BuzzFlash Interview with Sen. Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders Stands Up For the Middle Class and Takes on Corporate Mainstream Media

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is one of the few national politicians who is eager to talk about the widening chasm of economic division in America between the haves and have nots -- and the growing number of have nots and the increasing wealth of the haves.

That's important, because since the Reagan administration, the Republicans -- with the enabling of most Democrats -- have swept the mugging of the middle and lower classes under the rug. Every time a Democrat brings up the plight of the working class and the poor, he or she is accused of engaging in "class warfare" by the Republicans. Of course, the GOP domestic economic policies since Reagan have been an actualized strategy of conducting a class war, in which the few select wealthy Americans at the top have become engorged with money at the expense of everyone below them, meaning the other 99.5% of us. But don't dare talk about it, as they pummel any meaningful discussion into the ground.

But Sanders isn't one to cower when it comes to the plight of the middle class and the poor -- and those affected includes the farmers in his home state.

We always enjoy talking with Senator Sanders, who is a BuzzFlash fan.

By the way, you can hear Senator Sanders fielding questions from callers nearly every Friday on the Thom Hartmann radio program.

BuzzFlash: A couple of weeks ago, David Leonhardt wrote a piece for The New York Times called "For Many, a Boom That Wasn't." It concerned the stagnation of the middle class. You keyed off that on your website and got responses from many constituents. I've read through those, and it's indeed quite dire for many wage-earners out there. And we're not just talking about people without jobs. That's a serious enough issue as it is. We're talking about the stagnation of people with jobs.

Leonhardt says that the now-finished "boom" was, for most Americans, nothing of the sort. In 2000, at the end of the previous economic expansion, the American family made about $61,000 according to the Census Bureau, with inflation-adjusted numbers. In 2007, the median amazingly seems to have been less -- about $60,500.

Senator Sanders: To me it's not amazing. One of the outrages that has been going on for a number of years from the Bush Administration and from the corporate media is the mythology that we have been, until the last few months, in a very strong and "robust" economy. That's rubbish. That's nonsense.

As some people may remember, I put a hold on the nomination of Jim Nussle to be head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). We ended up having a debate on the issue, and we had 24 votes against him. Why did I do that? I want somebody at the OMB who is at least going to explain reality to the President in terms of what's going on for the middle class in this country.

Year after year, the Bush people come forward and say how great the economy is, and that's full of crap. Since Bush has been President, median family income has gone down. For working families, it's gone down hundreds of dollars. Five million more people have slipped into poverty. Eight million people have lost their health insurance. Three million Americans have lost their pensions. And we have lost millions of good-paying jobs. How does that add up to a strong economy?

It hasn't been a strong economy. The confusion rests with the fact that Bush's pals in the top 1% and one-tenth of 1% have been doing extremely well. Almost all of the wealth that has been created in recent years has gone to the top 1%. But the middle class is in steep decline, and in deep distress. That was the case before the foreclosure crisis, and that is even more so today.

BuzzFlash: The Wall Street Journal says the wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 21.2% of all income generated in this country in 2005. The bottom 50% of Americans earned only 12.8% of all income.

Senator Sanders: If my memory is correct, David Cay Johnston said in the book Free Lunch [available from BuzzFlash] that the wealthiest one-tenth of 1% earns more income than the bottom 50%.

One of the issues that the corporate media very rarely discusses, and one of the issues that members of Congress very rarely discuss, is the distribution of wealth and income. We're using our website,, more aggressively than we have in the past, and we've got a poll up there. We basically ask: Do you think there is a moral obligation to address the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the United State? Over 400 people have responded, and almost all of them feel it is. The fact is that we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth, and that gap is growing wider. That is an issue that we must talk about.

BuzzFlash: An article from a book by Steven Greenhouse, who writes for The New York Times, is called The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. It has another statistic, just to bolster what you've been saying: "Since 1979, hourly earnings for 80% of American workers, those in the private sector, have risen by just 1 percent after inflation. For male workers, the average hourly wage actually slid by 5% since 1979."

Senator Sanders: For those people without a college degree, and the workers without a high school diploma, it's a much steeper decline than that.

