Opinion: Bernie Sanders is right about capitalism

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, speaks during an Amazon Labor Union rally in the Staten Island borough of New York on Sunday, April 24, 2022.

Kirsten Powers is a CNN senior political analyst and New York Times bestselling author whose most recent book is "Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts." She writes the newsletter "Things That Matter." Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook @KirstenPowers. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In his new book, "It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism," Bernie Sanders chooses the moniker "uber-capitalist" to describe our current economic system — one that feels perfectly designed to enrich a tiny few while making life miserable for nearly everyone else.

Kirsten Powers
Other terms work just as well, whether it's "hyper-capitalism" or "late-stage capitalism," to describe capitalism untethered to morality or decency. Whatever you call it, it's not working, except for the super-rich, who Sanders aptly labels oligarchs.
    Some people would say that capitalism is immoral, no matter what form it takes. But that doesn't seem to be Sanders' argument. Rather than making the case for a Democratic socialist government, Sanders appears to want a reform of American capitalism and to see the country embrace a kind of New Deal liberalism.
      Sanders has said over the years that he sees Scandinavia's generous social safety nets as a model of the kind of system he supports. In his book, he emphasizes an inspiration closer to home: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — in particular, FDR's insight that "true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence."
        Any person who is living paycheck to paycheck, working to the point of exhaustion just to survive and stay on top of their debt surely recognizes this statement is true. How "free" is a person really if all they do is work?
        How "free" is someone who lives with a debilitating health condition because they can't afford the medication or health care that could cure them? How "free" is a person who starts adulthood weighted down with a mind-bending amount of debt incurred just to get the education they need to get a job?
          Many Americans are essentially indentured servants to an overclass that continues to amass wealth and power, while failing to pass on their largesse to their employees. Between 1978 and 2018, CEO pay skyrocketed by more than 900%, while worker pay grew by just under 12%, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.
          These chronically underpaid employees are also often treated as objects by their employers. According to an investigation by The New York Times, "Eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers, many in real time." Workers complained that "their jobs are relentless, that they don't have control — and in some cases, that they don't even have enough time to use the bathroom."
          This is not freedom.
          Americans work so much and are so bereft of free time that The New York Times suggested in a series on New Year's tips that you might increase your happiness if you scheduled eight-minute phone calls with friends and loved ones, and mutually promised to not go over the allotted time.
          The craziest part is that it doesn't actually sound crazy, at least to an American. Much of what we consider normal here — such as "hustle and grind" culture or working around the clock for employers who would fire us without a second thought — is baffling to our peers in many industrialized countries who prioritize their mental and physical health and don't suffer from a late-stage capitalist productivity fetish.
          Major companies in the United States don't just mistreat their workers; they lack even a modicum of decency when it comes to their responsibility to consumers and the society in which they live. Today, we are a country where pharmaceutical companies making record profits and paying their executives obscene amounts of money price gouge on drugs that Americans need to survive. Sanders has rightly blasted Moderna's plans to quadruple the price of the Covid vaccine, which was developed in partnership with the government. (Moderna later announced its vaccines would remain free.)
          Most people can't even afford a home mortgage while a subsection of society is plunking down cash for their new domicile. The share of buyers purchasing a home for the first time is at a 41-year low, while wealthy buyers are able to pay cash.
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          "Only the wealthy are essentially buying homes," Lawrence Yun, chief economist at National Association of Realtors, told The Washington Post. "If this trend was to continue, that means something fundamentally is wrong with society."
          But we don't need this trend to continue to know our society is off the rails. The results are in. This system is not just unjust, it is deadly: The US has earned the unwelcome distinction of having the lowest life expectancy and highest suicide rate among wealthy countries.
            Whether one agrees with the myriad solutions Sanders lays out in his book to stop the scourge of uber-capitalism, there is no question that he has accurately framed the problem as being about freedom. The Vermont senator has been nothing short of prophetic in warning against the dire consequences of a culture that prizes productivity above all else and coddles and venerates the super-rich.
            Perhaps most of all, Sanders has powerfully articulated — both in his campaigns and his latest book — the profound lack of decency and utter immorality of the current American economic system. Now it's up to all of us to decide what to do about it.