Suppose that you are lucky enough to have health insurance through your employer. Suppose also that someone asks how much you pay each year for your health care, taking into account all of your family’s insurance premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and coinsurance—including the costs that your employer pays in premiums to a health insurance company rather than as salary to you.
Suppose further that—unlike even the most well organized people I know—you are actually able to track down all of those various and maddeningly unpredictable costs, and you are then able with reasonable confidence to respond: “It looks like it came to almost exactly ten thousand dollars last year, all told.” The person then asks: “Would you be interested in a different coverage plan for only six thousand dollars?”
You would most likely have a lot of questions. You would want to know if the new plan is better than your current health care coverage—or, more realistically, given the realities of our dysfunctional health care system, at least no worse. You also would reasonably wonder whether the new coverage has any hidden costs, and it certainly would be useful to know whether the costs could go up without warning in future years. These are good questions, because every aspect of this is complicated in the extreme. And mistakes are very costly, in dollars and even in lives.
Now imagine that, after your questions are answered by someone you trust, you are satisfied that the new plan actually would cover more services than your current plan, that in fact it eliminates hidden costs, and that any price increases in future years will be lower than under your current plan. Moreover, you are no longer left to face the worrying possibility that an unexpected medical emergency for you or a loved one will lead to your financial ruin.
You would probably be pretty happy. What question would you not bother asking? “Will any of those six thousand dollars be called ‘taxes’?” Honestly, why should you care what your costs are called? If you pay $6,000 instead of $10,000—and especially if those payments are steady and contain no unexpected time bombs that could bankrupt or kill you or a loved one—who cares whether the money that you pay is called payroll contributions, taxes, outlays, payments, or anything else?
Now, one could reasonably expect Republicans to obsess over the word “taxes.” Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election after honestly saying that he would raise taxes. More precisely, he said that no matter who won that election, taxes would go up. And he was right. He said: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Saying that Mondale lost for that reason, of course, could possibly be true but runs up against the fact that the economy had been strengthening for months before the election, which nearly always predicts an incumbent’s victory. Yet ever since that election, people who consider themselves politically savvy have delighted in the ultimate gotcha question, trying to force a Democrat to “be forthright” and admit that she or he will increase taxes.
This game is, moreover, played not merely by Republicans looking for partisan advantage. Journalists and other Democrats, too, think it great sport to try to trap a Democratic candidate into saying out loud: “I’ll raise taxes.”
Even as a general matter, this is absurd, because it ignores the uses to which we put the revenues from taxes. It is never “Will you collect money to build better roads?” or “Don’t you think it is obviously a good idea to tax people to pay for better schools?” It is only the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis: “Will you raise ‘taxes’?”
This is even more inane, however, when it comes to health care, because the benefits of alternative health care systems are not difficult to measure, as they are with better schools or fewer car accidents. In health care, we can predict with serious confidence that total costs will go down with a Warren-like plan, period. Yet political junkies insist that the only important question is whether taxes will go up, even though taxes are but one small part of the big picture.
In particular, people like Mayor Pete Buttigieg have been claiming that Senator Elizabeth Warren is being “evasive” by refusing to answer this meaningless question. Indeed, many political insiders’ (journalists as well as pundits) big takeaway from this week’s Democratic debate in Ohio is that Warren was damaged by her steely refusal to answer the tax question.
All of these insiders seem to be asking a question that is, in fact, laughable when stated bluntly: Why won’t Warren take the same high road that did Fritz Mondale so much good?
In The Washington Post, for example, one of their oh-so-knowing political journalists offered a standard (and meaningless) “winners versus losers” summary of Tuesday’s debate, with “The question Warren won’t answer” on the “Losers” list. The writer noted that “Warren was given four chances to answer the question she has thus far refused to directly answer.” (Four? Ooh, it must be important!)
Meanwhile, in The New York Times, a reporter came up with “six takeaways” from the debate, concluding that Buttigieg had a big night, including his attacks on Warren’s refusal to answer the oft-repeated (and meaningless) question about taxes. The reporter then drily added in parentheses: “She says her plan would curb middle-class ‘costs.’” Those scare quotes around the word costs are in The Times’s article, as if Warren were somehow making up a strange new idea that people might actually care about what something will cost them, no matter the labeling.
But there is nothing clever or smart about obsessing over the specific label that we attach to the money that people pay for their health care. Call them Warren-Bucks, for all I care. Again, what people are concerned about is how many dollars they pay—no matter what we call those dollars—and the current system costs many more dollars than it should.
Even though this is a silly question, journalists (and even sympathetic talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert) continue to insist to Warren that using the T-word is a matter of great import. According to The Post, Warren received “pushback from across the stage, including from Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and even gently from Sanders, who again forthrightly admitted taxes would go up under his plan.” (If Sanders wants to play it that way, he is of course free to do so. But he is simply off base in suggesting that Warren is wrong to refuse to baited.)
Klobuchar intoned: “At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.” But of course Warren has laid this out, just without using that dreaded word.
Not to be outdone on the smart-alecky scale, Buttigieg said: “Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything, except for this.” Again, that is wrong, but he continues to level the charge that Warren is being evasive.