BuzzFlash: You're a fantastic spokesperson about the prism through which the corporate media views things. One of those prisms is economics, because the owners of the corporate media are benefiting from an economy that booms at the top but stagnates in the middle. Everything is fine with them. They're buying more cars, bigger houses, going on more vacations. Even CEOs whose companies perform horribly get tremendous golden parachutes if they're finally forced out. Is the prism of the corporate media also responsible for making it seem like we have a booming economy when it's only booming for a small percentage of people?

Senator Sanders: The answer is absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. Clearly one of the serious problems we have in our nation is not just in George Bush being the worst president in the modern history of the United States, but it is a corporate media which consistently deflects attention from the reality of American life. The middle class has been in decline for decades now, and it's manifested in a transformation of the economy from a General Motors economy of good wages, strong union, good benefits, to a Wal-Mart economy of low wages, no benefits, and vehemently anti-union. That's the transformation of the American economy. The corporate media has virtually ignored that.

Year after year since Bush has been President, they have told us how "robust" the economy has been. That is totally absurd. There is no question that the corporate media were stenographers for Bush's getting us into the war in Iraq. The media have propped up Bush and not acknowledged that this is perhaps the worst President in American history.

Clearly if we are going to move this country in a new direction, we need to take on the corporate media. We need a very strong growth in the progressive media, which is why the work of BuzzFlash and other progressive websites is so enormously important -- enormously important, and I'm not just saying it to flatter you. That's also why I'm on the Thom Hartmann show - because it's desperately important that we get out a vision of American which reflects the reality of ordinary people.

BuzzFlash: I encourage BuzzFlash readers to go to your revamped website where there's a section on the collapse of the middle class. This really is a cry for help from the distressed middle class -- people with jobs talking about just barely getting by. What is your feeling as you read through these e-mails?

Senator Sanders: It blew me away, because I have to tell you, in the State of Vermont, it's not easy for people to start telling everybody in the world about their personal lives. People are pretty reticent about that. They like to keep their problems to themselves. That's kind of what Vermont is about. When we put that website page up there, we thought we'd get a couple dozen responses. Now we're somewhere over 500 responses, and many of them are just extraordinarily poignant. They are people talking about what's going on in their lives in their own words. And just very powerful stuff.

These responses are coming from all over the state, and from every age group. You're seeing many people telling us, we worked hard our whole lives, and now that we're in our sixties, we expected to have enough money to retire with a little bit of security. Yet we're finding ourselves in debt.

A story comes to my mind. You know, it gets cold in Vermont, and heating a home is an expensive business. A woman writes that her husband has a bad back -- 65 years old and he's now out cutting wood to heat their wood stove, because they use their wood stove because they don't have enough money to buy oil.

One case comes to my mind where their grown children lost their house, and now they are taking care of the kids, and that's an added expense which they never anticipated. When you hear the stories coming from people in their own words, you see the interconnectedness of all of these things. When the economy gets bad, suddenly you may have to be taking care of your kids when you didn't expect it.

When the economy is bad, you lose your job. When gas prices go up, it's very difficult for you to fill up your gas tank in a rural state to go looking for work. So it's not just gas prices are going up, not just losing jobs. It's harder to find a job if you have to pay $3.25 for a gallon of gas and you have to travel many miles a day. You may not have the money to do that. But it does speak to the severity of the economic problems facing the middle class. We got really a huge number of responses, and poignant responses.

BuzzFlash: Here in Illinois tuition is once again going up at the University of Illinois and at some of the other state schools. It's to the point where it's out of range for the middle class, and scholarships are being reduced.

Right-wing Republican activist Grover Norquist made the infamous statement that he'd like to see the government so reduced that you could drown it in the bathtub. Since Reagan came into power, we've had a stagnation of wages among the middle class, for those lucky enough to have jobs, but also higher costs for things the public sector used to provide free or at a subsidized cost. The government can't pay these costs now because the government has to reduce its expenses, given this huge, record-setting deficit. That's what the Bush Administration and the Norquists of the world want. So the middle class is getting paid less, and yet it's costing more for what used to be public services.

Senator Sanders: Are you familiar with Elizabeth Warren, who wrote The Two-Income Family Trap and some other books? She's a professor at Harvard Law School and a very good writer and a very good economist. We had her in Vermont a couple weeks ago. She points out just what you're saying -- that when you ask why it is that a two-income family today has less disposable income than a one-income family did thirty years ago, well, here are some of the reasons. One factor is the cost of education -- and that means college education, it means primary school, and it means preschool, because now you have to work, right? It means two people in the family now work.

