanders Isn’t a Socialist.” Also with us in studio is Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visiting professor at The New School here in New York. He is the founder of Democracy at Work and hosts a weekly national TV and radio program called Economic Update. Among his books, his latest is called Understanding Socialism.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, what do you make of what is happening right now, Paul Krugman, with Bernie Sanders so far the clear front-runner — 

PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — but moving into South Carolina, and why that headline, “Bernie Sanders Is Not a Socialist,” what you were getting at?

PAUL KRUGMAN: OK. I mean, Bernie says he loves Denmark. I love Denmark. I think Denmark is an illustration of how decent a society can be. The Danes don’t think that they’re socialists. They think that they’re social democrats. They don’t use the word “socialist.” And it isn’t socialism as we’ve always used to understand it. It’s not government ownership of the means of production. It’s not seizing the commanding heights of the economy. It’s a really strong social safety net and a strong labor movement, all of which I support.

In Arguing with Zombies, I have a whole chapter called “Eek! Socialism!” which is about the Republican habit of playing three-card monte. You say that you’re for universal healthcare; they say, “That’s socialist.” You say you’re for universal child care; they say, “Think about how many people Stalin killed.” You know, it’s this crazy stuff. So, why use the word? Why describe yourself? I think it’s kind of self-indulgent to call yourself a socialist and give the Republicans unnecessary ammunition. I think, probably, we’re for the same — I’m for the same kinds of policies. I’m for universal healthcare, universal child care, all of these things. Why buy into the Republican effort to make this sound like something Stalin would do?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he calls himself a democratic socialist, is that right?

PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah, that’s cutting it way too fine. Why use the word?

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to a clip from the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas last week. First we hear from Bernie Sanders, then Mike Bloomberg.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: What we need to do to deal with this grotesque level of income and wealth inequality is make sure that those people who are working — you know what, Mr. Bloomberg? It wasn’t you who made all that money; maybe your workers played some role in that, as well. And it is important that those workers are able to share the benefits also. When we have so many people who go to work every day and they feel not good about their jobs, they feel like cogs in a machine. I want workers to be able to sit on corporate boards, as well, so they can have some say over what happens to their lives.

HALLIE JACKSON: Mayor Bloomberg, you own a large company. Would you support what Senator Sanders is proposing?

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Absolutely not. I can’t think of a ways that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation. This is ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there was Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, going after Bernie Sanders. Richard Wolff, you describe yourself as a socialist economist. Respond to what both Paul Krugman says and what Bloomberg is saying here.

RICHARD WOLFF: Sure. There is no agency, neither public nor private, that defines what a socialist is. If you follow the socialist movement for the last 150 years, you would discover that it has been a contested terrain from day one. There were different interpretations and different meanings. Bernie Sanders is perfectly in line with one of the traditions of what socialism is. It’s the government having a big role in offsetting some of the awful qualities of capitalism. But we also know that the kind of control that the government tries to operate is very difficult for it to succeed with. We once had a New Deal in this country. We lost most of it because we didn’t go beyond a government intervention to change the society.

What Bernie Sanders represents is an awareness that it’s time to have a conversation we should have had for 75 years about our capitalist system and whether we can do better. This is now a changed environment in which what was taboo in this country isn’t anymore. And Bernie has already achieved the breaking of a taboo in this country to talk about socialism, its strengths and weaknesses, its different interpretations, and compare them to capitalism, rather than running away because nasty conservatives call us various names. That’s not a profound reason. And for the young people of this country, it doesn’t carry much weight anyway. So I welcome the opening that Bernie achieves, that we can talk about socialism, its different interpretations and why we ought to explore them a lot more than we’ve been able to under the taboo of the last 75 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Krugman?

PAUL KRUGMAN: I actually agree that a lot of young people have reacted. I mean, we have a 60-year-long campaign of equating any attempt to make American lives better with socialism, and a fair number of young people have said, “Well, in that case, I’m a socialist.” The trouble is, you’re not going to win this election without a fair number of old people, too. And it just seems to me, again, it’s self-indulgent to go down this route. I wish he wouldn’t. I mean, if Sanders is the nominee, then Democrats are going to have to get behind him, and people like me are going to end up writing lots of things saying, you know, “Don’t be scared. He, yes, uses the word ‘socialist,’ but he doesn’t actually mean what Republicans think — want you to think he means.” But who needed this, this extra thing? So, I’m not sure that this is — I’m not sure I quite see what the point is. I mean, it seems to me that there’s — to make the argument that says, “I want social justice. I want a strong government safety net. I want worker empowerment,” you can say all of those things without having to give ammunition to people who want to make you sound like Stalin. So, I mean, I’m going to be spending, I expect — I expect Sanders will probably be the nominee, and I expect to spend a lot of the next year saying, “Look, he’s really talking about Denmark, not Venezuela.” But I shouldn’t have to be doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard?

