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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/23/20

The Real Cost of Doing Nothing

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From Inequality Media

Climate emergency
Climate emergency
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In Wednesday night's Democratic debate, the former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg charged that the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders' policy proposals would cost $50 trillion. Holy Indiana.

Larry Summers, formerly 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. California is already burning, the midwest and south are flooding, New England is eroding, Florida is sinking. 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. The nation already pays more for healthcare per person and has worse health outcomes than any other advanced country. 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Investing in universal childcare, public higher education and woefully outdated and dilapidated infrastructure will be expensive too, but the cost of not making these investments would be astronomical.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 the Massachusetts senator 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 Buttigieg.

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

But even if it 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.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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