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Opinionista

Have Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang turned the tide against the undermining of government?

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John Matisonn is a former senior United Nations elections official, Independent Broadcasting Authority councillor, and long-time political and foreign correspondent. He is the author of Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform; and God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s Future Through its Past.

Calling good government the problem is as irresponsible as milking it for State Capture.

Covid-19 has accelerated the inevitable end of Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be US president. Once he lost all three primary state elections in Florida, Illinois and Arizona on Tuesday, 17 March, his path to the Democratic nomination to take on President Donald Trump closed. With campaigns, future primaries and perhaps even the party conventions on hold, clinging on will very soon look like sabotage.

Yet Sanders and Andrew Yang, the only two Democratic candidates whom pollsters found could win more than 10% of current Trump voters, have changed the political debate. They both pointed to a more serious role for the state. Is it possible that we are beginning to see the turning point in the half-century battle to undermine the government’s role?

Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan launched his charm offensive with the catchy claim that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Government grants, he averred, were exploited and abused by “welfare queens”.

If that was true, why pay taxes, why give the government more money to help people? He cut taxes, the government did less and inequality grew.

The apotheosis of this way of thinking came two years ago when Trump’s White House dismantled the pandemic office of the National Security Council. Trump’s Commerce Secretary-designate, Wilbur Ross, denied claims he fell asleep during a January 2017 Obama administration briefing to prepare them for “the worst influenza pandemic since 1918”.

Now, on the brink of the biggest crisis since the Great Depression some 90 years ago, Republican senators are calling for at least $1,000 to be sent straight from the government to ordinary citizens. When 45-year-old techno-wizard Andrew Yang launched his campaign for the White House on that plan, he seemed an idiosyncratic loner. This week, his staff is in fruitful discussion with Trump’s White House about how it works.

Trump’s stimulus package to save the US economy is expected to soar beyond $1-trillion. There will probably be much more. It’s a pity Trump failed to use the good times to cut the national debt, but now it has to be done regardless.

The bailout will include direct cheques to Americans facing financial hardship, which is expected to cost $250-billion, as well as loans for small businesses and entire industries facing the brunt of the economic downturn.

“This is a very unique situation for this economy. We’ve put a proposal on the table that would inject a trillion dollars into the economy that is on top of the $300-billion from tax deferrals from the IRS deferrals,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

Hopefully, there will be resistance to bailing out big businesses without strings, after the post-global financial crisis bailouts of 2009. At least $50-billion is proposed for the airline industry, though airlines bailed out last time used their positive cash flow to buy back their own shares, a device that simply enriches shareholders by upping the share price. If cruise ship companies are bailed out, will politicians forget most are registered in offshore tax havens?

Yang’s campaign was built around a $1,000 monthly “Freedom Dividend” for every citizen. An outrageous non-starter even a few weeks ago, the White House is now examining his data and is intending to implement it. But Yang’s motivation was different – to save the unintended victims of global change.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is now migrating from manufacturing workers to retail, call centres, transportation, as well as to white-collar workers like attorneys, pharmacists and radiologists,” Yang warned. “These are the problems that got Donald Trump elected, the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“What I talked about was the rate of change. I was painting a picture where we wind up automating millions of American livelihoods and then are left trying to figure out what the path forward is for those people, their families, those communities.”

Yet South Africa continues to tout 4IR as if it’s the second coming. Yang’s campaign cap read MATH, for “make Americans think harder”. So should we.

Yang’s value is that he consumes data. It has become an article of faith in South Africa that the government can manage a “just transition” of workers from coal to renewables, for example. Yang checked the outcome of similar US programmes, and found the government did not do a very good job. He supported a wealth tax in theory, based on absurdly rising inequality, but remained sceptical in practice, because the rich would find ways of hiding their wealth. Cutting inequality requires coordinated international tax policy.

Yang is scathing about the government’s increasing failure to do its job. He found that the state of Ohio had more opiate prescriptions than citizens. Regulators never picked that up, yet opiates became a scourge of declining life expectancy, depression and suicide.

Widely dismissed as a has-been only four weeks ago, former Vice-President Joe Biden is now unstoppable. In their 15 March 2020 debate, Sanders stuck to his script and forced some policy concessions from Biden.

But Biden was better tuned to the suddenly changed mood in the US. He looked presidential and offered needed reassurance. In the end, his experience and relaxed charm fitted better than Sanders’ more pointed analysis of long-standing ills. Biden pivoted in harmony with a country that switched from 24/7 coverage of the campaign to occasional mentions on cable news.

Biden’s victories in Illinois, Florida and Arizona chalked him up 1,147 delegates to Sanders’ 861. The winner needs 1,991. Only an unforeseen event like a medical problem could change things.

But Sanders cannot command his supporters to vote for Biden. Biden will have to woo them if he is to seal an amicable end to the intra-party conflict. DM

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