Sanders fouls by oversimplifying roots of Flint's decline

How we make the call

Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:

No factual inaccuracies in the statement and no important information is missing
Mostly accurate
While the statement is largely accurate, it omits or exaggerates facts, or needs some clarification
Half accurate
Truths are interspersed with mistruths, or the speaker left out significant facts that render his/her remarks misleading in important respects
Mostly inaccurate
The major point or points made are untrue or misleading, even while some aspects of the claim may be accurate
The statement is false, or based on false underlying facts


Facing off on Sunday in yet another debate, this one in Flint, Michigan, Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton went after one another hard. The fiery senator from Vermont spent much of his time portraying Clinton as a weaker protector of the nation’s dwindling middle class. We checked the assertions he made that pertain to Michigan.

Who: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)
What: Statements during March 6 Democratic candidates’ debate in Flint
The Call: Foul

Statements under review

“Listen, I suppose (residents) can trust the corporations who have destroyed Flint by a disastrous trade policy which have allowed them to shut down plants in Flint and move to China or Mexico.”

Who, or what, wrecked Flint’s economic base? Was it simply trade policy? Or was it a transformation of the auto industry, which made it possible for factories to run with far fewer workers (which cost jobs), coupled with the rise of an international auto industry that brought fresh competition to the American market, resulting in lower sales (which cost jobs)?

Or was it, indeed, factors like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which did indeed send at least some industry jobs to other, lower-paying nations?

Whole books have been written on this subject, so don’t ask Truth Squad to settle this in a paragraph. Of more interest to Truth Squad is Sanders's statement connecting trade policy to Flint's economic spiral in particular.

Union membership in the United Auto Workers peaked in 1979, and began declining almost immediately, when Bill Clinton was just starting his term as governor of Arkansas, far from U.S. trade policy. Clinton did sign the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, cited most often by Sanders, but it didn’t go into effect until 1994. By then, “Roger & Me,” Michael Moore’s debut feature, which highlighted Flint’s decline, had been out for more than four years.

Certainly, the manufacturing decline in Flint during the 1980's continued through the 1990's to today. But economists do not agree on what role NAFTA or other trade agreements played in Flint's job loss, as opposed to other factors, such as factory automation. Flint, and the auto industry that gave it prosperity for so long, have been reckoning with an economic reality far more complicated than simple trade policy.

“You (in Flint) are paying three times more for poison water than I am paying in Burlington, Vermont for clean water.”

Burlington charges $4 per 100 cubic feet of water, which is roughly 748 gallons. According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, the average family of four uses about 400 gallons a day, or 146,000 gallons per year. Do the math, and that suggests a typical Burlington family pays about $780 a year for water, or $65 a month. Flint’s water bills are among the highest in the country; the average resident pays a monthly water bill of $140. That’s not three times $65, but it’s more than twice that amount, so we’ll give him a pass on this one.

“Detroit’s public school system is collapsing.”

Both candidates spent time talking about Detroit’s failing schools, and none of what they said is an exaggeration. Detroit Public Schools are indeed in crisis, and the governor and legislature are well aware of it. That’s why there’s a package of bills in Lansing designed to address the district’s debt burden and academic future. No foul.

“Did I vote against the Wall Street bailout? When billionaires on Wall Street destroyed this economy, they went to Congress and they said, ‘Please, we’ll be good boys, bail us out.’ You know what I said? I said, ‘Let the billionaires themselves bail out Wall Street.’ It shouldn’t be the middle class of this country.”

One of the sharpest exchanges of the evening came after Clinton accused Sanders of voting against the auto bailout. We explain in a separate Truth Squad on her remarks why this is technically accurate, and yet entirely misleading and contrary to Sanders’ stated support of the auto industry. He did indeed vote against the overall bailout bill of the financial industry, in keeping with his oft-stated opinions that American taxpayers had no obligation to help an industry that drove itself off a cliff. But at the time he did, he didn’t know some of that money would be used to help the domestic auto industry recover from the devastating economic collapse. No foul.

The call: Foul

Sanders fulfilled his reputation for fiery rhetoric Sunday night. But he made fewer factual assertions about public affairs in Michigan than his opponent did, sticking more to how he would address problems as president.

His narrative on the decline in Flint manufacturing relies too heavily on one element – trade policy – but that’s the part a president has great control over. But Sanders's absolutist language that trade policy destroyed Flint's economy ignores a host of other factors, and that this struggling city was in free fall more than a decade before NAFTA (Which Hillary Clinton, it should be noted, never voted on, but initially supported).

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Wed, 03/09/2016 - 11:55am
I see four statements here. Three of them are not considered fouls. One of them is admittedly an oversimplification. How does 1/4 foul end up being a full foul in your counting?
Martin Magid
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 11:36am
I agree with Richard's math. Is your call of Foul on Sanders actually a Foul itself? Do you ever reverse your calls when challenged?
John Grant
Mon, 04/18/2016 - 5:29pm
FOUL for Bridge. Let's not mention the anti-union, anti-labor policies that led the Republican auto execs to move. The auto companies (Big Three-Four) began planning to move out of cities like Detroit and Flint in the late 50's and early 60's. Ford virtually controlled white Dearborn like a fiefdom and that was seen as a paradigm. The auto execs not only bought up large tracts of cheap farmland for new plants, they also looked to the cheap labor of the anti-union South and overseas. My father was offered a job running a new Ford plant in Puerto Rico in the mid 60's. Cheap parts were already being imported from overseas to local auto factories, and the lure of big profits from cheap labor drove the execs insane. A conservative Supreme Court decided that corporations had no responsibility to communities, rather only to shareholders -- a step before they became actual people, too. NAFTA hoped to keep work in North America -- even the dirt cheap stuff. But somewhere along the way somebody missed that Mexico already had an agreement with China that would undermine NAFTA and assure that much got built with the cheapest labor imaginable. And let's not forget the ignorance and arrogance of auto companies like GM -- which built garbage cars and expected that Americans were too stupid and loyal to eventually look and buy elsewhere.
Mon, 04/18/2016 - 5:42pm
Congrats for all the awards. Well deserved. You've got a lot of excellent journalism types who do tons of good work. And your Flint coverage was incredible for a small publication. Awesome, dudes!
Edith Robbins
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 11:50am
I agree with most of the other statements here. How can you come up with a FOUL rating when 3/4 of what you reviewed of Bernie's statements, you determined as either No Foul or a Pass? Sounds like a biased decision here!
Edith Robbins
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 11:51am
Better refigure your average here. Something doesn't add up!