Recently at a GOP office in Mt. Pleasant, where Sen. Lindsey Graham had brought in a big bag of Chick-fil-A to feed campaign workers, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford showed up unannounced and stood in the doorway until someone noticed him.
"Mark!" a woman said, holding her arms out toward the Congressman in surprise.
"I heard there was free food," Sanford announced.
It was a fitting entrance. Sanford is a legendary penny pincher, both in the Statehouse (as governor, he once vetoed 106 budget items in a single legislative session and brought live pigs onto the Statehouse floor to protest "pork projects") and in his personal life (his ex-wife Jenny claims he once gave her a picture of half a bicycle for her birthday, followed by a picture of the other half for Christmas and an actual $25 used bike several months later).
Sanford has also stood in the shadows since returning to Congress in a 2013 special election. According to GovTrack.us, Sanford cosponsored just 24 bills in 2013, the sixth-lowest number of any U.S. Representative. Sanford says he wants to focus on cutting government spending if he's re-elected.
"The reason I ran for Congress is because of the way the Washington spending train is unsustainable," Sanford says. "And you know, the first year in office, you get to know names and districts and the mechanics of what drives different individual members. But I really want to sort of lock into what I believe to be my leverage point in the new Congress in trying to impact that debate ... If we don't get that right, I think there are really amazing consequences in terms of the value of the dollar, in terms of future inflation. You know, it was Clinton's former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, who said this is the most predictable financial crisis in the history of man. And we're sleepwalking our way toward it."
At the campaign office in Mt. Pleasant, Sanford said his stance on Middle Eastern foreign policy, for starters, is different from that of Graham, his fellow Republican.
"I would respectfully submit that I'd probably be a little bit more skittish about troops on the ground in that part of the world," Sanford said. "If you look at the cost of the last 10 years in human toll, in life, in financial cost, I think we need to be really circumspect on backing our way into another 10 years. That, it seems to me, is where we're headed without real deliberation on the full effect of war and all its costs."
But even more than military spending, Sanford says he's interested in making cuts in social welfare programs.
"The big, big money is going to come out of entitlements," Sanford said. "And that's going to be a huge debate within the American family, but more has been promised than can be delivered. It's simple math."
A Challenger Appears
The Democrats are not putting up a challenger against Sanford this year, but Sanford does face one opponent in the race: write-in candidate Dimitri Cherny. Philosophically speaking, Cherny is Sanford's polar opposite.
In a nutshell, Cherny believes that money and taxes are useful fictions, that the national debt doesn't matter, and that the federal government should use fiscal policy and taxing purely as tools for social engineering.
"We're all used to using a currency, so we need to have income," Cherny says. "We have jobs or we have whatever amount of money coming in, and we have expenses, and if our income doesn't meet our expenses, we need to borrow money so that it does meet our expenses, right? That's standard accounting for any individual. It's standard accounting for businesses, for cities, states. It's not standard accounting for issuers of currency like the United States federal government ... They don't have to play by standard accounting rules because they can — they do create their currency whenever they write checks."
A former television station engineer, tech company product manager, and founder of a startup wind energy company, Cherny became unemployed during the Great Recession and says he was homeless for a little while before finding work as a truck driver. He now lives on a houseboat that he built on the Ashley River, and he says he has taught himself economic theory by listening to audiobooks while driving his truck.
The big idea that Cherny has latched onto is called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which has some roots in the theories of John Maynard Keynes. According to a recent paper from Bard College's Levy Economics Institute, a hotbed of MMT thinking, "governments with the power to issue their own currency are always solvent and can afford to buy anything for sale in their domestic unit of account even though they may face inflationary and political constraints."
Building from that theoretical foundation, Cherny's platform calls for social benefit programs and federal spending on a scale that could dwarf the New Deal. For starters, he would like to institute a federal job guarantee program that creates jobs for all unemployed Americans. Essentially a permanent version of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration, this program would compensate nonprofit organizations to hire unemployed workers in new positions of their own choosing.
Next, Cherny would set a 100:1 nationwide income ratio, such that the wealthiest person in the U.S.A. would never make more than 100 times what the poorest person makes. To accomplish this ratio, he would set the minimum wage at $15 an hour (for starters) and use progressive taxes to set an income tax rate of 100 percent for anyone who makes more than $1,500 an hour.
His other ideas include creating Local Community Mutual Funds to invest in new businesses or nonprofits, expanding the use of benefit corporation (B-Corp) status to reward for-profit companies that benefit society or the environment, and setting a target individual income of $52,000 per year for all Americans.
Cherny says he used to worry about the national debt, but Modern Monetary Theory changed his mind. "Now I fully grok it," he says. "You look at the world, and I remember walking around going, 'Wow, it just doesn't work the way we think it works. Everything we're arguing about is nothing that's worth arguing about.'"
Cherny says he hasn't tried to set up any debates with Sanford. "I don't think I've even popped up on his radar," Cherny says.