Biggest Loser?

A meme about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders displays questionable accuracy and relevance.

Donna Light/AP

In February 2016, a meme about the lack of business acumen and experience exhibited by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, began circulating online. The criticisms offered in meme were a mixture of true, false, irrelevant, and misleading statements. To wit:

Never owned a business

Right off, this meme begins with a rather nebulous criticism. Although having owned a business is an experience many voters would like to see on the résumé of a potential chief executive, a literal application of that term isn't of much relevance: technically, a person who once operated a roadside lemonade stand has "owned a business," while a person who has spent his career serving as the CEO of a public multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation has not (even though everyone would agree the latter has vastly more business experience than the former). And certainly a number of highly-regarded U.S. presidents in the modern era (e.g., Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan) never owned their own businesses.

Moreover, one might validly say that Sanders started and operated his own business (whether he "owned" it is somewhat arguable, as it was a non-profit), the American People's Historical Society, which was created in 1978 to produce educational film strips about the history of Vermont. The University of Vermont has archived several of the brochures produced by the American People's Historical Society, one of which includes a statement from Sanders outlining the purpose of his film strips:

Director Bernard Sanders explained, "It is our belief that state and regional history has too long been neglected by the audio-visual industry, and we are happy to begin the process of rectifying that situation. We believe that students have the right to learn about the state and region in which they are living."

While the financials of the American People's Historical Society are not available, Sanders wrote in his memoir Outsider in the House that the business was reasonably successful and "a lot of fun." A friend of Sanders' told Politico that the film strip business "wasn't just a way to make money ... He made filmstrips about people he admired and believed in. He just thought kids should know the truth of how things really were."

Never invented anything

Once again, this is a rather nebulous criticism. The concept of "inventing" something could range from simply thinking up a novel idea (but doing nothing more about it), to creating and building a device for personal use (but not marketing it), to actually obtaining a patent for a new product. Bernie Sanders is certainly no inventor and holds no patents, but it's hard to see how that fact is of any relevance, as the same is true of nearly every U.S. president.

Thomas Jefferson might legitimately be considered an inventor for having conceptualized various devices (including a macaroni machine, a swivel chair, a spherical sundial, a moldboard plow, and a cipher wheel), although he held no patents because he believed them to be a form of monopoly. Abraham Lincon was the only U.S. president who ever held a patent, having been issued Patent #6,469 for "A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals" on 22 May 1849. Beyond that, "inventing" has historically had nothing to do with the qualifications or success of candidates for the White House.

Never had a 9 to 5 job

This criticism is too vaguely worded to allow for much cogent analysis. What does holding a "9 to 5 job" mean? That one literally works from 9 AM to 5 PM (and not some other period of the day)? That one holds full-time employment? That one is paid on an hourly basis? That one toils at what is commonly referred to as a "blue collar" job? That one works for someone else rather than being self-employed?

If we assume the most seemingly relevant application of the term — that it refers to holding steady, full-time employment — then one might fairly say it applies to Bernie Sanders. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1964, Sanders primarily worked a series of odd jobs while attempting to get his political career off the ground, and a Politico article observed that he "didn't collect his first steady paycheck until he was an elected official pushing 40 years old." However, that same article did list a variety of jobs Sanders held (even if they weren't steady or didn't provide a livable wage) before he finally reached public office upon being elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, at age 39 — working as an aide at a psychiatric hospital, as a Head Start preschool teacher, as a carpenter, and as a freelance writer for local publications:

Sanders rented a small brick duplex at 295 1/2 Maple Street that was filled with not much furniture and not much food in the fridge but stacks of checked-out library books and scribbled-on legal pads.

"Pretty sparse," Gene Bergman, an old friend, said about the apartment.

"Stark and dark," said Darcy Troville, a fellow Liberty Unionite who lived around the corner and shared with Sanders homemade jellies and jams.

"The electricity was turned off a lot," Barnett said. "I remember him running an extension cord down to the basement. He couldn't pay his bills."

He worked some as a carpenter, although "he was a shitty carpenter," [Liberty Union party member John] Bloch told me. "His carpentry," [Liberty Union member Danny] Morrisseau said, "was not going to support him, and didn't."

He worked as a freelance writer, putting intermittent pieces in the low-budget Vermont Freeman, a Burlington alternative weekly called the Vanguard Press and a glossy, state-supported magazine called Vermont Life.

His writing wasn't a living. The Vanguard paid as little as the rest. "It would've been not more than 50 bucks," said Greg Guma, a former editor. Vermont Life? "Our rate was 10 cents a word," said Brian Vachon, a former editor.

"He was always poor," Sandy Baird, another old friend, told me in Burlington.

"Virtually unemployed," said Nelson, the political science professor at the University of Vermont.

"Just one step above hand to mouth," said Terry Bouricius, who was involved with Liberty Union, served at times as a de facto campaign manager for Sanders and at one point crashed for a couple months on his couch.

Liberty Union "people found it difficult to support themselves while engaging in full-time political work," Michael Parenti, one of those people, wrote in the Massachusetts Review in the summer of 1975. "Some held jobs that allowed free time for campaign activities, while others lived off unemployment insurance."

"His work was to be a politician," Guma said. "He put everything into what he was doing."

We would also note by that by the standard used here, holding elective office (as Sanders has done for most of the last 35 years as a mayor, a U.S. Representative, and a U.S. senator) is as much a "9 to 5" job as any other.

