SANDERS: The Supreme Court has always been political, but it’s much more so now. The Republicans are tougher than the Democrats. They nominate right-wing judges who act very boldly. Democrats nominate moderates. Citizens United will go down in history as one of the worst decisions ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court. Does anyone really think Bush v. Gore was decided on the legal merits? I saw a study that said when the Chamber of Commerce weighs in on a case, the justices decide in the business lobby’s favor almost 70 percent of the time.
PLAYBOY: The collapse of the middle class didn’t happen overnight. This is a process of at least 30 or 40 years, right?
SANDERS: It happened in a few ways. Number one, the decline of trade unions in America. At the end of the day unions are what workers have to negotiate decent contracts, and unions are what give working people political clout. When you see a devastating reduction of the trade unions, as you see in Michigan, workers will have less power to negotiate contracts and less political clout.
PLAYBOY: In your youth, unions represented probably 35 percent of the workforce. Now it’s 11 percent.
SANDERS: Exactly. Most workers now have nobody to look after them, so the employer says, “Oh, by the way, good news! We’re giving you a job, but you don’t get any vacation time.” Where are you going to go? You’re going to go to your union rep to talk about it. But you don’t have a union rep, so you say, because everybody else is unemployed, “Thank you very much. I’ll take the job.”
PLAYBOY: How do you think the U.S. should view and engage China?
SANDERS: We should do everything we can to avoid a hugely expensive cold war with China similar to what we had with the Soviet Union. We should also do our best, in a respectful way, to support those elements in China fighting for a democratic society. But I vigorously opposed the permanent normal trade relations agreement with China that was pushed by corporate America and supported by many Democrats as well as Republicans. The motive for that agreement was to shut down plants in this country and take advantage of cheap labor in China.
PLAYBOY: You complained recently about ExxonMobil, “They had a bad year in 2009. They only made $19 billion in profit, and they paid nothing in federal income taxes, but they got a $156 million refund from the IRS.”
SANDERS: Bank of America operated 200 subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands. In 2010 it got a $1.9 billion rebate from the IRS. There’s a list of about 15 companies that paid nothing, or very little, in taxes. Many of these institutions—Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase—were actually bailed out by the American people. They were wonderful, proud American companies when they came for their welfare checks from the American people. After the bailout, they suddenly love the Cayman Islands and are parking all their money there. The next time they go broke, they can go to the Cayman Islands for a bailout, not the American people. There’s an estimate out there that we’re losing about $100 billion a year because companies are taking advantage of the tax havens in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and so on—$100 billion a year!
PLAYBOY: That’s a sizable pile of cash.
SANDERS: Today one out of four major profitable corporations pays zero in federal income taxes. Got that? Today, what corporations are paying into the U.S. Treasury, as a percentage of GDP, is lower than in any other major country on earth. You would think that before you cut health care, education, nutrition or Social Security, you might want to take a hard look at that issue. I mean, am I missing something here?
PLAYBOY: You once said, “It is Robin Hood in reverse. We are taking from working families who are hurting and giving it to the wealthiest people.”
SANDERS: Welcome to America 2013. We are in the midst of intense class warfare, where the wealthiest people and the largest corporations are at war with the middle class and working families of this country, and it is obvious the big-money interests are winning that war. They are winning the war in terms of their lobbyists negotiating tax breaks for people who don’t need them and then fighting for cuts for working families. The Business Roundtable—CEOs of the largest companies in the U.S.—came to Washington earlier this year and proposed that we raise the Medicare and Social Security eligibility ages to 70. Can you imagine the chutzpah of guys who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases and have retirement packages the likes of which average Americans couldn’t even dream, proposing that? Can you imagine somebody who will get a golden parachute of perhaps tens of millions of dollars—who is not going to have a financial worry in his or her life—coming to Washington and saying, “I want you to raise Medicare eligibility to 70”?
PLAYBOY: Is the problem that wealthy CEOs are out of touch with the concerns of the common man?
SANDERS: Absolutely. These are people whose kids live in gated communities, people who get into their chauffeured cars when they travel, into their own jet planes, and go all over the world. They eat at the finest restaurants; they work out in the greatest gyms. They haven’t got a clue or a concern about what’s going on with ordinary Americans.
PLAYBOY: We saw one calculation that said if the productivity of workers was matched to the minimum wage, the minimum wage in America would be $22 an hour, three times what it is.
SANDERS: If I give you a new tool—for example, a computer as opposed to a yellow pad—we have a right to expect you to be more productive, right? If I give a guy in the woods a chain saw as opposed to an old-fashioned saw, that guy’s going to cut down more trees. Here is the irony: Our society has become far more productive—productivity has soared—and yet all the gains from that productivity have gone to the people at the top. While you have become more productive as a worker, your wages, income and benefits have gone down.
PLAYBOY: Is anyone in Washington concerned about this?
SANDERS: Every speech I give, I get a question. “Bernie, I don’t understand. These CEOs and large financial institutions were clearly engaged in fraudulent behavior, but none of these guys is in jail. Why?” Attorney General Eric Holder said he had concerns about the Department of Justice prosecuting large financial institutions because if they became destabilized, it would have an impact on our economy and the world economy. In other words, these guys are not only too big to fail, they’re too big to jail.
PLAYBOY: How powerful is Wall Street in Washington?
SANDERS: The Wall Street folks spent billions and billions of dollars to deregulate Wall Street. Then they proceeded to create the world’s largest gambling casino, which then ended up collapsing and was bailed out, against my vote, by the American people. Then, the American people looked to the president of the United States and Congress to say, “How did it happen? Hold these bastards accountable. Throw the crooks in jail. Do something.” I was new to the Senate at the time. I remember we went to the White House and met with the president, the secretary of the treasury, the whole financial team, and our message was: The American people are outraged. Wall Street has just caused immense suffering in this country. People want action. What are you going to do about it?
PLAYBOY: And the president said…?
SANDERS: Oh, I hesitate to tell you—I don’t like to talk about private sessions behind closed doors with the president, but let’s just say the response to that discussion from the president and his team was not inspiring, and the proof is in the pudding. The president has hired people from Wall Street, obviously. We had Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke come before the Senate Budget Committee, and I said, “Mr. Bernanke, can you tell me the role the Fed played—how much money the Fed provided to financial institutions, and which ones, during the financial crisis?” He said, “No, I can’t tell you that. I’m not going to tell you that.”
PLAYBOY: Do you think the term class warfare is a hard thing to explain to or use with most Americans?
SANDERS: People understand it. Sometimes people come up to me and say I’m courageous for saying all these things. I say, “I’m not courageous. Go look at these guys who want to give more tax breaks to billionaires and cut programs for working families. That is incredibly courageous, because the vast majority of the American people think that’s crazy.” The polling says: Don’t cut Social Security, don’t cut Medicare, don’t cut Medicaid. Ask the wealthy and large corporations to pay more taxes. The political question is, why have the Republicans not been reduced to a 15 percent marginal third party?
PLAYBOY: And the answer is?
SANDERS: Most people do not perceive a heck of a lot of difference between either party. The Democrats are too diffuse, and their message is so unclear the American people don’t see the real difference.
PLAYBOY: Some people claim Obamacare was really a payoff to the drug companies and the insurance companies to continue to make billions of dollars.