Bernie Sanders the Millionaire

There are many things to dislike about the Democratic socialist from Vermont. Hypocrisy isn't among them.

That Bernie Sanders has gotten rich from being Bernie Sanders has been the subject of quite a bit of contemplation of late. The latest installment is “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions” by POLITICO’s Michael Kruse. Its subtitle asks “How did he amass three houses and a net worth approaching at least $2 million?” and sort of answers: “The surprisingly conventional middle-class climbing of a radical-sounding socialist.”

The setup is anecdotal:

Early on in his eight years as the mayor of this city, when he typically dressed in a tieless ensemble of work boots and corduroys, Bernie Sanders one day left City Hall and found a ticket on the windshield of his rusty Volkswagen Dasher. The offense: This was the mayor’s spot, and, surely, a cop had thought, this was not the mayor’s car. But it was. It matched perfectly with both Sanders’ image as a scrappy advocate of the little guy and his own shaky financial reality. It was the beginning of the 1980s, and he was approaching 40, a single father of a not-quite-teenage son, renting a sparse second-floor apartment and having a hard time keeping up with his bills. “Not only,” he wrote on his yellow, coffee-splotched legal pads kept in archives at the University of Vermont, “do I not pay bills every month—‘What, every month?’—I am unable to …” His scribbles in barely legible cursive in the margins read like reminders and afterthoughts: “gas,” “light,” “water.”

This is perhaps not surprising. Despite a prestige education at the University of Chicago, Sanders had been a social activist mostly doing odd jobs. Election to mayor brought him an upper middle-class salary (roughly equivalent to $100,000 in today’s dollars) after just barely scraping by previously.

In the wake of his 2016 presidential run, the most lucrative thing he’s ever done, the 77-year-old self-described democratic socialist 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. This development, seen mostly as the result of big bucks brought in by the slate of books he’s put out in the past few years, predictably has elicited snarky pokespartisan jabs and charges of hypocrisyThe millionaire socialist!

Now, “at least” does a lot of work here. Still, while “a net worth approaching at least $2 million” initially struck me as not all that impressive, especially in Washington, DC, a recent study found that $1.25 million qualified as wealthy here. Still, Sanders is nearly 80, has been in public life for four decades, and presumably has a rather healthy retirement nest egg.

Sanders has been impatient to the point of churlish when pressed about this. “I wrote a best-selling book,” he told the New York Times after he releasing the last 10 years of his tax returns. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.” Asked on Fox News if this sort of success was “the definition of capitalism,” he bristled. “You know, I have a college degree,” he said.

But, of course, the reason his book was a best-seller is that he’s a celebrity politician, not because he’s a great wordsmith. And he had a college degree when he couldn’t pay the water bill.

Based on a deeper examination of his financial disclosurestax returns, property records in Washington and Vermont, and scarcely leafed-through scraps of his financial papers housed at the University of Vermont, Sanders’ current financial portrait is not only some stroke-of-luck windfall, it’s also the product (with the help of his wife) of decades of planning. The upward trajectory from that jalopy of his to his relative riches now—as off-brand as it is for a man who once said he had “no great desire to be rich”—is the product of years of middle-class striving, replete with credit card debt, real estate upgrades and an array of investment funds and retirement accounts.

Good. One would hope that a 77-year-old United States Senator being seriously considered for the Presidency would have the good sense to have saved for his eventual retirement. I’m a quarter century younger and don’t make a Senator’s salary and have been trying to do the same.

As an immigrant’s son who started close to the bottom and has ended up near to the top, Sanders has a narrative arc that would form the backbone of the campaign story of almost any other candidate. But it’s more complicated for him. There’s never been anybody like Sanders in the modern political history of this country—somebody who made a career out of haranguing millionaires … and who is now a millionaire himself. There is no set strategy for how to run for president as a democratic socialist with an expensive lakefront summer house. Americans generally don’t begrudge millionaires their millions—and, as Donald Trump has confirmed, the aura of wealth can serve as a useful means of self-promotion—but what to make of Sanders’ apparently conflicting narratives?

“He became the very thing he criticized others for becoming and at the same time didn’t fix any of the problems he’s been railing about that got him to this point,” Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh told me.

“He almost at times sounds like he thinks it’s inherently evil to be well-off,” veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said in an interview.

