Biden Presidency: Democrats’ Competing Priorities Threaten Agenda

President Joe Biden speaks about coronavirus vaccine booster shots at the White House in Washington, D.C., September 24, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Over at MSNBC, Steve Benen of the Rachel Maddow show and blog has an article with a title and subtitle that announce right up front that it is asking its readers to believe something ridiculous:

Why Biden says his plan costs ‘nothing’ (and why he’s right)
When the president insists the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan will cost “nothing,” he has a point. It all comes down to net and gross costs.

This is a reference to Biden’s “American Families Plan,” or “Build Back Better Act,” or whatever new name they roll out every few days as if they are smuggling a deposed dictator incognito out of a country a few steps ahead of the firing squad. Ditto the insistence on rebranding welfare spending as “infrastructure” or “investment.” I addressed another in the same genre of gaslighting its readers when Eric Levitz claimed that “$3.5 Trillion Is Not a Lot of Money” even though the plan is actually designed to spend much more than that by becoming a permanent fixture of the annual budget for the rest of eternity. Mind you, we do not yet have a formal score from the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation (not that either of those is likely to be accurate, as opposed to authoritative). At least one recent effort to quantify the real cost came in at $5.48 trillion.

Still, the talking points have gone out from the White House, which now says, in bald-faced denial of reality, that the bill will cost “zero dollars.” When the Trump administration said things like this — Mexico is actually paying for the wall! — plenty of conservative journalists, even those who favored a border wall, noted that no, that was not actually happening. But progressive journalists play a different game. If a Democratic White House says that a progressive priority costs nothing at all, then by Jove, there must be articles and blog posts dutifully explaining to the poor, benighted readers that the White House is right, and trillions of dollars in spending are just going to magically have no cost. Hence, you get articles like this one.

Here is Benen’s argument:

The $3.5 trillion figure is a gross cost, which doesn’t include proposed tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations to help pay for the domestic investments. As far as the White House is concerned, that makes a world of difference: If Democrats intend to invest $3.5 trillion, but they also intend to pay for all that without adding to the national debt, then for all intents and purposes, the package costs nothing…in broad strokes, the bottom line remains the same: Biden and his party are making a good-faith effort to pay for practically all of these new investments, which is far more than anyone can credibly say about Republicans and their recent initiatives. When the president insists his plan will cost “nothing,” he has a point.

Well, no. Biden and the Democrats are not paying for the bill. Taxpayers are. If the bill added $3.5 trillion in new spending and paid for it with $3.5 trillion in offsetting spending cuts, you could plausibly argue (in Washington logic) that it actually costs zero dollars because you ended up spending the same amount of money. But Benen’s own reasoning admits that $3.5 trillion in additional spending is being paid for by “proposed tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations.” In other words, more money will be spent, and the cost will be paid by American citizens and their businesses to the government.

What Benen is actually arguing is that the bill costs the government zero dollars because the government will — as it always does — take the money from someone else, and in theory, will take it in present taxes rather than future taxes. (As Phil Klein has noted and even the Washington Post‘s “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler points out, the proposals as presented so far do not even add up by that metric; even Benen has to concede that he doesn’t know if they will.) At least Donald Trump, when he made this argument about the border wall, had enough respect for his audience to pretend that he was going to squeeze the money out of some foreigners. Benen is telling his readers that this is free money while admitting that it actually requires trillions of dollars being taken forcibly out of the hides of the American people.

The same logical fallacy pervades the effort by Benen and others to compare the spending bill to tax cuts. As David Harsanyi has noted, tax cuts do not actually cost you, the taxpayer, anything (at least, not unless they involve spending disguised as tax “credits” to people who pay no taxes). Tax cuts only cost the government money, not the American people.

Anyone with a modest understanding of how the world works can see that Benen’s analysis is a crock. The fact that he thinks his readers won’t see that says quite a lot.

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