Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is running in the Democratic presidential primary, but he’s long been an independent who self-identifies as a democratic socialist. His vision for government is very different from the one currently employed in the US by either party.
And his greatest accomplishment to date is leading — or maybe reading — a lurch to the left among a new, activist group of Democrats who aren’t unnerved by the word socialist and want the government to guarantee jobs and health care to its citizens.
How different would the country be if Sanders could get elected and deliver on his ideas? Here’s a rundown of where he might start:
The marquee Bernie Sanders plan, this is his effort to institute a singe-payer health care system in the US. Far more than even in many European countries, a single-payer system would replace the largely job-based private health insurance system with one administered by the government. Within four years, everyone in the US, essentially, would have the same insurance company: the US government. That’s the way Medicare works, and people generally like it. People like the idea of expanding it too.
But while a strong majority of Americans want a Medicare option, they aren’t as sold on “Medicare-for-all” as envisioned by Sanders.
In a January Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 56% of Americans said they favored Medicare-for-all, but many more (74%) favored creating a public option similar to Medicare that allows people to keep the coverage they have if they prefer it.
In terms of reaching bipartisan consensus, it is this half step — a public option — that might be easier to sell. In that Kaiser poll, 47% of Republicans were OK with a public option but less than a quarter (23%) wanted a single-payer format like Sanders proposes.
How much would it cost?
The nonpartisan Congressonal Budget Office has not officially placed a price tag on Sanders’ plan, in part because with a Republican President and Senate, it’s so far from becoming a reality. Sanders argued that an earlier version of the plan would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.38 trillion per year. A libertarian think tank — the Mercatus Center at George Mason University — suggested the proposal would cost more than $32 trillion over 10 years. Those are wildly different estimates.
But other important things to note are that the government would be in position to control the cost of health care on an even larger scale than Medicare does today when it sets its own rates. Overall spending on health care in the country would go down. The government portion would go up. Plus, every American would have coverage, essentially as a birthright.
Sanders says he would pay for his plan through new taxes on employers and a new payroll tax, but these would offset what employers and people currently pay for coverage, so he argues they would actually be paying less into the system. Additionally, he would end the tax deduction employers receive for providing health insurance, which would raise $4.2 trillion over 10 years.
The ultimate question is all about choice. Do Americans think the government would do a better job setting prices for care than for-profit insurance companies?
But if they want a single-payer system, they will have to do more than elect Sanders president. They’ll have to convince the Republican-dominated Senate too or vote in senators who favor the plan.
The cost of college, not unlike the cost of health care, has skyrocketed in recent decades. So has the debt American students incur to obtain degrees. Sanders would make public colleges and universities tuition free by raising taxes on Wall Street. The federal government would pick up two-thirds of the tab and the states would pick up the rest, according to the plan he unveiled in 2017 in the Senate. It would place new rules on how the federal money is spent — no sports stadiums, for instance, could be constructed using federal dollars. Tuition would be free for kids from households making less than $125,000 a year.
It would also give students in states with higher public school tuition a bigger benefit than those in states with lower tuition. Vermont’s is the highest in the country, at more than $16,000 for in-state tuition, according to the College Board.
Several states have experimented with free tuition for community colleges. In New York there is a free tuition program but with a $110,000 household income cap. But there have been hiccups, as for students who might qualify for the benefit but are also trying to work. Rhode Island has a pilot program that gives two years of tuition free at the state’s community college, with requirements that the student is enrolled full time and keeps a 2.5 GPA.
Free college was a much larger talking point during the 2016 campaign cycle, however. While Sanders mentions it in his campaign announcement material, it’s not as large a part of the political conversation in recent years.
How much would it cost?
Sanders suggests in his plan that the government would provide $47 billion for tuition each year to cover the two-thirds of $70 billion he says is spent on tuition public colleges and universities. There would be no guarantee that states would take part, which could make it cheaper. But there would also be, potentially, a lot more people enrolling at public schools if the tuition were free. There has been no CBO assessment of the proposal.
Sanders envisions hiking taxes on the wealthy and on Wall Street to pay for things like Medicare-for-all and free college. With the For the 99.8% Act, he released a plan to roll back the Republicans’ drastic cuts to the estate tax. Sanders would institute a new graduated tax that would apply to estates of $3.5 million and larger. It would phase in on $3.5 million estates at 45% and reach up to 77% on the value of an estate over $1 billion.
It’s called the For the 99.8% Act because it would affect only the top 0.02% of households. There are other wealth taxes that have been proposed by the 2020 Democratic field, notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to finance universal child care with a new 2% tax on households with assets of more than $50 million and a total 3% on households with assets of more than $1 billion.
Progressives don’t see these proposals as being in competition with one another but as part of a larger effort to “reverse a trend of that has seen American wealth increasingly concentrated among its most affluent households,” as CNN’s Greg Krieg and Tami Luhby reported.
Sanders would pay for his college plan with a new Wall Street tax. He’d charge businesses and individuals to help cover the costs of his Medicare-for-all plan. But in neither case is there an official cost estimate to go by.
Double the federal minimum wage
A number of states have raised their minimum wages — sometimes substantially — beyond the $7.25 national hourly minimum. But no state has a $15 minimum wage, as Sanders has pushed. It wouldn’t technically cost the government much to do this, but there would certainly be a cost to business owners, many of whom would oppose the idea. His proposal would also gradually bring tipped workers, who can be paid a lower-than-minimum hourly wage — in line with other workers.
The federal minimum wage has not been raised in a decade. Because of inflation, that $7.25 has less purchasing power than it did in 2009. It now would take $8.47 per hour to equal the $7.25 of 2009.
Break up big banks
While some of the Wall Street regulations that passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis are being rolled back, Sanders would go in the other direction and impose new regulations on Wall Street and big banks. He has proposed legislation to keep banks from becoming too large and to keep them from holding assets worth more than 3% of the gross domestic product.
Accomplishing this would require the Treasury Department to identify and break apart a number of financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Berkshire Hathaway.
There’s plenty more Sanders would like to do, like end the war on drugs, eliminate privately run prisons and undo the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign finance.
Any single one of the things above could be the main accomplishment of an effective president. Sanders can never be accused of keeping his campaign promises small. The question is whether the public is behind this vision for the country.