We can’t accuse “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders of lacking a sense of optics. His new housing plan, which would spend $2.5 trillion on housing projects and impose draconian rent caps on private landlords, is a 10-year plan. The Soviets always preferred five-year economic plans. Sanders’ idea won’t work much better than the ones hatched by communist central planners, but at least it doesn’t totally sound like it was crafted in 1970s Moscow.
That makes him savvier than California’s Legislature, which tried to ramp up enforcement efforts against “economic crimes.” Last year’s bill wasn’t about targeting fraudsters and thieves, but law-abiding Californians who perform unlicensed work. It’s a good thing it was vetoed now that the new governor signed Assembly Bill 5, which outlaws “crimes” such as driving for Uber or writing too many freelance articles in a year. But California should have emulated Sanders and at least not used the term “economic crime,” which sounds so Soviet-y.
It’s disturbing to watch the resurgence of socialist ideas and realize that many of the people who advocate them aren’t afraid of the term or concerned about the optics of defending ideas that always lead to poverty, misery, firing squads, and gulags. In 2013, David Sirota wrote in Salon about Venezuela’s now-dead dictator Hugo Chavez’s “economic miracle” and noted “his full-throated advocacy of socialism and redistributionism.”
Instead of being banished from polite society — or at least sent to Caracas for a few years to write about starving children, food lines, and government death squads — Sirota nabbed an important job on Sanders’ presidential campaign. Sirota was an investigative reporter, but apparently hasn’t done much investigating about the result of Venezuelan (or any other kind of) socialism — not that any of the goings-on there should be a surprise.
To highlight the predictability of such political systems, I wrote “government death squads” in the paragraph above before knowing anything about them in Venezuela. Sure enough, I found many such stories after googling. For instance, Al Jazeera recently reported, “Venezuelan security forces are sending death squads to murder young men and stage the scenes to make it look like the victims resisted arrest, a new UN report said.” Yep, socialism always performs as expected.
Sirota’s role should be enough to dismiss any “new” housing ideas that emanate from the Vermont senator’s campaign, but Sanders’ own claims only make things worse. “In America today, corrupt real estate developers are gentrifying neighborhoods and forcing working families out of the homes and apartments where they have lived their entire lives and replacing them with fancy condominiums and hotels that only the very rich can afford,” he stated on his website.
That provides a sense of Sanders’ twisted take on property rights and private development. His solution is for the federal government to “(i)nvest $1.48 trillion over 10 years in the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund to build, rehabilitate, and preserve the 7.4 million quality, affordable and accessible housing units necessary to eliminate the affordable housing gap, which will remain affordable in perpetuity.” Those subsidized projects won’t make a dent in the nation’s housing market, even as it sends our $22 trillion deficit soaring, but at least he’s not proposing a return to government-run housing projects that destroyed urban neighborhoods in the 1940s through the 1970s.
But that idea is coming back, too. A headline this week in the Nation grabbed my attention: “Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor Says There Is No Housing Crisis: ‘It’s Just Housing Under Capitalism.’ ” The Princeton University African American studies professor argues that we “can’t solve the housing issue on private terms. As long as there is a price on shelter, it will be inaccessible to millions of people.” She bemoans the “federal government’s resistance to public housing.”
It should go without saying, but if the government eliminated prices on housing, there obviously would be vast shortages. (Maybe we can give it a trial run by eliminating prices on, say, food for a few months and rethink the idea among the survivors.) Commissars would get nice places and the rest of us would live in squalor or in sterile housing blocks. That’s “just housing” under socialist governments.
“There’s all sorts of money that can be reinvested in living arrangements that are collective, that respect the Earth, and that could play a central role in uplifting the quality of people’s lives,” Taylor added. I have no desire to live collectively with strangers. And I don’t recall public-housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Cabrini Green in Chicago improving people’s lives. Those projects were so horrific that their names live on in infamy.
Taylor claims that when housing is “just left up to the market to determine the floor on housing prices, it will go as high as humanly possible.” That’s absurd. Prices go up and down based on supply and demand. The median sold price of a home in this country is around $230,000, which certainly is somewhere south of “as high as humanly possible.”
“We don’t have to live like this,” she added. Taylor is right, in a way. The vast majority of Americans have more spacious and better housing than virtually anyone else in the world, and enjoy comforts unimaginable to past generations. We don’t have to live this way. We can live in poverty and squalor, which is the natural state of human existence. If we keep flirting with socialism, that “new” way of living might only be a 10-year plan away.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.