The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bernie Sanders erupts at Joe Manchin, and a deeper dispute is revealed

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

We’re finally getting the grand public argument among Democrats that we deserve.

With Sen. Bernie Sanders ratcheting up his attacks on Sen. Joe Manchin III over President Biden’s agenda, this is being widely depicted as a window into intraparty tensions over legislative arcana. But the Vermont independent’s broadside also ripped the lid off a deeper dispute — over what kind of economy we have and what it really means to invest in our people.

The argument centers on the West Virginia Democrat’s fears of an “entitlement society.” This is his rationale for demanding a dramatic downsizing of the multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better bill. Sanders is pressing Manchin to account for this concept and explain why it means we must spend far less than most Democrats want.

A new report from Axios shows why this debate is so consequential. Manchin is demanding that progressives pick one of three things in the reconciliation bill — the expanded child tax credit, paid family leave or subsidies for child care — and jettison the other two. This would force progressives — and Biden, since this is his agenda — to make very hard choices among top priorities.

Such dilemmas are typical with major legislation, but what’s striking is how arbitrary Manchin’s position seems. It has become clear that for Manchin, lowering the package’s spending is an inherent good in and of itself: He doesn’t seem to care much which policies are lost in doing so.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Manchin’s “entitlement” rhetoric sheds light on this. “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society,” Manchin says. “I think we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society.”

For Manchin, everything is on a sliding scale from fewer entitlements to more of them. Less spending on the bill means less spending on entitlements, making us less of an entitlement society. More spending means more entitlements, making us more of one.

Sanders has been mercilessly lambasting this worldview. On Rachel Maddow’s show, he sought to turn the word “entitlement” back on Manchin, saying this:

I believe all Americans are entitled as human beings to health care. I believe people are entitled to quality education regardless of their income. I believe that people are entitled to affordable housing. I don’t believe that two people are entitled to own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of American society.

Sanders’s rejoinder is that the government should guarantee a much higher social minimum than Manchin wants. Hence the bill’s expansion of health-care subsidies and its assistance with college and housing. Taxing wealth, cracking down on elite tax avoidance and stopping inherited fortunes from evading taxation would rebalance our political economy.

But we can say more in response to Manchin.

Manchin wants a “caring and rewarding society,” which seems to mean giving welfare to the truly needy, while refraining from giving away too many “entitlements” that will sap initiative, thus encouraging them to seek “rewarding” work. For Manchin, of course, the additional benefit of this is less spending, which means less inflation and debt.

But this is far too cramped and outdated a view of the actual trade-offs involved here. His worldview neglects the idea that many of these programs wouldn’t merely establish a material minimum. They would also empower people to seek “rewarding” work and boost the broader economy, with positive social ripple effects.

The expanded child tax credit illustrates the point. It doesn’t just hand out money. As a Niskanen Center report details, sending $300 a month to most households with children also delivers a disproportionately large boost in purchasing power to red, more rural and less populous states.

Because such states tend to have more poor residents as a percentage of population and have larger average family sizes, expanding the child allowance to poorer people injects disproportionately large amounts of money into them.

Among these states is West Virginia. As Niskanen found, Manchin’s state is in the top 10 in additional money this policy delivers as a percentage of state gross domestic product. Nonmetropolitan areas across the country also get a disproportionately large boost. That money is then spent, boosting their local economies.

This gets at a deeper point. We’re told the stagnation of nonmetropolitan regions is also producing a variety of social crises. For Manchin, the answer is fewer “entitlements,” presumably because these increase social malaise by sapping initiative.

But this policy doesn’t just send money. It also spurs more economic demand and activity, in places where money, resources and demand have been drained away by larger forces.

“The child tax credit isn’t just a welfare check,” Robert Orr of the Niskanen Center tells me. “It empowers more people by ensuring that their broader communities are economically vibrant. That results in more opportunity.”

Or take the paid leave and child-care provisions. The pandemic revealed how crippling the paucity of such basic supports has been for American women; as a recent Center for American Progress report detailed, the bill’s provisions on both would enable large numbers of women to reenter the workforce.

As J.W. Mason and the Roosevelt Institute argue, the holy grail should be to use government spending to push up the percentage of people in the workforce to the highest degree possible. The bill’s provisions empowering work are designed to do just that, potentially leading to tighter labor markets, higher wages and productivity, and other positive social benefits.

The more-vs.-fewer “entitlements” framing submerges these complexities entirely. We need a better debate among Democrats, and it now looks as if we’re finally getting one.