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Bernie Sanders deodorizes economic growth theory deemed stale by some

Presidential candidate says he would accept less economic growth to cut income inequality

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has barely broken sweat, but already some commentators appear interested less in the candidate’s policies than in his views on deodorant.

On Tuesday morning, the same day Sanders formally announced his entrance into the 2016 Democratic primary race, CNBC ran an interview with the long-shot candidate in which he suggested he would be willing to accept less consumer choice when it comes to such items as deodorants in exchange for less child poverty.

“The whole size of the economy and the GDP doesn’t matter if people continue to work longer hours for low wages and you have 45 million people living in poverty. You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems,” he told CNBC’s John Harwood. “All right? You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.”

Observers at both conservative publications and more centrist outlets reacted with incredulity. Washington Post economics writer Jim Tankersley — in a piece titled “Sorry, Bernie Sanders. Deodorant isn’t starving America’s children” — accused him of implying “some kind of a national trade-off between antiperspirant/Air Jordan variety and food for children.” But the reference to deodorant in Sanders’ original remarks was just a throwaway line, tossed off while he was making a much broader point about the nature of economic growth.

Sanders, I-Vt., a democratic socialist, has a long track record of staking out positions beyond the scope of the normal Democratic agreement.

His remarks about economic growth are no exception. By describing GDP growth as a value-neutral phenomenon — or even, in some cases, as something to be avoided — he appears to be rejecting a long-standing bipartisan consensus emphasizing the importance of continuous economic growth.

In the CNBC interview, he cited two factors in his thinking: concerns that economic growth could disproportionately benefit those who are already well off and fears that such growth tends to go hand in hand with environmental degradation. Such arguments were more common on the mainstream left a generation ago and have long since fallen out of favor.

For years, both Democrats and Republicans have championed GDP growth as one of the key metrics for economic success. President Bill Clinton championed and continues to champion his administration’s record on growing the U.S. economy. President Barack Obama has emphasized that sustained growth is a priority for his administration. Republicans are so committed to the premise that economic growth benefits the entire country that one of Washington’s pre-eminent conservative institutions is called the Club for Growth.

There was considerably more anxiety about ambivalence about untrammeled growth during the 1970s. That anxiety was deeply connected to the era’s growing concern over the dark side of modern industry and the long-term consequences of environmental blight. Such concerns were given voice in the 1972 book “The Limits of Growth,” an influential study predicting dire consequences if then-current trends in the world’s “population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged.”

“Growth, almost be definition — at least until we get renewable energy resources online and taking on a large part of the energy grid — is going to create problems,” said Michael Kazin, a historian of U.S. political history at Georgetown University and a co-editor of the socialist magazine Dissent. “This is something that environmentalists have been talking about for years.”

Many green activists still express concerns about unrelenting economic growth — including, as Kazin noted, in the pages of Dissent’s most recent issue. But for the most part, the consensus among global political leaders has been that policymakers can grow their economies by investing in renewable energy and other environmental measures, something reflected in a 2014 report “The New Climate Economy,” the work of a commission headed by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and former World Bank Chief Economist Nicholas Stern. In the United States, Obama has advocated for an “all of the above” energy strategy, which emphasizes expanding renewable energy sources instead of trimming anywhere else.

Sanders’ other argument, that economic growth is no substitute for more equal income distribution, is a rejection of the claim that wealth redistribution would unacceptably “reduce growth and innovation,” said Matt Bruenig in a post for the left-leaning think tank Demos.

“If the company that determined there was big money to be made by innovatively telling teen boys that using a certain brand of deodorant would cause attractive women to have sex with them decided not to go through with creating Axe because taxes were too high, Bernie is saying he is OK with that,” wrote Bruenig. “You might have less brands to choose from on the deodorant aisle, but on the plus side, kids will get to eat.”

“I think the argument is that the economy should produce things people really need before it produces things they don’t need,” said Kazin. “We shouldn’t waste money, waste production, waste workers’ time on things that don’t contribute to society.” 

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