RICHARD WOLFF: I’m proud to be part of the socialist tradition. And I understand Paul’s difficulty. He’s having to defend now a centrism that’s being rejected by a large number of people. The stunning reality is that the majority of young people, at least age 35 and under, no longer think that “socialism” is a bad word, and they are immune to that. And the young people are the future of this country, which the older people know, too. And they are being asked to question — the older ones, by the younger ones — why this taboo, why we couldn’t talk about socialism, why we can’t embrace a socialism. And on electability? My goodness, if we’ve seen anything in the last few years, we’ve seen the center, whether it’s in Europe or this country, falling away, disappearing — center-left, center-right — for the extremes on the right and now an extreme on the left. I don’t find that frightening. I understand people who are centrists do. But I welcome that we can have an honest debate in this country. And there’s much in the socialist tradition that is well worth keeping. There are lessons of what we should do, just like there are lessons of what we shouldn’t do, which is true for capitalism, as well. So, we’re opening things up. And I think when it comes to electability, we have as much to argue that this is the way forward as anyone on the other side.

PAUL KRUGMAN: By the way, I don’t think — I don’t think the people who send me hate mail think — and I am the king of hate mail — think that I’m a centrist. Right? I’m for universal healthcare. I’m for deficit spending on infrastructure. I’m for universal child care. If that’s centrism, then, you know, let’s have it. By that standard, Denmark is centrist, right?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to — before we go to issues like Medicare for All, I want to turn to MSNBC and what’s been happening over the weekend, a kind of meltdown on MSNBC around the issue of Bernie Sanders clearly looking like he’s the front-runner. And chief among those melting down appears to be MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who this weekend compared Senator Sanders’ Nevada victory to Nazi Germany’s takeover of France.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I’m reading last night about the fall of France in the summer of 1940. And the general, Reynaud, calls up Churchill and says, “It’s over.” And Churchill says, “How can it be? You’ve got the greatest army in Europe. How can it be over?” He said, “It’s over.” So I had that suppressed feeling. I can’t be as wild as Carvill, but he is damn smart, and I think he’s damn right on this one.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bernie Sanders’ communications director, Mike Casca, responded to Matthews’ comment on Twitter, saying, quote, “never thought part of my job would be pleading with a national news network to stop likening the campaign of a jewish presidential candidate whose family was wiped out by the nazis to the third reich. but here we are.” A number of people are now calling for Chris Matthews to resign. Paul Krugman?

PAUL KRUGMAN: Yes. I mean, far be it for me to defend Chris Matthews, who I think has been a malign influence on a lot of our political discourse. I don’t think he was actually calling Sanders a Nazi. He was just thinking of, this is what it looks like when you’ve lost. But it was stupid. It was stupid, and it was insensitive. And it was characteristic. I mean, if — that’s what centrism sounds like, this notion that calling for universal healthcare or stuff is some kind of extreme position. And, no, I mean, this is — it’s telling you something about where Matthews’s head is at, and not something good. And unfortunately, I don’t think it’s unique. The fact of the matter is, there’s a lot of — I mean, Lloyd Blankfein saying, “Oh, I might have to vote for Trump, if Sanders is nominated.”

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the significance of who Lloyd Blankfein is.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs. And, you know, for God’s sake, yeah, Trump might — Sanders might raise your taxes. That is not an important consideration. American democracy is on the line. So, there are a lot of people out there who are — I’m not sure how many there are. There are a lot of influential people out there who are horrified by the prospect of a strongly progressive candidate. And that should be condemned. You know, I just wish he wouldn’t call himself a socialist.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Wolff?

RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I think politics is shifting, and the centrists are having to discover that they are centrists because the politics has moved to the left. That’s what Bernie has accomplished. That’s what the young people around him have accomplished. It may be awkward and uncomfortable for people who used to think of themselves as the left to discover they’re not, that there’s a movement to their left. But we’re very proud that that has returned as a kind of sanity of balance in our political discourse.