It’s among his most annoying qualities, frankly. But, despite having embraced the “socialist” label for decades, Sanders isn’t one. He’s advocating a European-style social welfare state, not a complete takeover of the means of production by the state.

Now, it’s true that, were Sanders’ policies in place, he’d be less wealthy. He’d have paid a much higher marginal tax rate on the windfall from his bestselling book, for instance. But I wouldn’t expect him to simply donate the money to the Treasury under extant tax policy.

I’m not a huge fan of Sanders’ politics, in terms of either ideology or tenor. And I think he’s too old for the job. But I don’t see the hypocrisy in a 77-year-old man who’s been mayor of a major city and then a US Congressman and US Senator—and thus drawing a handsome salary— over a period of nearly four decades and known for being “a cheap son-of-a-bitch” having accumulated a modicum of wealth.

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Economics and Business
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    The relevant comparison is to other long serving senators. At 2 mil he’s likely one of the poorest. And cleanest.

    I don’t want Bernie nominated, I don’t think he can win the general. But it’s easy to like and respect him.

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  2. JohnMcC says:

    Well, good for you, by God. I appreciate you and you co-conspirators here a lot because of that natural fairness.

  3. Plus, his wife was a Provost and then University President during substantial chunks of their marriage. Those would both have likely earned 6 figure salaries as well.

    And the notion that one cannot both make some money and think tax rates should be higher/the welfare state more generous is ridiculous.

    This whole line of criticism is silly (and I do not want Bernie as the nominee, either).

  4. DrDaveT says:

    This whole line of criticism is silly

    That’s an understatement.

    What, exactly, should Bernie have done differently in order to avoid ‘hypocricy’? Not make money in the first place? Give it all away as he earned it? If he had spent it all on booze and women, and was thus not well-off today, would that make it all OK?

    Sheesh.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And the notion that one cannot both make some money and think tax rates should be higher/the welfare state more generous is ridiculous.

    Indeed. I’m roughly where Bernie is financially and I voted for Obama knowing he’d raise my taxes, as well as for Jerry Brown and for the prop that raised California income taxes. Not everyone who gets lucky in life becomes single-mindedly fixated on the acquisition of more, more, more to the exclusion of basic humanity. Right @Guarneri?

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  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    There’s never been anybody like Sanders in the modern political history of this country—somebody who made a career out of haranguing millionaires … and who is now a millionaire himself.

    How quickly we forget. It’s almost as if no one has ever heard of Ralph Nader. Now I do need to grant that Nader’s family ranks higher in the working class because his father eventually owned his own business and Nader mostly harangued owners of capital specifically, but “never been anyone like…?” Sheesh. There’ve been Bernie Sanders types as long as there’s been politics in America, and not all of them died poor and humble.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    Like all of us who ended the oughts with a decent, but not overwhelming kitty in our retirement accounts, Bernie benefited from the run up of the markets over the last 10 years. Given the income he has made since becoming mayor of Burlington and the income that his wife has earned, a net worth of $2M isn’t very impressive.

    Regarding the lake house, even the Ruskies in the Politburo had dachas on the Crimea.

  8. John C. Alessio says:

    Bernie’s criticisms of the millionaires and billionaires has consistently been directed toward those unwilling to pay their fair share of taxes, use their advantaged position to keep their tax rates low, exploit their workers, and refuse to support a fairer distribution of resources so that everyone can live a decent life. None of those descriptions apply to him, and nothing about his current economic status changes who he is as a politician or what he would try to accomplish if elected.

  9. Monala says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: WAPO did a similar story about Elizabeth Warren recently, criticizing her for receiving up to $675 per billable hour on legal cases while teaching at Harvard Law School, and “only” releasing 10 years of tax returns.

    Commenters rightly took the writer to task, pointing out that law school professors take cases all the time to keep their skills and knowledge relevant; $675/hr is cheap for someone of her skills and reputation; and her cases all reflected her expertise and values: making sure that people harmed by corporate malfeasance weren’t shafted when the companies declared bankruptcy. (Not to mention the ridiculous criticism about only releasing 10 years of returns when Trump is president).

    There were also commenters who wondered if “but her billable hours!” would become the “but her emails!” of 2020, and if Jeff Bezos had any hand in the story, given her call to break up Amazon.