How far should candidates go in attacking each other during primaries? How unfair is too unfair? How awful is too awful? Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to cross the line two nights ago, and he went so far past it that I was temporarily at a loss for words. But the red-baiting plutocrat actually did us an inadvertent favor, because in crossing that line, he actually exposed a deep similarity between communism and (Bloomberg's version of) capitalism.
I have been very hard on Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar for their unfair treatment of Elizabeth Warren, especially when they have falsely accused her of being vague and unrealistic. Even so, those attacks might arguably not be the kind of thing that can readily translate into attack ads for the Republicans. The difficult balancing act for candidates is in saying, "I'm better than her/him," without saying "She/He should never be president." So let me be clear here. If Bloomberg is the nominee, he should be president. Trump is the alternative. But Bloomberg came closer than I ever thought possible to making me think that the Democrats could end up with a candidate who should never be president. And I am not talking about Bernie Sanders.
Bloomberg's gall is shocking, but understanding the root of his smarmy self-confidence can be educational for the rest of us. We begin, however, by looking at what Bloomberg did that earned such excoriation.
During Wednesday's debate in Nevada (transcript here), Buttigieg surprised me by endorsing the idea of requiring large companies to turn over up to 20 percent of their ownership to employees over time. In typical fashion, Buttigieg immediately hedged ("I'm not sure it makes sense to command those companies to do it.") and then made himself out to be a wide-eyed Midwesterner of simple means, but even so, he did endorse employee ownership.
The moderator attributed this idea to Sanders, even though Warren has endorsed it as well. In any case, when Sanders was asked to comment, he first made the great point that Bloomberg's employees might have had just a bit to do with making Bloomberg a billionaire, and he then added that employees should also be able to sit on corporate boards as well as own shares of stock.
To be clear, this is not even democratic socialism, unless one thinks that Germany is a social democratic state. Although Sanders quickly mentioned Denmark, which is (quite understandably) his go-to example of a successful social democratic country, the specific policy suggestions under discussion at that moment were straight out of the largest economy in Europe. This is simply a different way to organize a capitalist economy.
To repeat, this particular exchange in the debate was specifically focused on a 20 percent employee ownership proposal and workers being represented on corporate boards. When the moderator asked whether Bloomberg would support this, how did he respond?
"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. It's ridiculous. We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn't work."There you have it. Bloomberg labeled these very within-the-capitalist-approach suggestions as communism. Not socialism, but communism -- ideas that are supposedly so abhorrent to Americans that voters will be driven into Donald Trump's grasping arms. This would not be a matter of modifying the rules that made Bloomberg a billionaire fifty times over, but "throw[ing] out capitalism." (Sanders rightly responded that the red-baiting was "a cheap shot.")
Although I think getting into the whole socialism thing is pointless in these debates, it would have been less bad (maybe even good) if Bloomberg had made a more general claim about Sanders's rhetoric. "Look," Bloomberg might have said,
"I understand the difference between capitalism and socialism, and between socialism and democratic socialism. Bernie's ideas are not radical at all, even if I disagree with him on many particulars. Yet I am worried that, even though Trump will try to tar even me as a radical lefty, we Democrats will not find it easy to explain away a candidate who keeps using the word 'socialist' to describe himself."But no, Bloomberg said that any empowerment of workers -- and remember, the Sanders/Warren proposal in essence turns workers into capitalists (owning companies) and bosses (serving on corporate boards) -- is flat-out communism, which "just didn't work." Except that it has worked -- smashingly well -- and, again, it is not even socialism.
Bloomberg's self-immolating performance on Wednesday included another exchange that sheds light on his red-baiting moment. One of the most widely discussed sequences in the debate was when Warren called on Bloomberg to release women (and maybe some men) from the Trump-ish Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA's) that they had signed and that prevented them from speaking about accusations of harassment and hostility at Bloomberg's company.
I should note first that this is the Liz Warren whom I have long admired. Smart, quick-witted, with the ability to respond crisply in the moment -- Bloomberg: "We have a very few nondisclosure agreements." Warren: "How many is that? ... I just want to be clear. 'Some' is how many?" -- Warren showed that she is the brightest light on any debate stage. When I endorsed her candidacy two months ago, I based my decision on her policy proposals, but she adds in a truckload of intellectual charisma for free.
But the key here lies in Bloomberg's lame response to Warren. Yes, smirking while saying that "[n]one of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told" is self-indicting, but that was not his actual response to Warren's question. Bloomberg said that he would not release people from NDA's because "the company and somebody else ... decided when they made an agreement they wanted to keep it quiet for everybody's interests. ... They signed the agreements and that's what we're going to live with."
This is exactly what we would expect to hear from a person who cannot imagine signing an agreement for any reason other than exercising his absolute free will. No person, in Bloomberg's mind, would feel that she had no choice but to sign such an agreement because she needed the job to live and to build her life and career. The notion of economic duress is an amusing abstraction, at best, to the Bloombergs of the world. It certainly is not a reason to allow people not to live up to the contract that they signed.
As Warren pressed him, however, Bloomberg made it worse, because he had no answer to her point that he could simply release the people from their NDA's. He could not even conceive of this, because in his mind both sides wanted non-disclosure: "[T]hey wanted to keep it quiet for everybody's interests." He seemed utterly confused as to why the other side would be willing to release him from an agreement that he signed, too.
So Bloomberg actually seemed to believe that contracts are not the result of give and take, where one side reluctantly trades off items in exchange for other items. In his mind, everybody in the deal wanted every part of the deal. So if a car dealer suddenly grew a conscience and said, "I know we agreed that you'd pay extra for undercoating, but the undercoating was on the car already, so I'm canceling the up-charge," Bloomberg would have the other side say, "No, we did this for everyone's interests, and we're all going to live with it."
Even ignoring that absurd implication, Bloomberg's obtuse responses to Warren actually showed that he is the living and breathing embodiment of the caricature of the greedy capitalist that so many people have in their minds. He is Montgomery Burns of "The Simpsons" without the likable side-kick.
Capitalism, Bloomberg apparently believes, is simply fantastic because everyone can make private deals that are in everyone's best interests. Why get the government involved in mandating who serves on corporate boards? If workers wanted that, after all, they would not have agreed to a deal that did not include employee representation. So while true communists believe that their system guarantees workers' satisfaction, so does Bloomberg's version of capitalism. How could anyone not like this, asks the person who has nothing to dislike. Both are bizarrely utopian worldviews.
There is a true irony here. Bernie Sanders, whatever else one might say about him (and I have been critical of him for various reasons), expounds a relatively modest set of proposals but is called an extremist and even a communist. Michael Bloomberg, by contrast, is called a moderate but actually expounds a theory of capitalism that would make Adam Smith blanch.
To put it differently, one could imagine responding to extreme criticisms of Sanders by saying something like this: "Hold on, there, you've deliberately exaggerated what Bernie believes." What would the response be to similarly extreme criticisms of Bloomberg? "Whoa whoa whoa, you're acting like Mike thinks capitalism only involves free choice and fair outcomes, and that the government should not force billionaires to do anything they don't want to do. That's unfa ... Wait, that is what he's saying. Never mind."