Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Cost of Socialism

Democrats have made a lot of hay over the past 16 years about being the reality-based party. Republicans, we like to say, deny the evidence for climate change, pretend that American toughness will solve problems in Syria and Iraq, claim that cutting taxes raises economic growth, and so on, things they believe because they are stuck in an "echo chamber" of conservative commentary.

I believe the Sanders campaign is becoming another echo chamber, promoting a dangerous divorce from reality in both politics and economics. Consider:
The reviews of some of these economists, especially on Mr. Sanders’s health care plans, suggest that Mrs. Clinton could have been too conservative in their debate last week when she said his agenda in total would increase the size of the federal government by 40 percent. That level would surpass any government expansion since the buildup in World War II.

The increase could exceed 50 percent, some experts suggest, based on an analysis by a respected health economist that Mr. Sanders’s single-payer health plan could cost twice what the senator, who represents Vermont, asserts, and on critics’ belief that his economic assumptions are overly optimistic. . . .

By the reckoning of the left-of-center economists, none of whom are working for Mrs. Clinton, the proposals would add $2 trillion to $3 trillion a year on average to federal spending; by comparison, total federal spending is projected to be above $4 trillion in the next president’s first year. “The numbers don’t remotely add up,” said Austan Goolsbee, formerly chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, now at the University of Chicago.

Alluding to one progressive analyst’s criticism of the Sanders agenda as “puppies and rainbows,” [that was Ezra Klein] Mr. Goolsbee said that after his and others’ further study, “they’ve evolved into magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.”
Sanders' spokesman responds,
If, at the end of the day, people don’t believe that we can achieve the same savings as Canada, Britain, France, Japan, South Korea, Australia are achieving on health care, then we have a fundamental disagreement.
It is certainly true that other rich countries spend much less on health care than Americans do. But two of the biggest reasons are, first, that they pay doctors and nurses much less than we do, and second, that they have powerful boards ("death panels") that decide which treatments will be paid for and which won't. What do you think would happen if the Sanders administration tried to cut the pay of Americans doctors and nurses by 30%? And what do you think would happen if the Medical Effectiveness Commission started telling people that they can't have treatments that used to be paid for under their old insurance? This second point is the thing that has always made me hesitate about single-payer health care in America. Keeping health care affordable means limiting what it will pay for, and in America it is just very difficult for the government to say no to sick people.

There are lots of other problems with Sanders budget, for example, his free college plan requires all of the states (including the ones run by Republicans) to cough up hundreds of millions in extra spending. He is not running on a realistic plan. Since I have always hated the fantasy budgets Republicans have been running on ever since 1980, I just won't go along with this.

The second thing I think Sanders is deluded about is political tactics. Sanders is fully aware that a Congress dominated by Republicans and moderate Democrats would never vote for his initiatives. His plan is that when they vote down free health care, free college and so on he will then turn to the voters and call on them to get rid of these blood-sucking capitalist slaves of Wall Street, and that when summoned by the right kind of angry, fight-for the-little-guy President the people will rise up and complete the revolution.

I think that is pure fantasy. I think that most Americans would consider such belligerence proof that the President really was a dangerous revolutionary, and Republicans would then win the biggest landslide in recent history. There simply is no evidence that Americans, grouchy as they are, support a socialist solution to our problems.

This scenario is what many progressives wanted Obama to do back in 2009. Instead of accepting compromises on the size of the stimulus and the shape of the health care plan, he should have quit negotiating and turned to the people for support. Personally I think the result of that would have been a stinging electoral defeat, followed by no stimulus and no health care plan at all. But the temperamentally moderate Obama is simply not the kind of man to even try such things, and I marvel that some people apparently expected him to.

There is some historical precedent here. Back in 1938, Franklin Roosevelt tried to take his case to the people. As the economy entered the second phase of the Depression and labor strife shut down thousands of factories, Congress refused to grant FDR the additional powers he sought under the banner of the Second New Deal. So he went after several southern Democrats who had opposed him and tried to oust them in primaries. He lost every race, and Democrats went on to take a severe beating in the Congressional elections. And that was FDR, arguably the greatest politician we have ever seen in America, running in a Depression at a moment when working class voters were more mobilized than ever before or since. Sanders would do ten times worse.

I consider myself a pragmatist. I believe there is a world out there, and that it is very, very difficult to bend it to our desires. I believe Bernie Sanders has stepped well outside the boundaries of what is possible in America now, so I cannot support him.

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