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Inaction on our biggest problems will have an enormous cost

By Robert B. Reich, Tribune Content Agency on

In last week's Democratic debate, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg charged that Sen. Bernie Sanders' policy proposals would cost $50 trillion. Holy Indiana.

Larry Summers, formerly the chief White House economic adviser 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 health care 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Investing in universal child care, public higher education and woefully outdated and dilapidated infrastructure will be expensive too, but the cost of not making these investments would be astronomical.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 child care, 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," Buttigieg said during last week's debate.

Sanders' and Warren's wealth tax would go a long way toward paying for their plans.

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