Jill Stein is not the savior the left is looking for.

Jill Stein’s Ideas Are Terrible. She Is Not the Savior the Left Is Looking For.

Jill Stein’s Ideas Are Terrible. She Is Not the Savior the Left Is Looking For.

A blog about business and economics.
July 27 2016 1:37 PM

Jill Stein’s Ideas Are Terrible. She Is Not the Savior the Left Is Looking For.

Please don't.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Now that Hillary Clinton has officially won the Democratic presidential nomination, chances are we're going to hear a lot more about Jill Stein. The Green Party candidate, currently polling in the low single digits nationally, has been gunning for the support of disaffected Bernie Sanders fans, urging them to “keep the revolution going” by getting behind her own long-shot White House bid. Tuesday, she was on hand at the Democratic convention to meet aggrieved Sanders delegates, some of whom formed a small crowd around her to chant, “Bernie or Jill.” Thanks to progressive grassroots rage, she may well peel off a few percentage points of the vote come the fall, when she's expected to be on the ballot in about 47 states.

Jordan Weissmann Jordan Weissmann

Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.

Which is a pity. Because even by the standards of protest candidates, Stein—whose press team did not respond to an interview request—is an absolutely awful torchbearer for the far left. She's a Harvard-trained physician who panders to pseudoscience. She mangles pet policy issues. And her cynical retelling of the past eight years has nothing to do with the reality of recorded history.


Let's begin with Stein's platform. Some of the ideas, like a $15 minimum wage and free college tuition, are mainstream these days, thanks to the work of progressive activists and Sanders himself. Others, like moving to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 (while ditching nuclear), are deeply unrealistic, if admirable in spirit. And more than a few sound like they were hatched in an old Bay Area commune. Cut defense spending in half and close more than 700 foreign military bases? Sure, maybe after we get done levitating the Pentagon.

Tucked into this long, starry-eyed list of progressive causes are a few lines that remind you of the far left's fraught relationship with biological science. There's a call not just to label genetically modified foods but to “put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe.” Never mind that scientists have studied GMOs extensively and found no signs of danger to human health—Stein would like medical researchers to prove a negative. She would also “Ban neonicotinoids and other pesticides that threaten the survival of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.” This is a nod to the discredited theory that some pesticides are driving the collapse of honeybee populations (which, by the way, are not actually collapsing). Again, this is somewhat standard stuff on the far left these days, but coming from a physician, it's discouraging. It is also in keeping with the last official Green Party platform, from 2014, which supports the “teaching, funding, and practice” of “alternative therapies” such as naturopathy and homeopathy, i.e. funneling money into quack medicine. (Stein first ran for president as a green in 2012).

Worse, though, was Stein's response during a Reddit AMA when she was asked about her party's stance on vaccines. Her answer was a 380-word evasion in which she allowed that childhood immunizations had “made a huge contribution to the public health” while simultaneously suggesting that Americans have good reason to be wary of the drug approval process and that there's “a lot of snake-oil in this system.” She wrote:

In most countries, people trust their regulatory agencies and have very high rates of vaccination through voluntary programs. In the US, however, regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn't be skeptical?

Despite clearly understanding that vaccines are safe, Stein is pandering to her audience by telling them their worries are justified and offering fuel for those fears by painting a dark picture of a corrupt regulatory apparatus. For comparison, consider Bernie Sanders' answer on the same life or death issue, as reported by as reported by the Daily Beast:

“I think obviously vaccinations work. Vaccination has worked for many, many years.” He went on to note, “I am sensitive to the fact that there are some families who disagree but the difficulty is if I have a kid who is suffering from an illness who is subjected to a kid who walks into a room without vaccines that could kill that child and that’s wrong.”

That's a straightforward answer about vaccines. Risking the health of other people's children to satisfy your own minority concerns about medical science is wrong.

Mercifully, dying pollinators, GMOs, and vaccines aren't at the core of Stein's campaign. But she doesn't fare much better on other issues. During a June interview with Cenk Uygur, Stein explained her strategy for wooing voters more or less boiled down to promising them she would forgive their student loans. “There are 43 million young people, and going into middle age and beyond, who are trapped in predatory student loan debt,” she said. “They happen to be very well-networked. They're really good at self-organizing on the internet. There’s only one place that they can put their votes in order to cancel their debt.” (The section starts at 17:34 in the video below.)


This, it should be noted, is not a very progressive idea, despite its popularity among the collegiate left. A disproportionate amount of student debt is held by comfortably paid professionals who went to private colleges or graduate school. Forgiving their loans in a mass jubilee would not be the greatest use of limited resources if you're interested in fighting inequality. But forget all that for the moment.

