Bernie Sanders and Bill Maher Talked Economics on a New “Real Time”

Bernie Sanders and Russell Brand on the same episode? You bet.

Bill Maher, March 2023
Economics and populism were hotly debated on a new "Real Time With Bill Maher."

Watching television on a Friday night can involve so many things, from an action film to stand-up comedy to your choice of sports. Viewers tuning into Real Time With Bill Maher got something else: a complex discussion of economics and the government’s role in regulating businesses. And for viewers who enjoy Maher’s program the most when it gets into serious policy questions, Friday’s episode had plenty to recommend it.

That discussion of economics was due to the episode’s first guest. Senator Bernie Sanders appeared on Real Time to discuss his new book It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism. And Maher opened up the questions with a good one: couldn’t it be said that most Western democracies featured a blend of socialism and capitalism? Sanders agreed, and both men talked about the balance between the two as being critically important.

Sanders argued that the nation was, for several reasons, “moving into an oligarchic form of society.” He also acknowledged Maher’s oft-repeated frustration with corruption in both business and government. Things got interesting when Maher responded to Sanders’s argument that the very wealthy aren’t paying their fair share by noting that he does, in fact, pay a substantial portion of his income (“over half,” he said) in taxes.

“I’ve always said wealth is a fluke,” Maher said — and went on to say that he was “philosophically” with Sanders, but wasn’t entirely sure how higher taxes on the wealthy would help people living paycheck to paycheck. Sanders was making a wide-ranging argument, which didn’t allow too much room for specifics. (One notable exception was bringing healthcare costs down via Medicare for All — which, it should be noted, the audience was very supportive of.)

When the two didn’t see eye to eye on certain issues — student loan forgiveness sparked some friction, for instance — the disagreements remained amicable. “You sound like you’re running,” Maher said at the end of the segment. Sanders, for his part, said that he was not. “I’m just talking about the book,” he said.

Later in the episode, the subject of disaffected and alienated working-class voters would be taken up by a very different voice, speaking temperamentally and oratorically: Russell Brand. That discussion grew much more agitated than Maher’s conversation with Sanders had — and it concluded less with a moment of agreement than with Maher changing directions to ring in New Rules.

Other notes and moments of interest from this week’s Real Time:

  • In his monologue, Maher addressed this week’s announcement that several federal agencies support the lab leak theory when it comes to COVID-19. Maher also pointed out one of the weirder aspects of that announcement — that the Department of Energy had “low confidence” in that belief. “Then why say anything?” he asked. 
  • Early on in the panel discussion, guests Russell Brand and John Heilemann had a brief exchange over Brand’s use of the word “sputum” in the middle of a longer diatribe about the lab leak theory and wet markets in Wuhan. “I only use the word sputum — and the substance — appropriately, John,” Brand said. “You’ll learn that about me over the evening.”
  • That’s an excellent Joy Division t-shirt, John Heilemann.
  • Brand brought a very intense sensibility to the discussion, including a long soliloquy about the misdeeds of Purdue Pharma. Early on in the panel, it at times seemed as though Russell Brand was hosting a theoretical game show edition of the panel discussion on Real Time With Bill Maher. Then the mood took a bleaker turn.
  • “You’ve been on MSNBC once. Big fucking deal.” That was Heilemann responding to Brand’s critique of the channel in question. Things got a little heated in the second half of the panel, when discussion turned to whether or not Fox News and MSNBC were functionally equal. (Brand thought so; Maher and Heilemann did not.)
  • Bill Maher on the upcoming Property Brothers animated series: “Have you ever met a child?” (Also, yes, the Property Brothers animated series is entirely real.)
  • New Rules focused on trigger warnings this week, though it seemed to lose some focus; some of the examples Maher cited (descriptions of film ratings, notes about gunfire in theatrical productions) existed long before trigger warnings were widespread.
  • He did get in one salient point about the dissonance of trigger warnings that give away plot points, though: “I don’t understand how a society that’s so in love with spoiler alerts can also be into trigger warnings.” 
  • While Maher has been highly critical of TikTok in the past, he did admit to repeatedly watching videos of dogs doing adorable things on the platform. This is eminently relatable.
  • Number of Jake and the Fatman references in this episode: one.

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