Buffalo News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski interviewed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders before his Democratic presidential campaign appearance at the University at Buffalo last week, focusing on economic issues that could affect Buffalo. Here is a partial transcript of that interview:
Q: Let’s start with the North American Free Trade Agreement. What can be done about it at this point?
A: We can renegotiate it. And I think the same with other trade agreements. And it’s not just Buffalo. Over the last 30 or so years, we have lost millions of decent-paying jobs. Since 2001, some 60,000 factories in this country have closed down. Not all of it is attributable to trade, but a lot of it is. And I know the devastation that free trade has caused Buffalo. Our goal must be to demand that corporate America start investing in this country, not just in Mexico or China.
Q: What would you be demanding from Mexico in those negotiations?
A: What would I be demanding? What we are looking at is fair trade, not free trade. It is not fair trade when American workers have to compete against people who, for example, in Vietnam make 65 cents-an-hour minimum wage. That’s not fair.
What I think you can do is you take a look at countries where wages are very low, where environmental standards are very low, where workers cannot form unions and you calculate that as part of a trade agreement. So I will not support trade agreements that force American workers to compete against people who make pennies an hour, against countries where there are no environmental standards and, in some cases, where unions are not allowed. That is not fair trade and that is not acceptable.
Q: What can you do about China, given that China is in the World Trade Organization? Would you consider tariffs?
A: I think tariffs are something that have existed in this county for many, many years. And it is not acceptable that companies shut down, move to China, pay people there a fraction of the wages they paid in the United States and then they bring their products back. So I think it is clear to me that we need a new approach to trade that demands that corporate America start investing here, not just in low-wage countries.
Q: Critics of tariffs say that what will result is higher prices for consumers for products that are made overseas. Is that a price that the American people should be willing to bear?
A: I think so. I think what we want is a high-wage country. We don’t want a country in which people are working for low wages. So my goal is to create a high-wage economy. We do that not only by reforming our trade policies; we do that by raising the minimum wage nationally to 15 bucks an hour. I’m glad that process is now taking place in New York State. We do that through pay equity for women. We do that by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure.
Q: Have you thought about exactly what your tariff scenario would look like?
A: No. All I will tell you is that the status quo, what exists today, is not acceptable.
And the proof is in the pudding in that we have lost millions of decent-paying jobs as a result of these trade policies.
Q: Buffalo is soon going to be home to the largest solar panel plant in the country. What is your reaction to that?
A: Fantastic. Manufacturing solar panels? Fantastic.
Q: Hillary Clinton has talked about expanding solar. Why would a Bernie Sanders administration be better at expanding solar?
A: It is not just solar. It is transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energies like solar, wind, geothermal, etc. We have introduced legislation that calls for 10 million solar rooftops – 10 million. And the way to do that is to make sure that low- and moderate-income people can get the capital they need to put solar on their rooftops and pay off those loans by reduced electric bills.
Q: I get the sense that when you talk about Hillary Clinton’s ties to oil and gas, you’re thinking that will somehow denude her commitment to green energy. Is that so?
A: No, I think she is sincere – unlike Republicans, she actually understands that climate change is real and that we have to transform our energy system. I won’t deny that she believes that to be true. But I think that we need leadership in this country that does not receive substantial sums of money from special interests, whether it is Wall Street, whether it is the fossil fuel industry, whether it is drug companies, whatever it may be, so that a president can get into office unburdened by debts to those special interests. But I have no doubt that Secretary Clinton understands the danger of climate change.
Q: How would your infrastructure plan work and what would it mean to a city such as Buffalo?
A: Our proposal calls for a trillion-dollar investment over five years to be paid for by doing away with a provision in the tax code that allows multinational corporations to stash their money in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and elsewhere and avoid paying $100 billion a year in taxes. We capture that money and then we provide cities and towns all over this country with the resources that they need to rebuild their water systems and their wastewater plants and roads and bridges. And when we do that, we create up to 13 million good-paying jobs. So what this does is make America more productive and safer, but it also creates a heck of lot of employment with good wages.