When I was growing up, in most cases, it was one person working forty hours a week. Now you have two people working incredibly long hours. That means you've got preschool costs if you have young children. You're saving up to send your kids to college. That costs a fortune. If you have two people working, you're going to have to have two cars, and that's a lot of money. If you want your kid to go to a good public school, you're going to have to live in a good neighborhood. Housing costs have soared in recent years. The cost of health care has soared because we have a dysfunctional health care system. The cost of energy, whether it's home heating oil or gas for the car, is soaring.

You add those things together, and it is increasingly difficult for people to make ends meet. Then what happens if people go into debt because of the deregulation that came down from Reagan et al.? Today, we have people who are buying groceries or sending their kids to college paying 20-25% interest rates on their credit cards.

BuzzFlash: Even public school has more costs than it used to. When my kids went to high school, we had a charge of $300 for the year for textbooks. That's not true in every school, but the point is, these increased costs for families used to be absorbed by the public sector.

Senator Sanders: There's no question about it. And to the degree that libraries fall apart, then you're going to have to buy books because you can't borrow them. And museums are now charging admission which used to be free -- you started this discussion by pointing out that Norquist and Bush essentially believe that government should not be providing services like these to people. Deep down, we know they would privatize Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and public education tomorrow if they could.

About three weeks ago, I brought Ambassador Pekka Lintu from Finland to the State of Vermont. We have some information on the website about him. I said: I want you to come to Vermont to tell people how it is that in your country, you have free college education and graduate school. You want to go to medical school? It's free. You have free preschool and child care. You have what is regarded as the best public educational system in the world. Kids do better than in any other country. You have free health care. How do you do all these things? How does it work?

We had 350 people come out to Burlington City Hall to hear him, because it addresses the questions that you are talking about right now. The end result is they do pay more in taxes in Finland than we do in the United States, but they get much more for what they pay. They don't pay for private health insurance. They don't pay $35,000 a year to send their kids to college. They don't pay outrageous prices for preschool. All of those are what government provides to them. At the end of the day, the services that they get, which are quality services, cost them less than what we get in our country.

BuzzFlash: Let me ask you about tax cuts. Obviously the so-called tax rebates that the Congress just voted are supposed to be coming in the mail anytime now. These are just kind of sops to the middle class, because the real cuts, at least in the Reagan-Bush administrations, were the tax cuts for the wealthy. They could care less about the peanuts of tax cuts and rebates that are being tossed to the middle class.

Senator Sanders: There's no doubt that the vast majority of the tax breaks have gone to the very wealthiest people in this country. If Bush and the Republicans have their way, which they're not, and repeal the estate tax, what you will be talking about is over a trillion dollars in tax breaks that went to the top three-tenths of 1%.

BuzzFlash: Isn't this in essence something that the media and most politicians are afraid to talk about -- class issues? Since the Reagan Administration, we have seen the most massive income redistribution in American history -- to the wealthy. And we don't have any media coverage about this.

Senator Sanders: Let me give you an example. I would say that almost every week since I've been in the Senate, I have been on the floor in one way or another talking about all of the issues that you and I are talking about right now. To the best of my knowledge, none of it has been picked up by reporters. I'm a United States senator, and I speak on the Senate floor -- but it's not picked up because it's so far removed from what mainstream media talks about.

This speaks to the need for us to take on the corporate media, and to use the Internet and the progressive websites to talk about the reality facing American people, which is, as you indicated, the middle class shrinking and the richest people have never had it so good. Over a period of years, we are talking about a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class and working families to the upper 1%. That is the issue we've got to keep banging away at.

But, clearly, it is very, very hard to get that into the media. I've been an elected official almost since 1981, and during all of that time, not one reporter -- and I have done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of interviews -- not one reporter has ever come up to me and said: Bernie, what are you going to do to correct this grossly unfair distribution of wealth and income in America? That question has never been asked of me. I suspect it has never been asked of any of my colleagues.

BuzzFlash: Bush and his friends and people who run the media talk about the economy in general going well -- we may be in a recession but, it's going well for them.

