Bernie Sanders has the aspect of an old testament prophet. Most politicians make great play of showing that they have a life outside politics. But Sanders’s furious insistence that the nation has become corrupt and must amend its ways is largely unleavened by such frivolities. The messenger is the message and he apparently intends that it be taken most earnestly, for if he is not heeded pestilence awaits.
The response from the Clinton campaign is essentially that Sanders is a false prophet. They’ve taken his dramatic sounding proposals and begun to unpick them. Suggesting, for example, that his plan to break up the big banks neglects issues like shadow banking.
Their scepticism is lent support by a report from Kenneth Thorpe, an economist at Emory University. As Dylan Matthews reports for Vox, Thorpe advocates the US introducing a single payer healthcare system. That would mean Americans paying for their healthcare through taxes rather than insurance premiums. His preference for such a system is in part due to the fact he believes it would be much cheaper than the current mixed system.
Bernie Sanders also supports a single payer system and argues it would save America a substantial amount. Yet Thorpe appears sceptical about this proposal. He has released a paper suggesting that Sanders has overstated the savings he can find by $1.1 trillion.
That’s politically significant because while a single payer system might be expected to reduce total healthcare spending, it nonetheless requires an increase in government spending. That spending has to be paid for through extra taxes. So if someone says Sanders is overestimating the savings of a single payer system by $1.1 trillion, then by extension they are also saying he is underestimating the tax rises he’d need to introduce $1.1 trillion.
The efforts to introduce such a system in Sanders’ home state of Vermont floundered on the political infeasibility of raising taxes enough to make it work. Thorpe’s report indicates that Sanders has yet to find a way to avoid the recurrence of this problem.
Now at this point you might be wondering who to believe Sanders or Thorpe? Let me answer that question with a quote from Matthews’ reporting:
Sanders assumes $324 billion more per year in prescription drug savings than Thorpe does. Thorpe argues that this is wildly implausible. “In 2014 private health plans paid a TOTAL of $132 billion on prescription drugs and nationally we spent $305 billion,” he writes in an email. “With their savings drug spending nationally would be negative.” (Emphasis mine.) The Sanders camp revised the number down to $241 billion when I pointed this out.
That reflects terribly on Sanders’ team and their policy making. It’s hard to decide what is worse:
a) that they included an assumption that’s arithmetically impossible. It’s like an individual budgeting to save $324 a year by cancelling a gym membership that only cost $241.
b) that by their own implicit admission they were wrong by an amount that was – at least – the equivalent of the GDP of Belarus.
c) that the budgeting for a central policy proposal was so flimsy that they are making corrections amounting to tens of billions of dollars because of a single email from a journalist.
Now there’s nothing wrong per se with amending policies. For example, Barack Obama opposed an individual mandate during the 2008 primary but then included one in Obamacare. Apparently the negative response to his plans from experts convinced him to change stance. But what Sanders is doing is rather different. Most obviously, it’s amateurish. More important, however, is that it’s not so easily rectified. Obama’s path was clear: include an individual mandate in the law after all. Sanders by contrast would a large amount of additional tax revenue in addition to plans that are already .
I submit that this is a telling error, which points to a broader problem with Sanders’ candidacy.
He is asking Democrats to believe that American voters who generally punish parties for choosing a candidate far from the mainstream, will this time reward them with such enthusiasm that it will trigger a “political revolution”. And that he will then achieve radical change within a system of government specifically designed to prevent it. This is not implausible in the way the US having negative spending on medicine is. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary claim demanding extraordinary evidence.
An appropriately compelling case has not been forthcoming. His strategy seems to be predicated on winning back low income white voters, the Democrats haven’t actually lost. It also seems to wish away the high probability that Republicans will retain control of the House and therefore be able to sink his legislative as they have Obama’s. Nor does his single minded focus on income inequality seem well suited to an election where voters appear less concerned about economic security than the regular kind of security.
Perhaps he would be better off running for Governor of Vermont rather than President. In the laboratory of America’s most liberal he might be able to concrete results that other states and the Federal government could replicate. But the prophet Bernie wants to be America’s saviour rather its John the Baptist. He would need to perform miracles to fulfil his chosen role and he’s not shown that he can. Therefore, the appropriate response is doubt rather than faith.