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Democratic hopeful Steve Bullock on what Amazon and President Trump have in common, and why young voters should care

Key Points
  • Montana governor and 2020 election presidential hopeful Steve Bullock says Amazon and President Donald Trump share one thing in common: tax avoidance.
  • He says crony capitalism and the influence of big donors is a huge problem, but socialism is not the answer.
  • Bullock is among the 11 Democratic candidates currently polling at 1% of primary voters, according to Morning Consult. He has not qualified for the upcoming Democratic Party debate in Houston.

Many good policy ideas miss out on the daily cable news spin cycle — but it is not for lack of trying. CNBC.com is interviewing presidential candidates this summer to gain insight on their vision and how it can impact the economic outlook for 37% of the 2020 electorate: voters from the millennial and Gen Z demographics.

Set to be the first American generations to be worse off than their parents, facing the threat of climate change and struggling with how to pay for college, money matters matter to young voters in this election. This series is dedicated to giving every single candidate a platform to share their economic vision for America with the voters — and find out whether they prefer Hulu or Netflix, think a hot dog should be classified as a sandwich, and uncover their love for one-hit-wonder bands like Chumbawamba.

Steve Bullock Vital Stats

Democratic presidential candidate and Governor of Montana Steve Bullock with Sylvia Obell and Zach Stafford at BuzzFeed's "AM to DM" earlier in August.
Monica Schipper | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Age: 53

Experience: Attorney general of Montana, 2009–2013; Governor of Montana, 2013–present

Education: Claremont Mckenna College BA, Columbia University JD

Family: Lisa (wife), 3 children

CNBC: According to the fourth national climate assessment report, the sector of our economy that will be most negatively impacted by climate change is the health-care sector, with weather-related health conditions predicted to increase in severity and unanticipated health stresses to emerge. What changes are needed to prepare our health-care system to deal with the impending climate crisis?

First and foremost, we must finally start addressing climate change. I mean, George H.W. Bush, when he was in the White House, said we should address the greenhouse effect. Here was a Republican that from the top would say we needed to address this. Now Republicans won't even acknowledge that climate change is real, largely because of corrupting influence and money of the Koch brothers and others.

Firefighters and wildfire in Montana.
Avalon | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

We must take immediate and durable steps on climate change. Scientists say we have to be carbon neutral as a world by 2050. I think we can get there by 2040 or even before. The fire seasons are now almost 80 days longer in the West. There was a town when we had a record fire season two years ago where folks were saying, "You should not even be in this town for most of the summer, because of the health-related reasons, because of the amount of smoke."

As we deal with the threat, we have to have resiliency in our forests, in our watersheds and in our waters. But also, we have to look at better ways to address what could be health-related issues. And recognizing that, just as I'm doing that for our landscapes, our health-care system has to talk about resiliency as well. It's really difficult for a whole town to evacuate for summers.

CNBC: Morning Consult says Amazon is Gen Z's fourth most-loved brand. However, politicians from Donald Trump to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have attacked the brand. Is there a disconnect between leaders and young voters surrounding tech companies?

Look, I think there's a disconnect in part brought about by President Trump in as much as when you think of technologies providing so many great opportunities for our country. But often, there are also challenges that we're not fully addressing. At the same time that the brand of Amazon is, you know, the fourth most-loved brand, it is a company that made $10 billion in profit last year, but actually got a tax credit. Whoever in Gen Z is working at a coffee shop actually paid more in taxes than Donald Trump. So, we have to recognize that we need to fix the incentive systems.

If a company like that is going to have that degree of market share ... they also ought to probably not have that degree of tax avoidance.

While there is a company that can provide great things, our antitrust laws still haven't addressed the changes in technology. If a company like that is going to have that degree of market share, that degree of internet sales, well, they also ought to probably not have that degree of tax avoidance or the degree of having more and more independent contractors as opposed to hiring those Gen Z folks to make a good living and get a good paycheck.

CNBC: A 2018 TD Ameritrade study showed that LGBTQ millennials made, on average, $59,400 a year, while their straight counterparts earned $67,800. Further, only 29% of LGBTQ respondents reported feeling economically secure as opposed to 41% of straight respondents. As president, how will you combat LGBTQ economic inequality?

