The ascent of Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic race should warm the heart of any policy wonk. Her mantra is “I’ve got a plan for that,” and she has more than three times as many plans as any of the other 22 candidates. But while the Massachusetts senator is to be commended for her relentlessly serious campaign, it doesn’t necessarily mean her ideas are good or that they will help her defeat a lowbrow president. On both counts, there is ample room for skepticism.
Warren’s big idea is the opposite of President Bill Clinton’s. In 1996, Clinton said “the era of big government is over.” Warren thinks it is just beginning. She wants to build 3 million new housing units and reduce rents by 10 percent. She wants to fight climate change with a Green Apollo Program, Green Industrial Mobilization and a Green Marshall Plan. She wants to end the opioid crisis. She wants to cancel student loan debt and make public universities tuition-free. She wants to provide universal child care and universal health care.
It all sounds great — who wouldn’t want a bunch of free stuff? — but there’s a reason it hasn’t been done already: The price tag would be astronomical. Based mainly on her own estimates, I added up the cost of Warren’s commitments so far. The most expensive slice is the Medicare-for-all plan written by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and endorsed by Warren; independent analysts peg the cost at up to $32 trillion over 10 years. Add in Warren’s own programs, and the cost is about $36.5 trillion over 10 years, or $3.6 trillion a year.
That’s a big, big number. Sure, lots of individuals would save money on medical care, child care, college tuition and other expenses — and these new federal benefits could stimulate the economy by freeing more parents to work or more students to go to college. But if all of Warren’s promises were implemented, the federal budget ($4.1 trillion in 2018) would nearly double. Republicans said $940 billion over 10 years for the Affordable Care Act was too expensive — but that’s a rounding error compared with Warren’s agenda.
Warren promises to pay for her promises with a so-called wealth tax on households worth more than $50 million, a surtax on billionaires and a corporate profits tax on companies that earn $100 million or more annually. She claims that they would bring in $3.75 trillion over 10 years. That’s not nearly enough to fund her wish list, however, and even so, her estimates are wildly optimistic.
A conservative Supreme Court could strike down her tax on net worth, rather than income, as unconstitutional. Even if it was upheld, former treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers and law professor Natasha Sarin warn, it would generate only a fraction of the revenue that Warren expects because the rich are skilled at avoiding taxes. Meanwhile, the Tax Foundation estimates that her corporate tax plan would generate less than half the revenue she expects, reduce economic growth and cost 454,000 jobs. The only way to fund Warren’s wish list is with higher taxes on the middle class — just as in Scandinavian countries. She is being disingenuous by pretending otherwise.
Warren’s grandiose social engineering ambitions are likely to have unintended consequences. She wants to use antitrust laws to break up big tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon. She would thus tamper with America’s economic-growth engine (in 2016-2017, Amazon alone created more jobs than did 46 individual states ) and make technology more difficult to use by preventing these companies from providing a seamless customer experience. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
Amid all her plans, Warren has a big omission. The budget deficit has spiked 80 percent since President Trump took office. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, by 2020, the government will spend more on interest payments than on Medicaid and, by 2025, more than on defense. Yet Warren has no plan to address the fiscal crisis her spending proposals would exacerbate.
Warren’s foreign policy may be even worse. Like Trump, she favors tariffs and wants to reduce overseas commitments. Unlike Trump, she wants to cut the defense budget, even though the Rand Corp. warned that, already, “U.S. forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight.”
Warren’s agenda would hasten the bankrupting of the United States and the demise of the U.S.-led world order. That is not a vision Democrats should embrace in 2020, if only because it would make it easy for Trump to charge that they are socialists bent on turning the United States into Venezuela. While calling herself a “capitalist,” Warren is actually a bigger socialist than self-proclaimed socialist Sanders, because she has more ambitious plans for expanding government. Unfortunately, the high-minded Harvard professor has not shown the political skill to fend off Trump’s low blows. Goaded by Trump, she turned herself into an object of ridicule by taking a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry.
I am alarmed enough about the threat Trump poses to our democracy that I would vote for any Democratic nominee, including Warren. But Democrats should not count on other independents sharing my sentiments. Nominating Warren would greatly increase the odds of Trump’s reelection.