I am not impressed by Barney Frank

Former Congressman from Massachusetts, Barney Frank, had an interview in Slate out yesterday.

Barney Frank Is Not Impressed by Bernie Sanders: “Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it.”

I’m going to address a few specific claims or critical questions posed in that interview.

On voter turnout and lack of support for Democrats

Frank said:

I’m particularly unimpressed with people who sat out the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014 and then are angry at Democrats because we haven’t been able to produce public policies they like.

This is basically victim-blaming. We the people who have only the influence of our vote are disaffected by a political system we see as representing the interests of the elite and wealthy. Are we naive? Not at all. A study by Princeton political scientists analyzed over 1,700 policy issues and found:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination

That’s pretty conclusive empirical evidence. But Frank is also ignoring a mathematical fact: our voting system is flawed in ways that encourage low voter turnout. Winner takes all plurality voting and the Electoral College are both horribly flawed voting methods with many absurd downsides (and were adopted historically in order to support slavery). Far better alternatives exist, but the people in power aren’t interested in changing the rules of the game they’re already winning.

Frank has failed to address why voters in general are disaffected, despite there being an abundance of clear evidence that it doesn’t have anything to do with laziness. To drive home the fact that this is pure victim blaming, consider the relationship between voter turnout rates and income:


The people who don’t vote are poor people. Why don’t they vote? Probably because they’re poor and it’s not always easy to vote. In addition to the problems I already mentioned, it can be hard to vote if you have to work two jobs, or are a single parent, or don’t have your own car to drive to the polls and live in a place with shitty public transportation. Nearly 5% of Americans work multiple jobs. Aside from the poor, other groups with low turnout include minorities and the less-educated. These are the people Frank is disparaging from his high horse.

As for Democratic voters in particular, the 2010 midterm disaster wasn’t even a surprise. Democrats knew in advance it was going to happen, and they simply didn’t do enough to get their supporters out to vote. Consider what Obama was saying right before the election:

When I hear Democrats griping and groaning and saying ‘the healthcare plan didn’t have a public option’ … or, ‘yes, you ended the war in Iraq, but you haven’t completely finished the Afghan war yet’, I say, ‘folks, wake up’.

And I say: if you want my vote, earn it. Don’t blow healthcare reform by constantly compromising with a tiny minority of Republicans, ending up with a version of Romneycare written by pharma, insurance, and hospital industry lobbyists and then tell me I have no right to be disappointed. You can’t say you’re going to have the most transparent and open administration in history, but then turn around and wage a war on whistleblowers, and act all self-righteous when I say you lost my vote. When Obama and a large majority of Democrats came into office in 2008, Wall Street had just been bailed out and Main Street was in desperate need of radical change. What we got was weak tea. If that’s what Democrats are serving, they have no right whatsoever to feel entitled to the votes of people who either suffer from or care about poverty and inequality.

Even the New York Times Editorial Board places the blame for low turnout on politicians:

Over all, the national turnout was 36.3 percent; only the 1942 federal election had a lower participation rate at 33.9 percent. […] Democrats were too afraid of the backlash to put forward plans to revive the economy or to point out significant achievements of the last six years. Neither party gave voters an affirmative reason to show up at the polls. […] There was one useful lesson: When voting is made easier, more people vote. Colorado switched to a mail ballot system this year, and it had the fourth-highest turnout in the nation, substantially larger than in 2010. […] to encourage participation, politicians need to stop suppressing the vote, make the process of voting as easy as possible, and run campaigns that stand for something.

Given all this, I am not just particularly unimpressed with Frank’s argument, I’m downright pissed at him for this disgusting victim-blaming.

On the supposed lack of corruption in Wall Street and D.C.

Here’s Frank on Wall Street:

The financial system is people lending money to other people so they can do things. I do think that he overstates it when he says, “they’re all corrupt.” It’s simply not true.

To assess whether Frank’s rosy view of Wall Street is realistic, consider this 2015 study reported in the business section of the New York Times (not exactly a radical venue). The study surveyed finance professionals and found that “one in 10 said they had directly felt pressure to compromise ethical standards or violate the law” and “about a third of the people who said they made more than $500,000 annually contend that they have witnessed or have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.” Most troubling?

And nearly half of the high-income earners say law enforcement and regulatory authorities in their country are ineffective “in detecting, investigating and prosecuting securities violations.”

The Dodd-Frank reform became active in 2010. Have things been getting better?