The economic inequality is also driven by social inequality. If you can marry on a Sunday and you can still get fired on a Monday because of who you love, which happens in many, many states, then we have some real challenges. So, I think that we've got to make sure that there isn't work-based discrimination or economic discrimination. You can't have housing discrimination.

We've got to recognize that a 30-year-old today, only half of them are doing better than their parents were at age 30. When I was growing up it was 90%. There's all kinds of challenges to make sure that everybody has a fair shot. But it's not always just about lifting everyone's boats equally. It's also saying what are the systemic inequalities. And that can be everything from housing to job protections to employment discrimination. And we've got to specifically address those so that everyone, no matter who they love or the color of their skin, has an equal shot at a better life.

CNBC: Currently, Americans have $1.5 trillion in outstanding college debt. Is a higher education still the best option for young Americans trying to enter the workforce?

Well, not necessarily for every American, and that's the thing that we have to recognize. About 66% of folks don't even have a two-year degree. That's why in Montana, I made our two-year colleges and our tribal colleges not even necessarily about a degree, but about a professionally recognized certificate or an apprenticeship where you can climb that economic ladder of success. We used to just think of apprenticeships as like welding, but we started five or six in health care a couple of years ago. I also started one in micro-brewing. I know that people that go through a registered apprenticeship program on average are making $20,000 a year more than those that don't.

A college degree is for so many people still that path to a better life. But we also know that a high school degree is no longer enough. So as president, you have to explore all the ways to get people to have that chance to climb that ladder to get into the middle class and beyond.

CNBC: Gallup says 4 in 10 Americans embrace some form of socialism. Do you think this is a realistic vision for the future of the American economy?

I don't. Like I get why folks are frustrated. You know, there's about 60% of Americans who haven't had a pay increase in real terms in 40 years. As a younger person you see that the idea, the American Dream — that you work hard and that you're going to do better than the generation that precedes — you aren't always there. Still, I don't think that the answer is socialism, the controlling of the means and methods of production. I think it's more that we've got to recognize that this capitalist system is not working as it was intended.

Part of that really is the corrupting influence of money in our system. A senator like Lindsey Graham says we have to get these tax cuts through to make our donors happy, but at the same time 44% of Americans would not have $400 in their pocket in case of emergency, and we pay more for prescription drug prices than any country in the world, yet we have nothing to show for it. The drug companies are spending a lot in our elections. Its crony capitalism that's causing the problem and we don't, wouldn't need to go necessarily to a socialist model.

Rapid Fire

Netflix or Hulu: So I have both, uh, but more likely to watch usually Netflix.

Apple Music or Spotify: I'm an Apple Music guy.

Who's on your music playlist? You know, it's sort of in some ways stuck in the '80s. Everybody from Santana to a little bit of things like Chumbawamba to a little bit of country-western. And then whatever my kids ended up dumping into that as well.

What was your first job? The first time that I was actually paid for a job was helping my older brother deliver newspapers as a kid. And oddly enough, I delivered newspapers to the governor's house.

What was your college major? It was called PPE. It was an interdisciplinary major in philosophy, politics and economics.

Do you have a favorite TV show? I did really enjoy "Scandal." I think it got a little odd near the end, though. Our family's also been watching "911" and "The Good Doctor."

What is the best financial advice you ever received from your parents? Probably that a credit card you got to pay back, so be darn careful with it.

If you were a Gen Z individual entering the workforce, what sector would you enter? I think what I'd say more than anything is to do what you're most passionate about. Like I had decided in grade school, I wanted to be a lawyer. If you're more passionate about becoming a teacher, do become a teacher. Because it won't always be about the money you make, but if you're going to spend most of your waking day at work, you've got to find things that you're going to love to do.

Should marijuana be legalized nationally? I think that the federal level ought to get out of the way. So the federal level ought to deschedule it, but it should be a state-by-state decision whether to fully legalize recreationally or both for recreation and for medical purposes.

Is a hot dog a sandwich? C'mon a hot dog is a hot dog. It's a hot dog!

Editor's note: The interview with Steve Bullock was transcribed in full and edited for clarity.

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