Don’t fall for anti-Bernie scare tactics

The Wall Street Journal’s fearmongering headline number—$18 trillion—isn’t as much as you think.

Photo: Bernie Sanders. (Courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

As the mainstream media begins to treat Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders seriously, so begins the use of scare tactics about his policy proposals, which would increase government spending to provide greater health care coverage and rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure.

The figure in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal headline about Sanders’ economic plan—“Price Tag of Bernie Sanders’s Proposals: $18 Trillion”—isn’t as scary a number as the Journal’s editors want us to believe.

First, that headline misleads readers into thinking that President Sanders would write an $18 trillion check on his first day in office. Sanders’ new spending would be spread out over 10 years. So instead of $18 trillion, the government would spend an additional of $1.8 trillion per year on average. The current federal budget is $3.5 trillion per year, a number that will grow before the next president takes office.

These numbers are presented without essential context, like annual GDP—about $18 trillion in 2015—and the total net worth of the American households—almost $85 trillion.

Yes, Sanders would significantly increase federal spending as a percentage of GDP, but his supposedly massive new spending plans don’t come close to even just doubling the budget.

What do individuals and businesses get in return for this new spending? A huge break. Individuals and businesses would no longer be responsible for paying for health care out of their own pockets. Under Sanders’ plan, the U.S. would follow the lead of every other industrialized nation in the world and take responsibility for the health care of its citizens.

As it stands now, our health care system is really four different systems. The government provides Medicare and Medicaid, insurance for the poor and the elderly to use at private hospitals and doctor’s offices. Private insurance companies cover most working-age Americans. Federal agencies like the Veterans Health Administration operate hospitals and doctor’s offices for certain groups, like military veterans and Native Americans. And individuals are stuck paying out of their own pockets for anything they can’t get covered by an insurance company.

The result of this mix-and-match system is terrible—the U.S. has by far the most costly health care in the world, and health outcomes are worse than almost any other advanced economy.

To their credit, the Journal’s overall piece is balanced. It provides a strong analysis of what costs would be increasing and why, and the author explains that the additional government costs for health care would be offset by the removal of health care from the balance sheets of businesses, which currently face a huge burden for health care costs. Even with new taxes needed to finance a single-payer system, net health care costs for businesses would be much lower than they are right now.

But even if the reader gets a balanced view after reading the entire story, most people will only see the headline; cable news, drive-time radio, and trending topics on Facebook and Twitter will only say “Bernie Sanders is going to spend $18 trillion.”

Don’t let the media scare you into thinking Bernie is going to start writing blank checks. Covering serious policy proposals, like those of Sanders, requires more nuance than we get from sound bites, headlines, or tweets.

Zac Bears can be reached at


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