After some delays, Bernie Sanders has released 10 years of tax returns. It turns out he is pretty rich. He took in $561,293 in adjusted gross income in 2018 — but over a million dollars in both 2017 and 2016, when he had a ton of book revenue coming in. That makes him the third-highest earning Democratic candidate this year, behind Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.
Indeed, Sanders is officially in the top 1 percent of income, and this has some wondering if it somehow jams up his political narrative. His "higher income in recent years has created some political awkwardness for the senator, who in his 2016 presidential campaign frequently railed against 'millionaires and billionaires' and their influence over the political process," writes Thomas Kaplan in The New York Times.
This is nonsense. The only reason to worry about a candidate's income is insofar as it suggests they are either vulnerable to corruption, or have been corrupted. Sanders has made a lot of money, but he is certainly not on the take — and he will not hesitate to raise his own taxes if he gets a chance.
The obvious truth as to why Sanders is rich is that he is very famous, and it is extremely easy to capitalize on fame. All he had to do was write a book — or even easier, pay someone else to do it, though reportedly Sanders did not use a ghostwriter. He probably could have gotten a lot more if he had been strategic about it. Just look how Kim Kardashian makes more money than her husband Kanye West.
What matters here is the method by which politicians and ex-politicians capitalize on that fame.
For instance, the usual buckraking speech tour of big Wall Street banks that ex-politicians routinely carry out is objectionable because of corruption. Do bankers really care about hearing some probably platitudinous 40-minute speech? No, they are paying for access to potential future senators and presidents, and to create the reward pathway of banker-friendly politicos getting plausibly-deniable bribes if they govern the way bankers want.
Leftists and even liberals like Matt Yglesias argued that Barack Obama should not have taken a $400,000 fee to speak at the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald because it undermines the legitimacy of his (incredibly banker-friendly) bailout record. "Did you really avoid breaking up the big banks because you thought it would undermine financial stability, or were you on the take?" writes Yglesias. But nobody cared about the much larger $65 million book advance Obama got, because there isn't some Big Reader lobby that is pushing for book subsidies or something.
And unlike President Trump, Sanders doesn't have some vast business empire. On the contrary, even with his book money he is still towards the bottom of the congressional net worth rankings, with wealth of about $1 million — a tiny fraction of Rep. Greg Gianforte's (R-Mont.) $136 million or Rep. Jared Polis' (D-Colo.) $122 million.
Nor is there any suggestion that Sanders would moderate his anti-plutocratic politics to benefit him personally. On the contrary, he promised to raise his taxes sharply in the statement accompanying the release of his returns: "I will continue to fight to make our tax system more progressive so that our country has the resources to guarantee the American Dream to all people." Indeed, Sanders would no doubt love to have had much higher taxes in the past so as to keep his wealth from getting even that high. As James Adomian's Sanders parody character put it in a video about him scrambling to finish his tax return: "They are not taxing me at a high enough rate. Jane, is there any way we can pay an alternative maximum tax?"
It would be wise for Sanders to make these points explicitly. So far he has been (as usual) a little prickly about his money, saying "I didn't know it was a crime to write a good book." A little jaunty humor about soaking himself to pay for Medicare-for-all would go a long way.
Still, there is something peculiar in the notion that only personally impoverished people can hold leftist views — as if one can't be a critic of capitalism and own an iPhone. The effect is to foreclose any realistic leftist politics, since poor people have zero political power — and as we have seen, anyone who becomes a national figure becomes rich almost automatically. Of course, wealth often does influence someone's views, but it's not determinative — the most egalitarian president in American history, Franklin Roosevelt, was a scion of extreme wealth and privilege, far richer than Sanders will ever be.
So one might fault Sanders for not donating that much to charity — though that is no substitute for a proper welfare state. But there is no reason to question his (or Elizabeth Warren's, for that matter) egalitarian political commitments.