Bernie’s Houses

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders campaigns in Richmond, Calif., February 17, 2020. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Mike Bloomberg scored a hit — a palpable hit — in the debate this week when he pointed back at Bernie Sanders and said: “What a wonderful country we have, the best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.” Many conservatives laughed and cheered and wondered why Bernie Sanders hasn’t been called out on this more before. And it is true that at some point, Bernie Sanders dropped the “millionaires” as a rhetorical punching bag to focus on the billionaires. It is also true that Sanders has done well enough in American life that you might fairly ask whether the whole system really does need repeal.

I know some conservatives dislike that he has worked in public life most of his career. But I wonder if conservative pundits tagging him are inadvertently giving readers a financial miseducation.

The Sanders’ main Vermont residence was purchased for around $400,000 a decade ago. That amount will get you a great deal of house in Vermont. Sanders’s job as senator is what requires his second residence, the one-bedroom apartment in D.C., which is worth roughly three quarters of a million dollars. By Washington, D.C.’s standards, this is not all that far above the median home price. And the two residences together would put Sanders near the bottom of the scale for senatorial opulence.

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So really this is about the lake house in Vermont, which was purchased in 2016. The purchase seems to have been preceded by his wife receiving a generous “golden parachute” package from her employer, and the proceeds from an inheritance. Sanders has also said proceeds from his book went into this house. And it’s a nice one. Sanders’s net worth doesn’t extend all that far beyond his real estate portfolio.

When I look at this, I don’t see a great deal of “capitalism for me, but not for thee” behavior. Despite a few years of living down and out, Sanders has had steady employment for 40 years. He has been in federal office for a little over thirty years.

Most people who have that kind of career invest a substantial amount of money in the market. Many legislators have suspiciously good timing in the market and make substantial fortunes as investors. Sanders hasn’t done that. Instead, he and his wife have pursued jobs with good benefits and pensions — the kind of benefits they’d like to see extended to all workers — they’ve lived modestly for their class, and Sanders has been blessed with unusual longevity and energy.

If you look at his life as a series of financial decisions, Sanders has consistently traded present comfort for long-term security. That’s consistent with his political instincts. So, no, I don’t see a great deal of hypocrisy.

But, when you consider that such wealth can accrue to a life with Sanders’s downs and ups, and his low-risk, low-reward behavior, I also don’t see a need to completely and utterly replace the American economic model with a utopian dream.

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