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Putting a price on Bernie Sanders' vision

The Wall Street Journal put an $18 price tag on Bernie Sanders' agenda. The senator says that's "significantly exaggerated." Which is it?
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. gestures during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (Photo by Steve Helber/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. gestures during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.
The Wall Street Journal published a headline yesterday that was bound to raise some eyebrows: "Price Tag of Bernie Sanders’s Proposals: $18 Trillion." The article itself described a presidential candidate with an agenda so ambitious that that its costs are effectively prohibitive.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose liberal call to action has propelled his long-shot presidential campaign, is proposing an array of new programs that would amount to the largest peacetime expansion of government in modern American history. In all, he backs at least $18 trillion in new spending over a decade, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal, a sum that alarms conservatives and gives even many Democrats pause.

The WSJ analysis didn't just pull that figure out of thin air, of course. The paper tallied up estimates for many of the independent senator's key priorities: $15 trillion to expand Medicare to all Americans; $1.2 trillion for expanded Social Security benefits; $1 trillion in infrastructure investments, and so on.
So which is it? Is Sanders' agenda really carrying an $18 trillion price tag or are these totals "significantly exaggerated"? Reality clearly leans in the Vermonter's direction.
The bulk of the $18 trillion -- more than four-fifths -- goes towards Sanders' health-care plan, which has not yet been released in any detail, prompting the Wall Street Journal to use similar, related proposals. The problem with the figure is that it lacks context -- as Mother Jones' Kevin Drum explained, "[T]his is money we already spend."

Right now, employers and workers pay insurance companies $1 trillion for health care. Under Bernie's plan, we'd instead pay that money to the federal government. Generally speaking, this would be invisible to most of us. Behind the scenes, our dollars would flow to a different place, and that's about it. So the Sanders plan wouldn't actually take money out of our pockets. It's a wash. [...] You may or may not like the idea of universal health care, but it wouldn't have much impact on how much money you actually take home each week.

Remember, nearly every major, industrialized democracy on the planet has already adopted government-run or regulated-care systems that are universal and cost less than ours.
What's more, as Paul Waldman explained in the Washington Post, this approach can be applied broadly to other parts of Sanders' agenda: "[W]hile Sanders does want to spend significant amounts of money, almost all of it is on things we’re already paying for; he just wants to change how we pay for them. In some ways it’s by spreading out a cost currently borne by a limited number of people to all taxpayers. His plan for free public college would do this: right now, it’s paid for by students and their families, while under Sanders’ plan we’d all pay for it in the same way we all pay for parks or the military or food safety."
The WSJ article isn't ridiculous, so much as it paints a picture that's easily misunderstood. A typical news consumer might see the article, read the price tag, and think, "We don't have $18 trillion, so Sanders' agenda is obviously outrageous."
But to assume that the presidential candidate is describing $18 trillion in additional spending, on top of what the nation is already paying, is plainly incorrect.