23% of respondents believe it is likely that fellow employees have engaged in illegal or unethical activity in order to gain an edge, nearly double the 12% that reported as such in 2012.

Oops! The people actually working on Wall Street think it’s getting worse. Frank’s quote above about the financial system actually begins “Well if that’s the case it’s even dumber than I thought.” Who, exactly, is being dumb here Mr. Frank?

Frank on Clinton’s millions in speaking fees:

What Sanders basically says is, “They’re trying to bribe you.” Well what do they get for money? He shows nothing.

Money in politics is not a simple quid pro quo issue. We can call that naive view the Clinton-Frank-Trump theory of money in politics. The most accurate answer to “what do they get for money?” is access. Access is actually far more insidious than money itself. Consider this quote from Richard Skinner of the Sunlight Foundation (a nonprofit money-in-politics watchdog organization)

Most people concerned about campaign finance are concerned that there’s plenty of evidence that the views of very wealthy people are reflected in the views of public policy. The fact that you have people spending so much of their time with very wealthy people affects not only the policies they adopt but also their worldview.

That right there is the real problem. There are actually no shortage of examples of public policy being directly affected by money–consider the Princeton study earlier that concluded the most accurate description of our government is “Economic-Elite Domination.” But the problem is even worse because it makes lawmakers unable to actually represent ordinary people because they don’t know us, they don’t understand our concerns, they have no idea what our lives are like.

It’s actually about the kind of person you are. If you are extremely wealthy, like Hillary Clinton, and your children are extremely wealthy (Chelsea was paid a $600,000 salary by NBC to be a rookie news correspondent, is married to a hedge fund manager, and lives in a $10.5 million condo in Manhattan), and you constantly interact with an enormous wealthy donor network, that has an indelible effect on your worldview. This is why she often makes embarrassing slip ups or mistakes that leave her supporters wondering what she was thinking. For example, she claimed that she and Bill were “not only dead broke, but in debt” when they left the White House in 2000, despite the fact that they owned a $1.7 million house in New York and another $2.8 million house in D.C. Or her flippant response when she was asked on CNN why she accepted $675,000 from the infamous Goldman Sachs:

Clinton: Look, I made speeches to lots of groups. I told them what I thought. I answered questions.

Cooper: But did you have to be paid $675,000?

Clinton: Well I don’t know, um, that’s what they offered.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So are Bernie’s supporters naive for thinking that a person like her isn’t the best choice for representing the vast majority of Americans who aren’t ultra wealthy?

On Bernie’s record of getting things done

Two quotes from Frank:

Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of his accomplishments and that’s because of the role he stakes out.

Other than Glass-Steagall, what did he propose in 2009 and 2010 when he was a senator when we were dealing with this? The answer is nothing.

So two issues, first what did he propose? Frank apparently wasn’t paying attention and didn’t do his homework because the answer is not “nothing.” In congress, Bernie has sponsored 64 bills addressing the financial sector, nine of them in the period of 2008-2009. These include the Stop the Greed on Wall Street Act, a bill to limit compensation at financial firms that were bailed out, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, a bill to require the Fed to publish information about its assistance to banks (the “shadow bailout”), and the Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act, which is self-explanatory. This  is just the financial sector. Bernie has been prolific throughout his career, a tireless worker obsessed with trying to make things better for ordinary people.

What happened to the bills I just listed? They all failed. Frank supported none of them because he is a corporate tool like most politicians. He received more campaign donations from Wall Street than any other industry. Doesn’t that just inspire so much confidence in the Dodd-Frank Act being able to prevent the next crisis?

An important follow up question, if those bills of Bernie did not pass, what has he accomplished? In the House, Bernie passed more amendments than any other congressperson and was referred to as the “Amendment King.” Seriously, just click on that link and look over the list of his accomplishments. One example:

Sanders was able to get the first-ever audit of funds given out by the Federal Reserve, which made transparent over $2 trillion of funds handed out by the secretive organization. This was a cause that Republican congressman Ron Paul (TX) had been pursuing for decades, but Sanders was able to get the votes to do it by forging a compromise.

An unauthorized biographer of Sanders described him this way:

He’s like a stealth politician because people think he’s just this guy who has super-liberal, i.e., socialist tendencies, but at the same time he is a brutally successful political knife-fighter.

The title of this post is a little mean–Frank is certainly one of the better legislators in congress in recent history. I was just mirroring the title of the Slate article. But I am definitely not impressed with Barney Frank’s inaccurate and/or dishonest assessment of Bernie Sanders.


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