Senator Sanders: It's going well for them, and they're able to disguise this. But the key issue that the media has ignored is what is happening to the average American worker. The facts are very clearly that the standard of living of that person is in decline. The reason I put a hold on Jim Nelson to become head of the OMB is just that issue. I demanded a debate on the state of the economy in terms of how it impacts the American worker. I got 24 votes in opposition to Nelson. Those are the kinds of issues we need to debate, and it's hard to get it through the corporate media.

BuzzFlash: You recently have held hearings about the plight of tomato workers in Florida. You talk about exploitation and that jobs have gone to conditions that are basically slave labor. Can you just tell us a little bit about the conditions there and what you have found out?

Senator Sanders: In mid-January, I went to Immokalee, Florida, which is a town near Naples, which is where they have some of the largest tomato and citrus farms in Florida. They produce the lion's share of the tomatoes and other vegetables and citrus fruits that are produced in the wintertime.

What I found was absolutely incredible. People are working for starvation wages. You have people who have absolutely no rights. You have people who are living in horrendous living conditions. I visited some of the trailers that these workers are living in. We have eight-ten workers paying 500 a month apiece for living in absolute, horrendous living conditions. The health care is very difficult to come by. The employers there provide no health are or any other benefits.

When I was down there, just coincidentally, there was another indictment -- because you have had five or six cases over the years in the tomato industry where people were actually held in slavery -- i.e., they were held against their will and forced to work. This is America 2008, but just a few months ago, another indictment took place. People have been found guilty and are in jail today because they held other human beings in slavery. Most of the people there are Mexican, and some are Haitians.

I promised the people there we would do a hearing on the issue, and we did. Senator Kennedy, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, was there, and Dick Durbin, who is the Assistant Majority Leader, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and I was there. We had the fellows representing the growers there, and some of the people from what's called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) doing a great job trying to organize the workers. They're standing up for human rights in the fields. We have supported their effort to get some of the fast-food restaurants like Yum!, who owns Taco Bell and A & W and many other fast-food companies, to pay just a penny a pound more for tomatoes, and making sure that money goes to the workers. Yum! has agreed to do that, and McDonald's, to their credit, has agreed to do that. We're working on Burger King now, who has been resistant. The immediate goal is to make sure that we substantially increase the wages that these workers get.

BuzzFlash: I read in an article from the Burlington Herald about your hearings that a county sheriff, Charlie Frost, testified that human trafficking "has surreptitiously found its way into our society." And he said that victims had been beaten and threatened. We're talking about a deputy county sheriff saying people have been beaten and threatened, and his investigations have been hindered by threats against victims' families.

Senator Sanders: I met with Detective Frost when I was at Immokalee. A very decent guy, and they have part of a division, as I understand it, within the Sheriff's Department in Collier County who are doing nothing else but investigating slavery charges. That's what they do. And they were very active in the last indictment. These guys are doing a great job.

I asked him: Is this an aberration? Is this way outside of the norm? He said no. And I said: Do you think it's taking place today? Yes, it does. And that's because you have a culture where workers are so powerless that you can end up in a situation where, in order to pay off their debts, they are working involuntarily. In some cases, we found that some of these crew leaders had gone to halfway houses, and they had taken drug addicts, and they pay them off in cocaine, as I understand. So, a horrendous situation.

I was down there not only to stand up for some of the most oppressed workers in America, but many of us refer to the economy in this country right now as a race to the bottom, and Immokalee, Florida may well be the bottom in terms of that. IOf you don't lift up the bottom, the truth is that every worker in America suffers, because it's easier to keep pushing people lower and lower, so long as the bottom keeps going down. You understand what I'm saying?

BuzzFlash: Absolutely. Of course, the owners of these companies are benefiting.

Senator Sanders: Oh, yes.

BuzzFlash: They say the economy is going just fine, and, meanwhile, the middle class is getting pushed down and squeezed between the slave workers and the extremely wealthy. And more jobs disappear and their income goes down as the wage scale decreases.

Senator Sanders: Exactly. It is important for us to understand this is not just about tomato workers in Immokalee, Florida. It is about every American worker. I you allow conditions to exist that are so bad, every American worker suffers from that.

BuzzFlash: Thank you, Senator. Thank you for speaking up for the vast majority of Americans who are facing difficult times.

Senator Sanders: I read BuzzFlash all of the time.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.