Column: The trouble with ‘Build Back Better’ is no one really wants to pay for it

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks with reporters.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 30 about the short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Here is a very basic fact: People tend to be in favor of getting stuff for free. Ask most people, “Do you want a fancy new Mercedes?” and they’ll probably respond, “Yes.” But ask them to pay full price for it and demand drops dramatically.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is very upset that the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” package is stalled. “Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for the $3.5-trillion Build Back Better legislation,” Sanders said on Friday, “and the need to lower prescription drug costs, expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision ...” and so on.

But as Charlie Cooke wrote in National Review, the statement refutes itself. In the next paragraph, Sanders says, “polling also shows that despite President Biden having introduced this proposal five months ago, a majority of Americans have very little knowledge as to what is in this bill.” Sanders adds, “It is hard to ask people to have faith in their government when they have little understanding of what their government is trying to do.”


As Cooke rightly notes, it’s odd to simultaneously claim that a bill is overwhelmingly popular and that a majority of Americans have no idea what’s in it.

For this problem, Sanders blames the mainstream media for failing to educate the public. “The foundations of American democracy are threatened not only by extremism, but by ignorance and lack of knowledge,” he exclaims.

I’m all for dispelling ignorance, but Sanders is perpetuating a myth that harms democracy too — specifically, that massive social welfare states are wildly popular with American voters.

In 2016, Vox polled Bernie Sanders’ proposals for nationalized healthcare and free college tuition. They didn’t poll the public; they polled Bernie Sanders’ own supporters. Not surprisingly, respondents favored single-payer healthcare. But when asked if they’d be willing to personally pay more for it, support dropped. Two thirds said the most they’d be willing to pay in additional taxes for “free” healthcare was $1,000 per year, about $83 per month. This number includes the 8% of Sanders supporters who said they wouldn’t be willing to pay anything for universal healthcare.

Cheap socialists aren’t the story here. Americans in general don’t want to pay much of anything for the stuff progressives constantly say America is demanding.

A Washington Post poll in 2019 found that 68% of Americans supported taxing “wealthy families” to pay for fighting climate change. But when asked if they would agree to pay an extra $2 a month on their electric bills, support fell to fewer than 47%. That same year, an AP-NORC poll asked people if they’d be willing to spend $10 more a month in their energy bills to fight climate change. Some 68% of respondents said nope.

This is where the truly dangerous ignorance begins. For years now, voters have been told that the rich and greedy corporations are an untapped renewable resource that can pay for everything and anything. That’s false. You could confiscate all of the wealth of the top 1% and it wouldn’t come close to covering the bill for, say, the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may turn heads by scrawling “tax the rich” on her ball gowns, but the truth is we already do — at a remarkably progressive rate.

I don’t believe Biden’s promise that his $3.5-trillion package won’t cost everyone making less $400,000 per year a single penny. But let’s just pretend it’s true. In the market, popularity is determined by what people are willing to pay for out of their own pockets. However, in progressive politics — and in much of the mainstream media — popularity is determined by what people are willing to have other people pay for.

Even if the rich could pay for it all, democracy isn’t enriched when voters think one very small class of people is greedily standing in the way of economic salvation.

When populist politicians say it would be easy to deliver that salvation but then fail to do it, voters feel betrayed and the politicians shift blame to sinister and corrupt forces (the “1%,” special interests, evil corporations) or allegedly outdated obstacles to progress like the filibuster or even the Constitution itself.

That sense of betrayal doesn’t foster healthy politics. It leads to “extreme” demagogues promising to deliver what they claim the corrupt establishment could not.