And so, I’m not surprised that people like Matthews overreact, because they’re being outflanked on the left. They weren’t ready for it. I remember, in 2016, talking to a high official of the Democratic Party, assuring me that Bernie Sanders would never get more than 1 or 2% of any vote, anywhere, ever. And they didn’t know, and they didn’t understand. And it’s a little bit like the old Bob Dylan song, you know, “Wake Up.” There’s things going on that you didn’t foresee and that are shifting the ground on which you stand. But I want to be clear that many of us welcome this.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Chris Matthews has been on a tear. He recently said, “I remember the Cold War. I have an attitude toward Fidel Castro.” He added, “I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War, there would have been executions in Central Park, and I might have been one of the ones getting executed. And certain other people would be there cheering,” suggesting, as he was talking about Bernie Sanders, that Bernie Sanders would be responsible for his execution in Central Park.

RICHARD WOLFF: Yeah. For me, this is — all that I hear in all of this is an anguished fear that the politics is moving to the left. These are individuals who made a commitment long ago in their lives not to go to the left, even if they had sympathies there, to stay in the middle, because it was the safe, the wise thing for their future, for the country and for their careers. And that’s no longer the case. And they are outraged, and out come these kinds of comments.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to two economists. Richard Wolff has a new book out. It’s called Understanding Socialism. And the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has a new book out. It’s called Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: “All Your Questions Answered” by McCarthy. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our debate on Bernie Sanders and democratic socialism with Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has a new book out called Arguing with Zombies, and Richard Wolff, emeritus professor of economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visiting professor at The New School. His book is called Understanding Socialism.

So, Paul Krugman, I wanted to go to your — one of your columns that you just wrote, headlined “Bernie Sanders Isn’t the Left’s Trump,” where you write, “I’m more concerned about … the electability of someone who says he’s a socialist even though he isn’t and … if he does win, whether he’ll squander political capital on unwinnable fights like abolishing private health insurance.” Your stance on Medicare for All?

PAUL KRUGMAN: If I could do it, if I could wave a magic wand, or if I had a time machine and could somehow go back to 1947, when we almost — almost — got single-payer healthcare, I would do it in a moment. It’s not the only way to do it. One thing you learn if you study healthcare systems is every other advanced country has universal healthcare, they do it in different ways. Some of them have government provision. Some of them have regulated private healthcare. Some of them have single payer. Single payer is not the only solution, but it’s fine.

The trouble is, there’s 160 million people in America who have private health insurance. You’re saying to those people, “We’re going to replace what you have with something completely different. Trust us. It’ll be better.” It will probably be true: For most of them, it would be better. But that’s a huge political lift. You’re asking people to make a huge leap of faith, whereas we can in fact get to universal coverage through a more — through a public option, through something like Medicare for America, something that lets people buy into Medicare and subsidizes it, without having to waste their time.

And there are so many — you know, that’s not — having the absolute best healthcare system is not the only priority. If I had to say what is the most — biggest gap in America is that we’re not doing enough to help children. And I would like to get another couple percent of GDP spent on helping children in a variety of ways. And I think that the drive for Medicare for All will kill that possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, when you look at the polls in New Hampshire and in Nevada about what people care most about, in both places it’s the same. Number one is healthcare. Number two is climate change. Number three, I think it’s inequality.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Number four, it’s foreign policy. And especially in Nevada, Richard Wolff, what’s interesting is you had a very powerful union, the culinary union, where they were offering excellent health insurance to their workers, and yet their workers overwhelmingly, the rank and file, bucked the leadership and said, “Even if we’re getting great healthcare, we have family members who are not, loved ones who are not. And ultimately, we want Medicare for All.” So, explain this discrepancy. Paul Krugman is saying it’s not realistic.

RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I think, again, the politics in America have changed. I don’t think the mass of Americans want to hear the details about what you might get and how careful we should be and what step we should — they want change. They wanted it from Obama, who promised hope and change. They wanted it even from Mr. Trump, who promised a change. We didn’t get the changes that they promised, neither the one nor the other. And so people now want something that will solve their problem, will not respect the old, centrist “Let’s go carefully, let’s do this, let’s not push too hard.” They want the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you get to Medicare for All immediately, or more rapidly than what Paul Krugman is suggesting can be done?

RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I agree with Paul, which surprises probably both of us. But the point is, there are plenty of models out there of countries that have, in a variety of ways, answered the basic human demand: “I want to be careful. I want to know that when I’m born and until I die, if something happens to me in the way of illness or injury, I am taken care of. Like I want a public park and I want public schools, I want public healthcare.” And they don’t want the details and the hesitance. They want that. And any of them would be a perfectly good basis.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s always interested me how people look to other countries to say what would be models, when we have the model right here at home. We have Medicare, one of the most of popular programs in this country.

