Elizabeth Warren is famous for, among other things, plans. That’s great. She publishes good plans. In case you haven’t been paying attention, these include universal child care, a wealth tax, worker representation on corporate boards, student debt cancellation and a new international trade paradigm, to name five.
Warren’s plan schtick is effective because each one helps convince voters that a big, relatively simple idea is also politically and economically feasible. Warren has actually thought through how her ideas would be implemented in great detail, hired experts to troubleshoot problems that might arise, and then rolled out a sophisticated proposal.
The difference between a plan to cancel student debt and just saying, “I’m going to cancel student debt!” is that the plan helps persuade people who are afraid of change that this stuff will actually work. A lot of people find it hard to muster the courage to believe in a better world. Warren is helping them get there.
But there’s one plan that Warren doesn’t need and that won’t help her get elected ― and that’s a plan to pay for her “Medicare for All” proposal without significantly raising taxes on the middle class.
For some reason, moderators at Democratic primary debates are obsessed with the way presidential candidates label different elements of the cost structure in their health care proposals. They keep asking Warren if Medicare for All will “raise taxes.” Warren keeps answering by saying she will lower the amount that middle class families have to spend out of pocket.
This is a perfectly responsible answer. Under any credible Medicare for All plan, people will stop paying private health insurance premiums and start paying the government for Medicare. Taxes will go up; premiums will disappear. Warren is saying she will not have the government make middle class families poorer ― they will pay less in new taxes than they will save in eliminated premiums.
So far, so good. But the moderators want to goad Warren into saying the words “I will raise taxes,” and they are going to keep asking her the same dumb Medicare for All question until Warren says exactly that. It is a badge of honor in the news industry for a journalist to make a politician say something she does not want to say, and Warren does not want to say, “I will raise taxes,” because it will be used out of context in Republican attack ads.
But instead of sticking to her guns, Warren is caving to the tax obsessives. According to The Washington Post, she’s airing proposals from economists to develop a detailed plan laying out exactly how she’d pay for every last dime of her Medicare for All proposal. Among other things, her campaign is considering calling the fees for the plan “public premiums” rather than “taxes.”
This is a big mistake. Running down the Medicare for All pay-for rabbit hole is a loser’s game that misunderstands the appeal of her plans, and it plays to the dying worldview of the conservative elite. The how-will-you-pay-for-it crew isn’t going to stop haranguing her until she says something made for a GOP attack ad. That’s how the game works.
Warren’s 2020 fans aren’t deficit-obsessed economists who want to make sure every new penny of government spending is matched by a new penny in taxation. Most economists aren’t deficit-obsessed economists ― the deficit has been ballooning steadily for 40 years and none of the bad stuff that economists worried about 40 years ago has come to pass. It does not matter one economic iota whether Americans pay for health insurance through premiums or taxes. It’s not even the most important metric for something like Medicare for All ― What’s the impact on wages? On poverty? GDP? All of these are more relevant, but nobody is asking Warren for details about those, and she isn’t going to put them up.
And of course the actual numbers on any new health care proposal will not be dictated by whatever Warren puts in a document in October 2019. President Warren would still have to move the legislation through the House ― where Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hostile to some of Warren’s ideas ― and the Senate ― where Republicans have a host of procedural tricks at their disposal.
Warren’s plans work when they convince voters her ideas are feasible ― not because voters think every damn decimal point is going to become law. You either believe the basic story Warren has sketched on Medicare for All, or you don’t. She’s not changing that basic story ― she’s changing the way she describes the details.
The details matter, of course. But they’re a matter for 2021. The next time TV moderators badger Warren about Medicare for All and the deficit, she should call out their charade.