Guest Editorial: Bernie Sanders, big spender
No one would ever accuse Bernie Sanders of thinking small. The senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate wants to transform one of the world’s most boisterous free-market economies into an exemplar of Scandinavian-style "democratic socialism." He wants to jail Wall Street executives and double the minimum wage. And he wants to spend taxpayer money, lots of it.
According to an estimate by The Wall Street Journal, Sanders’ spending plans would cost $18 trillion over 10 years, increasing the federal government’s size by roughly a third. He would create a single-payer health plan, make public universities free, expand Social Security, spend big on infrastructure, create universal child-care and pre-K programs, provide federal jobs for young people and bail out struggling pension plans, among other things.
To be sure, fully $15 trillion of the $18 trillion would come from Sanders’ health plan, which seems unlikely to cost that much. Bringing all Americans under the umbrella of a single-payer system would create enormous power to hold down prices.
Even so, there’s no doubt that Sanders, who's running a surprisingly strong second to Hillary Clinton in the latest polls, is talking serious money.
To say the least, his ideas are politically impractical. A Republican-controlled Congress that detests Obamacare and struggles to pay for pothole repairs is not going to enact these kinds of sweeping social changes.
More important, the plans are fiscally unsound. The bulk of his proposals involve creating new benefits or expanding existing ones. This comes at a time when benefits — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps and veterans' programs, to name a few — are already consuming most of the federal budget.
These "entitlement" benefits do not have to be voted on each year by Congress and can’t be vetoed by the president. Not surprisingly, they grow at a faster rate than spending for defense, national parks, environmental protection and other core government programs.
Fifty years ago, benefit programs constituted a quarter of federal spending. By the 1990s, they had surpassed 50 percent. Now they are close to two-thirds and on their way up as more Baby Boomers transition from workers to retirees.
Sanders’ solution to this unsustainable trend? To pile on even more benefits. Yes, he does include a number of taxes to pay for them. He would, for instance, lift the cap above which people stop paying the 6.2 percent payroll tax that funds Social Security. He also proposes a tax on investment transactions and taxes on offshore corporate income. Sanders says these taxes would raise $6.5 trillion over 10 years. Even if that's true, it's not nearly enough to cover all the new spending, much less close existing deficits or begin paying down the national debt.
Sanders' overarching theme — wealth concentration among the top sliver of Americans — is a serious problem but not the only one America faces. Another is that American consumers and the U.S. government are borrowing too much and spending too much on the present while shortchanging the future. The national debt already tops $18 trillion. Sanders would make this problem worse, much worse.