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Bernie’s Millions

No, Bernie is not part of the 1 percent. He’s fighting against the interests of the super-rich and outlets like Politico hate him for it.

Bernie Sanders in 2016. Todd Church / Flickr

“It turns out even democratic socialist authors can rake in cash,” CNBC gushes.

It’s “hypocrisy,” squeals FoxBusiness, where Cabot Phillips says of Sen. Bernie Sanders, “He’s gone on to rant against the 1 percent, the millionaire, billionaire class—but now he’s firmly planted in that 1 percent.”

All this manufactured indignation stems from Sanders’s release of ten years of tax returns in April, resulting in the revelation that royalties from three books caused his income to spike recently.

Now Politico runs “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions,” a cover story with a graphic of Bernie superimposed over a money tree. (Tellingly, this has resulted in no media outcry about tropes of antisemitic greed, in contrast to the condemnation of Rep. Ilhan Omar a few months ago.)

“The 77-year-old self-described democratic socialist,” Michael Kruse writes in Politico, “is a three-home-owning millionaire with a net worth approaching at least $2 million, taking into account his publicly outlined assets and liabilities along with the real estate he owns outright. In a strict, bottom-line sense, Sanders has become one of those rich people against whom he has so unrelentingly railed. The champion of the underclass and castigator of ‘the 1 percent’ has found himself in the socioeconomic penthouse of his rhetorical boogeymen.”

In a strict, bottom-line sense, this is rubbish. Bernie’s net worth does not make him part of the 1 percent. Not even close.

We are already more than a decade beyond Richistan (2007), in which Robert Frank wrote that being a millionaire has “become almost common”:  “In Richistan, $1 million just gets you in the door.”  Our vast new asset bubble, fueled by massive corporate and governmental debt, tax cuts benefiting the super-rich, concentration of wealth and income, and central-bank monetary policy, means that there are now 42.2 million millionaires worldwide.

Bernie and Jane Sanders’s household net worth—a term that simply means total household assets, with debts subtracted—is, according to Politico, “approaching at least $2 million.” Isn’t that a weasel way of saying they have less than $2 million?

The Sanders have a couple hundred thousand in the bank, some stocks and bonds of Jane’s, and three houses, reports Politico.  Granted, they are affluent. But consider that it takes a net worth of $5 million for Wall Street advisors to consider a household “very high net worth” and $30 million to warrant the phrase “ultra-high net worth.” The Sanders’s are downscale rich.

The actual breakpoint for 1 percent net worth is $10,374,030, some $8 or $9 million more than a fortune “approaching at least $2 million.”  The average net worth of the 1 percent is skewed far higher by the likes of Bill Gates ($91.9 billion and rising).

Sanders is a true outlier: a Senator whose net worth does not qualify him for the top 1 percent.  He would need to more than triple his net worth just to make the list of the top 50 richest Congresspeople.

Does the Sanders household clear the top 5 percent?  No, the breakpoint there is $2,377,985.

Bernie and Jane Sanders do make the top 10 percent (breakpoint $1,182,390).  The Sanders are not impoverished, to be sure. But are their three houses extravagant?  One was Jane’s before they married; they have owned it jointly in Burlington since 1988. Another is in Washington DC, logically enough for someone democratically elected to represent Vermont in Congress since 1990.  Recently they added a vacation home on Lake Champlain, to host their grandchildren.

Income provides another gauge of household finances, one not as useful as net worth, because income streams fluctuate. Bernie’s taxes are the epitome. In 2015, the Sanders’s earned $240,000, not much for a Senator and far below the top 1 percent. In 2016 and 2017, his banner book-royalty years, they earned $1.1 million. Last year that shrank to $560,000.  Those past three years’ numbers do clear the 1 percent income breakpoint (though net worth is what the news media have mistakenly emphasized).

Do a few years of high income put Sanders in the top 1 percent, though?  Neither he nor Jane is a CEO, and they derive no substantial income from stocks or bonds, so almost surely their income will in time revert, once book sales abate, to a level closer to that of 2015.  Even Bernie’s most lucrative years were below the national average income of the 1 percent, $1,316,985. (In the District of Columbia, that average is still higher, at $1,858,878.)

The real question is not what Bernie possesses but who his political program serves. The top 1 percent?  In 2017, the very year of his peak royalties fortune, Sanders voted against the Trump tax cut giveaway, 85 percent of which went to the 1 percent.

Advocating economic justice despite possessing substantial wealth is not hypocrisy — the name for that is integrity.  Hypocrisy is when a news outlet that routinely promotes the fiction that everyone can be a millionaire slams someone for becoming one.

Bernie’s financial balance sheet was determined by his politics — not the other way round. His financial windfall was an accidental side effect of movement-building, reaped by someone who has never shown any sign of being motivated primarily by individual gain. (Demagogues and fraudsters of that sort have been known to enter into politics.)

Accordingly, we should tally Bernie’s wealth in its moral and political dimensions, not by bank accounts and real estate. He does have many millions: the millions who would achieve health care under his Medicare for All policy, the millions whose Social Security he would protect, the millions of veterans whose benefits he has defended, the millions of students whose college education he would make free, the millions of supporters who have attended his rallies, knocked on doors, stood in caucuses, bought Our Revolution, talked to their relatives, made phone calls, and taken other small measures in their lives to use his message as a means to push for economic equality and democracy against the tendencies of contemporary capitalism that seem only to enrich the 1 percent at the expense of all others.

Those are Bernie’s millions.