Robert Reich (The Humongous Costs of Inaction)


 In last Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, former South Bend
mayor Pete Buttigieg charged that Senator Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals
would cost $50 trillion. Holy Indiana.Larry Summers, formerly chief White House economic advisor for
Barack Obama, puts the price tag at $60 trillion. “We are in a kind of new era
of radical proposal,” he told CNN.Putting aside the accuracy of these cost estimates, they omit the
other side of the equation: what, by comparison, is the cost of doing nothing?A Green New Deal might be expensive, but doing nothing about
climate change will almost certainly cost far more. If we don’t launch
something as bold as a Green New Deal, we’ll spend trillions coping with the
consequences of our failure to be bold.Medicare for All will cost a lot, but the price of doing nothing
about America’s increasingly dysfunctional healthcare system will soon be in
the stratosphere. A new study in The Lancet estimates that
Medicare for All would save $450 billion and prevent 68,000 unnecessary deaths
each year.Investing in universal childcare, public higher education and
woefully outdated and dilapidated infrastructure will be expensive too, but the
cost of not making these investments would be astronomical. American productivity
is already suffering and millions of families can’t afford decent childcare,
college or housing – whose soaring costs are closely related to inadequate
transportation and water systems.Focusing only on the costs of doing something about these problems
without mentioning the costs of doing nothing is misleading, but this asymmetry
is widespread. Journalists wanting to appear serious about public policy continue
to rip into Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (whose policies are almost as
ambitious) for the costs of their proposals but never ask self-styled moderates
like Buttigieg how they plan to cope with the costs of doing nothing or too
little.A related criticism of Sanders and Warren is that they haven’t
come up with ways to pay for their proposals. Sanders “only explained $25
trillion worth of revenue, which means the hole in there is bigger than the
size of the entire economy of the United States,” charged Mayor Pete.Sanders’ and Warren’s wealth tax would go a long way toward paying
for their plans.But even if their wealth tax paid a small fraction of the costs of
their proposals, so what? As long as every additional dollar of spending
reduces by more than a dollar the future costs of climate change, inadequate
healthcare and insufficient public investment, it makes sense to spend more.Republican administrations have doled out gigantic tax cuts to big
corporations and the wealthy without announcing specific cuts in public spending
or other tax increases because – despite decades of evidence to the contrary –
they claim the cuts will generate economic growth that will more than make up
for any lost revenue.Yet when Warren and Sanders propose ambitious plans for reducing
empirically verifiable costs of large and growing public problems, they are
skewered by fellow Democrats and the press for not having ways to pay for them.A third line of criticism is that Sanders’ and Warren’s proposals
are just too big. It would be safer to move cautiously and incrementally.This argument might be convincing if the problems Sanders and
Warren address were growing slowly. But experts on the environment, health,
education and infrastructure are nearly unanimous: these problems are worsening
exponentially.Young people understand this, perhaps because they will bear more
of the costs of inaction. An Emerson poll of Iowa found that 44% of Democrats
under 50 support Sanders and 10% favor Warren. In New Hampshire, Sanders won
more voters under 30 than the other candidates combined, according to CNN exit
polls. In Nevada, he captured an astonishing 65 percent of voters under
30. The reason to support Sanders’ and Warren’s proposals isn’t
because they inspire and mobilize voters. It is because they are necessary.We can no longer pretend that climate change, a wildly
dysfunctional healthcare system and a yawning deficit in public investment pose
insignificant challenges. Doing nothing or doing too little will make them far
worse. Obsessing about the cost of addressing them without acknowledging
the cost of failing to address them is dangerously irresponsible


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