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December 9, 2016

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Q+A: Bernie Sanders talks Bundy, solar and privacy rights

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Mikayla Whitmore

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally at the Tropicana in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016.

Bernie Sanders Rally at Tropicana

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. Launch slideshow »

Democratic Candidates in L.V.

Hillary Clinton speaks at a grassroots organizing event Sun City Anthem Center on Wednesday, January 6, 2015. Launch slideshow »

The morning after his speech before more than 2,000 Democrats at the Battle Born/Battleground dinner at the MGM Grand, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — whose voice was noticeably hoarse Wednesday night — had recovered enough to sit down for an interview at his local campaign headquarters.

The democratic socialist, who is hanging onto a narrow lead over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in polls of New Hampshire voters — talked about the ongoing standoff in Oregon, the solar-power controversy in Nevada and the promises and perils of new technology.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sun: The standoff in Oregon between some of the sons of rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal government is now entering the sixth day. What should be done?

Bernie Sanders: Obviously, in the United States of America, we cannot accept people with weapons taking over federal property. These people are breaking the law and are going to have to be prosecuted. I want to see this crisis ended without violence.

When Tamir Rice, a 12-year old African-American boy was playing with a toy in the park, it took the police two seconds to shoot and kill him. Yet, we should have forbearance in Oregon?

But when a 12-year old is shot, we condemn it. When innocent, unarmed people are killed by police, we condemn it. If your suggestion is that we send the Marines in there to start killing everybody — then no, that’s absurd. Of course not. That would make a bad situation worse. People who walk into federal property with weapons to seize it are breaking the law. They must be apprehended, but in every case, good law enforcement tries to do it with minimal amounts of violence.

Does that speak to a racial double-standard?

I believe very much in criminal justice reform, and the use of force is something we have got to look at. It’s a very important part of my criminal justice efforts. In this country, we have police departments that have a tendency to use lethal force first rather than to figure out ways to deal with the situation without killing people.

Let’s talk about solar power. We’re sure you’re aware of the state PUC decision here in Nevada, but this is an issue on which several other states have experienced controversy as well. Some decisions have been positive for solar, some negative. Is it appropriate for the federal government to step in at some point?

Well, first of all, I think this decision here in Nevada, if I may, as a Vermont senator, comment on this, is absolutely absurd. It is the exact opposite of what should be done. We should be making it easier for people to have solar panels on their rooftops, not harder. Climate change is the great environmental crisis facing our planet. The United States must lead the world, working with China, India and other countries, to transform the globe’s energy system away from fossil fuel. The goal has got to be more solar, not less.

What the federal government can do in general is to make it easier for people to utilize solar. We have legislation that does that.

Certainly, there’s the solar tax credit. Are there other policy levers available?

Sure. We have introduced legislation that calls for 10 million solar rooftops in this country. One of the impediments is that when you are making the initial investment, you may not have the $10,000 or $20,000 you need to buy the panels. We’ve got to figure out a way — and people are doing this — to lend you the money and then you pay it off. ... So getting money into the hands of people who don’t have the money to invest in solar would be a major priority of mine.

We’re speaking simultaneously with CES, so it would be remiss not to ask you about your response to new, disruptive technologies. Solar being one of them, but also companies like Airbnb —

Why is solar disruptive?

Disruptive to existing industries.

It’s not disruptive. I would look at it as a very, very positive step forward in terms of clean energy.

Disruptive in the sense that it changes the status quo, not a moral judgment. It seems as if Democrats, especially at the state and city levels, are divided. You have progressives concerned about things like labor exploitation while you have others who are embracing these changes.

When it comes to energy, count me in as somebody who is very, very bold about having to transform our energy system. I’ve just introduced legislation that would put a tax on carbon so that we could invest very heavily in energy efficiency and sustainability. That, to me, is not a debatable issue. We have a huge crisis to the planet in terms of climate change. If we don’t get our act together, according to the scientists, we could be five to 10 degrees warmer by the end of the century. We have to transform our energy system for the sake of our children and grandchildren. That one to me is kind of a no-brainer.

In terms of other technologies, you’re right. (Picks up iPhone.) These things are transforming our society. One area that concerns me very much is that while (cellphones) are wonderful tools — many of us would be lost without them — that they also tell where we are sitting right now. Public policy has in no way kept up with technology in protecting privacy rights and constitutional rights. Right now, there is a huge invasion, undreamt of — this is Orwellian stuff — that people would not have thought of 30 or 40 years ago. And people are accepting it. If we talk about freedom, you have the right to live your life without people knowing every damn thing about your life.

What does the policy look like there?

Essentially, what it is that while this phone is a great invention, I’m not comfortable with the fact that somebody right now could find out exactly where you are sitting. That’s invading your privacy. You go to the bookstore and buy a book, that’s great. But there are people who have access to the information on the books you buy or take out of libraries. There is an explosion of information available to the general public, corporations and the government. I’m not comfortable that every telephone call you make is filed by the United State government. That concerns me very much. We need a serious discussion about how in the age of exploding technology we preserve our privacy rights.

Nevada ranks 21st among the states in our GINI coefficient. So we’re relatively egalitarian compared to other states. But we’re 37th on per capita income. In other words, we’re relatively equal but relatively poor.

Well, relative compared to what goes on in the United States. But what goes on in the United States is mass income inequality.

You see where this question is going. For you, is inequality a matter of the spread between the top and the bottom or a matter of raising the absolute level of those in poverty?

It’s both. It is inexcusable, immoral and unsustainable that in America today that the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent does. People may want to defend it. I think it’s indefensible that the 20 wealthiest people own as much as the bottom half does. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country in the world. I know that my corporate friends on Wall Street want to defend it and tell us why it this is all acceptable. It is not acceptable.

What we have got to do is rebuild the middle class. That means raising the minimum wage to a living wage — I believe it should be 15 bucks an hour. It means health care to all as a right. It means making public college and universities tuition free. It means making sure that the wealth and the large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes.

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