Sell Us a Bridge to Nowhere

Senator Elizabeth Warren in Chicago on October 22, 2019 (Joshua Lott/Reuters)
Elizabeth Warren finds out that her Medicare for All plan cannot withstand financial scrutiny.

Maybe it pays presidential candidates to be vague. In 1996 Bill Clinton promised to build a bridge to the 21st century. Clinton won reelection. Years later, Representative Don Young (R., Alaska) and Senator Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) wanted a bridge to connect Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gravina Island (population 50). The projected cost was specified in the papers as $398 million. It was dubbed the Bridge to Nowhere, and not only did it die, but it helped kill federal earmarks.

Bernie Sanders supports Medicare for All. And he tells you that it will probably require raising an unspecified amount of taxes on the middle class as well as on the wealthy. But you’ll save some unspecified amount too, he assures us. His political strategy for accomplishing this is a nice big pile of vague: “a political revolution.” He’ll be elected president, and he and his supporters will start a political revolution that will make previously impossible things possible. Somehow. Just be sure of it. After a dip for a while, Bernie Sanders is surging again.

Elizabeth Warren has decided to be very, very specific. Her whole campaign has been a slogan about disclosure: “I have a plan for that,” she says. And her supporters go out into social media and (presumably) the real world and intervene in political conversations to say, “Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.”

It seemed that this disclosure was meant to do a few things. First, it was meant to build on Elizabeth Warren’s reputation as an academic who does the intellectual spadework. That could appeal to the upwardly mobile, educated voters who have an affinity with her, and the sectors of the managerial class that are such an important part of the Democratic party. Second, it was a way of giving credibility to her continuing leftward shift. Many Bernie supporters are college-educated, but they might appreciate someone who seems to be dedicating thought to the mechanics of social democracy.

And for a few minutes, it seemed to work. Warren’s wealth tax was “the breakout economic proposal in the Democratic presidential primary race,” the New York Times assured us. More popular than its rivals. More popular than tax cuts. Warren was rising in the polls!

But all that changed when Warren rolled out the Medicare for All Plan, her scheme for raising the revenue to pay for its scores of trillions of dollars of additional cost to the federal budget, and her political strategy for achieving it. Which included more wealth taxes. She was going to begin canceling all private insurance policies. What would the tens of thousands of people who work in the health-insurance industry do? They’ll do property and life insurance, she said. Huh?

And where would the revenue come from, especially since she was specifically promising not to raise a dime of middle-class taxes to pay for it? Well, it would come from even more wealth taxes — including punitive and confiscatory taxes on anyone of means who wanted to emigrate from the country — but also, somehow, massive drug-cost savings. She would convert all current employer medical spending on employee plans into Medicare contributions, which she says would not be a new tax. Even immigration amnesty would bring in hundreds of billions, she claimed. Really? Though of course this raises the question of how she would also pay for Medicare for the population of amnestied immigrants and future illegal immigrants, which she has promised to do.

And she had a political strategy for accomplishing this: She’d pass part of the plan in her first 100 days, creating the Medicare for All option so that some people could start on the new system if they wanted to do so, and then she would win another massive mandate and pass the rest after the 2022 midterms, when she would move everyone to the new system. The fact that this would defy all the political gravity known to exist around American health-care-reform efforts did not enter into her equation. Since then she’s been asked what she’ll do if Congress passes something less ambitious. She’ll take it, she says, and keep working to make it more like her plan later.

Here’s the problem, though. Besides the flimsiness of some of her calculations, she’s revealed that her plan won’t really solve the problem of health inflation eating into salary increases, since her plan gobbles the same pie greedily. Her political plan seemed to highlight the implausibility of big changes to the system. And her subsequent — though realistic — utterances that she’ll take whatever Congress gives her provide reasons for Warren-curious Bernie fans to retreat back into dreams of political revolution.

That’s just one set of plans. To an audience in Iowa, she said she hopes to abolish the Electoral College before running for reelection. She’s telling others she’ll restrict the NRA’s ability to lobby Congress, and then investigate it. In other words, she will punish it for disagreeing with her. (That’s also in her first 100 days.) And she’s going to reduce household debt by raising wages, even though this will get people fired and drive automation for the losers under this policy, while for the winners, it may increase their appetite for debt and the availability of creditors to lend to them.

The more Warren talks and explains her plans, the more she sinks. My advice, having watched several recent elections and presidencies: Just add the new spending onto the debt. Or say, “And Mexico will pay for it.” Then when you get elected, shake down the Air Force instead.


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