But this has it exactly backward. Buttigieg, after all, is in favor of adding a so-called public option, which keeps most of the current health care system in place—the same U.S. health system that costs at least fifty percent more per citizen than the system in any other advanced country in the world. Buttigieg is thus in favor of continuing to spend at least a trillion dollars per year more than we might spend if we changed course.
As it happens, and as I will discuss in a moment, I happen to think that Buttigieg is correct in his political calculation, but that is not the same thing as saying that Warren is the one who is being evasive. Buttigieg is, in fact, engaged in a serious game of dodge-and-duck.
- Question: Your plan will cost more than Senator Warren’s, won’t it? In fact, a lot more?
- Buttigieg: Hey, did you notice that fewer of the dollars that people will be spending under my plan will be called ‘taxes’?
That no one even thought to put that question to Buttigieg simply tells us how perverse the political conversation has become. But we must ask: Who is being evasive, and why is it so important to affix the T-word to some dollars but not to others?
There are those who would excuse this baseless attack by saying that Republicans are going to say all of this in the general election anyway, so Warren and others should be prepared with an answer. But that ignores the effect that the current conversation has on the public’s understanding. If Republicans, Democrats, and journalists are all saying, “Yes, your plan is cheaper, but what we should truly care about is that the dollars that are labeled ‘taxes’ will increase,” then what are voters to think?
For Warren to say that this is merely a Republican talking point is thus not a dodge. In fact, it is entirely the point. Of course we will have this conversation during the general election, but Democrats need to set the table for that discussion now as honestly and clearly as they can, rather than doing Republicans’ work for them.
To get a sense of how through-the-looking-glass this entire discussion has become, consider the normally excellent Times op-ed columnist David Leonhardt’s column after the debate, published under the ominous headline: “The Question Warren Won’t Answer.”
After he accurately describes her position and says (correctly) that her response amounts to saying that we should not “get bogged down in the hoary old tax question,” he then says this: “On the narrow substance of the issue, she’s right. Focusing only on taxes is pointless. But in a larger way, she’s wrong.”
Think about that for a moment: She’s right, but so what? I am not so naïve as to think that the substantively right answer is always a political winner, of course. What I do object to is the way that Leonhardt joins in the pile-on, because he is saying that “political viability” is the key even as he makes it more likely that people will continue to ask Warren what is in fact a profoundly stupid question, which only makes the political slog harder for Democrats.
Leonhardt then suggests that Warren “needs to engage with the political realities — with how she would overcome people’s resistance to giving up their health insurance for a larger new program that, yes, would require a tax increase.” Why not instead end that sentence with “… that, yes, would reduce people’s costs”? Why is “political reality” about answering a question that is always dishonest and is always framed in a way that harms Democrats?
I have no reason to think that Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Leonhardt is deliberately trying to poison the debate, but I do think that they are all being at best deeply cynical. Leonhardt suggests that Warren’s
“… best answer involves finding a way to signal her openness to a transition, in which people who want to keep their private insurance can do so (and taxes don’t yet need to rise) while Medicare initially expands voluntarily. That idea is hugely popular.”
That might be right. Even so, someone in Leonhardt’s position could use his influence to suggest that Warren would be well advised to take a more go-it-slow approach without giving credence to the baseless idea that, as Leonhardt has it, “her vagueness … isn’t very satisfying in the moment.”
Again, Elizabeth Warren is not—repeat not—being vague. She is unambiguously refusing to answer a loaded question, because she knows that every news outlet would play only the first five words of her saying: “My plan will raise taxes but would reduce other costs by more than that.” She knows when people are trying to egg her into a blunder.
I am happy to say, by the way, that I wrote my first draft of this column before seeing that Margaret Sullivan, a columnist for The Post who previously was the best Public Editor that The Times ever saw, had written this:
Journalists are kindly doing President Trump’s work for him when they insist on trying to pin down Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), the new front-runner, to declare she’d raise taxes to fund Medicare-for-all. Of course, it’s legitimate to dig into the costs, but not in a way that creates a nice GOP campaign ad, and misses the larger lens of overall costs. (Warren, notably, refused to take the bait.)
We obviously can do better, but as Sullivan so cogently points out, we must stop obsessing about empty labels. Again, I think that Warren is wrong to insist that she could immediately implement a full-on single-payer system (even though I wish we could do so), and Buttigieg and others are probably right that a public option is a politically necessary intermediate step.
To paraphrase Leonhardt, however, even if Buttigieg is right on the narrow timing point, he is wrong on the larger political issue. Democrats do not win when they accuse each other of being tax lovers, and certainly not when they claim that one of their own is being somehow not “straight” with people. They win when they can convince voters that their proposals will actually make people’s lives better.
We do well to remember that if Buttigieg becomes the nominee, Republicans will surely call his plan a big-spending Socialist boondoggle that will increase taxes for the middle class—which it would (in the sense that the word “tax” is used in this silly debate), because even a public option would cost a lot of money over time. (It would certainly be money well spent, but again, talking about the wisdom of spending is for some reason forbidden in this context.) Having Buttigieg on tape hounding his former primary opponent for not being willing to admit that “taxes will go up” is a Christmas morning gift that the Republicans will gladly unwrap and play with, over and over and over.
Pete Buttigieg should know better, and he certainly should stop evasively shifting the blame onto Elizabeth Warren.