Instead, focus on the specifics of Stein's plan, which are based on a shockingly poor understanding of recent economic history. “My campaign is the only one that will do for young people what our misleaders saw fit to do for Wall Street not that long ago,” she told Uygur, echoing one of Elizabeth Warren's more misleading arguments. Then, she got into the utterly misguided details. Student loans, Stein explained, “should be canceled in the same way that the debt of Wall Street was canceled, essentially writing it off as a digital 'hat trick,' which is done in the form of quantitative easing.”

Wait, write off student loans through quantitative easing? What? Is that really what she's saying? Yes, that is what she's saying. Here is Stein describing her understanding of the Wall Street bailout and explaining how it relates to her student loan plan:

[The bailout involved] about $17 trillion if you include the free loans. And the free loans largely got paid back. ... Forget about the free loans and just consider the debt that was canceled. That was $4 trillion in the form of quantitative easing. So that’s not money that was transferred to them. It’s simply a debt that was bought up by the U.S. government, and then essentially zeroed out, canceled. So it didn’t put money in their pockets so to speak. But it rid them of all that debt that they would otherwise have to pay. So that’s exactly what we are calling for here, a quantitative easing which is not money in their pocket. It’s essentially that the government has bought up that loan and it tears up the contract. It’s over.

This is wrong. Flat wrong. Quantitative easing was an unconventional monetary policy tool the Federal Reserve used to try and revive the economy after the financial crisis once it had emptied its normal bag of tricks. There have been vigorous debates about whether it was wise, or whether it worked. But it did not involve buying and canceling debt owed by the banks. Quite the opposite—it involved buying and holding onto debts owned by the banks (or other investors, for that matter), such as Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities.

This might sound like a small distinction if you're not a monetary policy obsessive. But it's absolutely essential to understanding what the Fed was doing, and the rationale behind it. (Among other things, holding onto the debts, rather than canceling them, was a key part of how the Fed planned to contain inflation down the line.) Stein's description is so far off, it's as if someone asked her how to play basketball, and she answered that teams scored points by kicking the ball off the backboard.

It's possible Stein is being purposely misleading. The main point of quantitative easing was to drive down interest rates throughout the financial markets, making it cheaper for companies to borrow and invest, or for homeowners to take out mortgages. However, some people have argued that the first round of QE, the one that took place in 2009, was in fact a secret bailout, because it involved buying mass quantities of mortgage-backed securities from banks. These were the toxic assets at the heart of the financial crisis that collapsed in value as Americans defaulted on their home loans. While there may be a grain of truth in this theory, the problem with it is that the Fed was buying mortgage bonds backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were far less toxic than bonds that weren't backed by the housing agencies. Former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's stated explanation, that the central bank was trying to make it easier and cheaper to get a mortgage by reviving the market for mortgage-backed securities, makes plenty of sense on its own.

If Stein is trying to simplify the "secret bailout" story so she can say the government is going to do for students what the Fed did for the banks, then she's lying about the details of a conspiracy theory. But Occam's razor suggests Stein probably just has no idea what she's talking about. That's likewise disturbing, given that this is the single policy proposal she thinks is going to win her 43 million voters, the amount she claims she'll need to win the presidency. Beyond that, Stein wants to move the various Federal Reserve banks into the Treasury Department, ending their independence while also putting an end to fractional reserve banking, which underpins our whole monetary system. I'm sure she has all the details of those grand plans straight, too.

Finally, I would be remiss not to note the plainly self-interested way in which Stein elides the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. This is, of course, standard third-party politicking. But in Stein's case, it's especially egregious. Her 2015 response to the State of the Union is replete with comments about how Barack Obama “led the charge for austerity” and “made the Bush tax cuts permanent.” Obama did, of course, team with John Boehner to push for a grand bargain to raise taxes and cut entitlements—a push that failed, by the way. He also made some, though not all, of Bush's cuts permanent. But he did so in the face of a radicalized Republican opposition that has repeatedly threatened not to raise the debt ceiling (which, according to Stein's On the Issues page, she also opposed raising, preferring a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts—the definition of austerity) and at one point followed through on its threat to shut down the government. To ignore that is to blind yourself to eight years of political history.

I could go on. This doesn't even touch the sort of mundane conspiracies Stein likes to weave into her rhetoric, such as the Trumpian claim that the government's “unemployment figures ... are designed to essentially cover up unemployment.” The bottom line is that Jill Stein is not a figure anybody should trust. She's not just an uncompromising progressive. She's a panderer who raves about subjects about which she appears to lack the vaguest understanding. She is right about one thing: There is a lot of snake oil in the system. And she's selling it.