Never proposed a bill that has passed

This statement is not literally true, as during his tenure in Congress Sanders has sponsored three bills that were enacted: two of which were rather slight matters involving the naming of USPS facilities, and one of which was the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013 (which provided "for an increase in the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans").

Although that might seem like slight achievement for someone who has spent 25 years as both a U.S. representative and a U.S. senator, we would note that only a scant handful of bills submitted in Congress (about 4 to 6 percent) are ever brought to a vote, and even fewer (about 2 to 4 percent) end up being enacted. We would also note that sponsoring original legislation is but one small part of Congress members' duties: they also co-sponsor legislation submitted by colleagues (which Sanders has done for more than 200 successful bills), muster support (or opposition) among colleagues and the public for proposed legislation, review and vote on proposed bills, serve on various committees (Sanders holds six Senate committee appointments), meet with constituents, participate in oversight and investigation of governmental affairs, etc., as detailed in "The Many Roles of a Member of Congress":

First and foremost, the Member is a decision-maker. Members are faced with hundreds of decisions in both recorded and unrecorded votes on matters major and minor. Many decisions must be made quickly. Each decision, whether spontaneous or studied, balances the conflicting perspectives received from private citizens, public officials, party leaders. Decisions are often second-guessed by constituents, campaign opponents, colleagues, lobbyists, and media critics. Meetings are continual, in committee rooms, in private offices, in corridors, and in gatherings on the floor. Daily, sacks of mail are delivered. Faxes flow in a steady stream. Electronic mail jams congressional computers. Correspondence must be written and press releases issued. Highly visible issues are debated on the House or Senate floor, fully televised, and the absence or presence of a Member is duly noted. Scandals require investigation.

Programs require oversight. Requests for information, both basic and complex, are received daily. Journalists seek comment. Constituents seek assistance obtaining federal grants, government jobs, and help in overcoming bureaucratic obstacles.

Over time, these daily tasks and the always-changing expectations of the electorate have come together to establish a multi-faceted job.

Lived off welfare before elected to public office

As noted above, various acquaintances who knew Sanders in the years before he achieved public office have reported that he was "always poor," and he likely received public assistance at some point during that time, although what form of (and how much) assistance he received is difficult to determine at this remove. A contemporaneous newspaper account from the Bennington Banner reported that in 1974, when Sanders ran for the U.S. Senate on the Liberty Union Party ticket, he was collecting unemployment benefits:

Sanders, 32, cares little what 'image' he conveys — and that's part of his image of being a bit rumpled and unshorn. He's on unemployment compensation right now, having worked for the Bread & Law Task Force, as a free-lance writer, and as a carpenter in the Burlington area. But the thing he likes best, and excels at, is 'talking the issues,' and he doesn't mind repeating himself sometimes."

74 year old — personal net worth of $300,000

As 247 Wall St. reported, determining the precise net worth of candidates is difficult for a number of reasons:

[R]eporting exact values is not required. Instead, candidates may disclose their assets and income in a range. Further, candidates do not necessarily report all their assets. For instance, candidates do not need to disclose their personal real estate and property values. Jeb Bush opted to omit assets generated by several holding companies, for example. In addition, while some candidates choose to include their spouses in their disclosures, some do not. Carly Fiorina’s net worth of $59 million, for example, includes that of her husband, Frank. Hillary Clinton's reported net worth, on the other hand, does not include assets jointly owned by her and former president Bill Clinton, who is worth by some estimates more than $50 million.

247 Wall St. attempted to determine each presidential candidate's net worth in an article published on 24 August 2015. They estimated that Sanders was one of the "poorest presidential candidates" running for office in 2016, with a likely net worth somewhere around $330,000:

Bernie Sanders
> Net worth: $194,026-$741,030

In 2013, Bernie Sanders had an average estimated net worth of $330,507, well below other prospective presidential nominees and among the lowest compared with other members of Congress.

This meme's characterization of Sanders as a "loser" on this basis evinces a rather skewed perspective, however. Although many people view financial rewards as a tangible measure of one's success, it is far from the only factor by which accomplishment can be measured. (In fact, highly-regarded President Harry S. Truman had virtually no net worth even after leaving the White House in 1953 and afterwards was largely dependent upon Congress' finally establishing a pension for former presidents.)

Bernie Sanders might equally be considered a "winner" for persevering at his goal of achieving a political career long after others might have given up, and for succeeding at that effort despite prolonged financial hardship. Unlike many others, Sanders might also be lauded for maintaining a rather plain life and not having enriched himself in public service (especially since candidates at the other end of the financial spectrum are frequently criticized for being "out of touch with the common man").

As 247 Wall St. wrote of Sanders:

The Vermont senator, who is the longest-serving independent in U.S. history, is a self-identified socialist. He is seeking the Democratic nomination and is the most popular Democratic candidate after Hillary Clinton. In keeping with Sanders' stated intention of starting a grassroots movement, more than 90% of his campaign contributions have come from individual donors. Sanders' campaign speeches have drawn record numbers of attendants. Most recently, 19,000 people watched Sanders speak at an NBA arena in Portland, Oregon, the largest political event compared with all other candidates so far this election season.

All in all, that sounds like quite an impressive career achievement for anyone — regardless of net worth.

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