RICHARD WOLFF: Yes, by all means.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Oh, yeah. We have socialized medicine for everybody over 65, and — although it’s interesting. If you look at it, we also do have private insurance. We have not abolished private supplemental insurance for older people in America. So, it is, in a way, a bit of a compromise system. The actually existing Medicare that we have for older Americans is not as radical as the Medicare that Bernie Sanders is proposing for everyone.

But look, yeah, the United States contains multitudes. We have pure socialized medicine. The Veterans Health Administration is actual government provision of healthcare, and it works. We have regulated private markets and Obamacare. I mean, people trash Obama a lot, but, you know, given the constraints he was under, he got 20 million people health insurance who didn’t have it before. I personally know people whose lives were saved by Obamacare. So let’s not dismiss it as nothing. And we have single payer. But, you know, that, in a way, is telling you that there are many ways to achieve it. And we should look at — every other country does it for everybody. The problem is, we have a safety net that’s got huge holes in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, this Yale study just came out in the medical journal Lancet. It said Medicare for All would save the U.S. $450 billion and prevent nearly 70,000 deaths a year. You have Bernie Sanders recently saying that he wants people in the movement to say, “I’m willing to fight for someone I don’t know.”

RICHARD WOLFF: Yeah, I mean, I could match Paul’s argument in his little model of somebody whose life was saved by introducing him to people whose life was lost, or at least their relatives, because they didn’t have the coverage that Mr. Obama was unable to get.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Right.

RICHARD WOLFF: And for someone who kept saying, “I could do more, if only I had a groundswell of support,” we do have to remember that when that groundswell developed, called Occupy Wall Street, Mr. Obama wiped it out with his bulldozers in Zuccotti Park and everywhere else, undercutting the very groundswell he had earlier used as an excuse for not doing more.

But my response is, whether it’s healthcare or a decent college education for Americans that does not saddle them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, the demand is now out there, and that’s what’s fueling Mr. Bernie Sanders’ support. They don’t want the middling bit, old, this change, that. They want these problems, that — Paul is right — have existed in this country for many years, they want it finally solved. And they want a politician who they can believe might actually do it, as opposed to those in the middle who have been saying it and promising it and belaboring the difficulties, and basically not getting it done.

AMY GOODMAN: One of your columns, Paul Krugman, you talk about — the headline is “Have Zombies Eaten Bloomberg’s and Buttigieg’s Brains?”

PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

PAUL KRUGMAN: OK. That was mostly — so, my book is Arguing with Zombies. And one of the zombies is this obsession with public debt and the belief that we should be terribly scared of government debt, and we can’t do anything because of deficits. Eek! And that’s the way Buttigieg talks now, at that very moment when mainstream economics, if you like, centrist economics, has concluded, “Hey, these debt worries were way overblown.” You know, the president of the American Economic Association gave this presidential address saying debt is just not nearly the problem people think it is, and it’s not a constraint. And, of course, Republicans have pulled one of the greatest acts of policy hypocrisy in history. You know, deficits were an existential threat as long as Obama was in office; they don’t matter as soon as Trump is in office. So, I really don’t want to see — I mean, if we did get a Democratic centrist who bought into this deficit scaremongering, that would be a really bad thing. That would block any kind of initiative.

AMY GOODMAN: And as we begin to wrap up, there is a mayoral — there is a presidential debate coming up on Tuesday night in South Carolina. Two of the seven candidates are billionaires.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Wolff, your thoughts?

RICHARD WOLFF: Well, for me, it is always an astonishment to observe this inequality getting worse and worse. I’m one of the people, even though I wasn’t alive then, who celebrated that during the 1930s we compressed the inequality in this country by means of an unusual president, whose politics are remarkably like that of Mr. Bernie Sanders these days, and we actually did something to lessen the inequality. And as soon as the war was over, we resumed, we undid the New Deal, and the inequality began to get to the crazy levels now. It is an abomination that one person — for example, Jeffrey Bezos — disposes of $100-plus billion deciding what is to be done with all those resources. That’s not democratic. That excludes the mass of people from the needs that could be met if that money was used differently. And he can hardly consume it himself. It’s an extraordinary critique of capitalism that it allows this kind of concentrated wealth, which, of course, protects itself by trying to control the politics of our country, so that they don’t have the power in Congress to undo the inequality in the first place. So, for me, declaiming against that, right on, Bernie Sanders.

PAUL KRUGMAN: I mean, I don’t think billionaires are inherently evil, but there is something wrong when two guys who really don’t have any kind of national political base are in this debate only because of their money. A peculiar thing is, of course, that Steyer may well make Bernie Sanders the nominee by drawing support away from Biden. But no, this is — I mean, as these guys go — 

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah. Bloomberg is not evil, but he shouldn’t be in this race.

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