Bernie’s soda stumble

Sen. Bernie Sanders has managed to run a wildly and unexpectedly successful presidential campaign not just as a proud democratic socialist, but as a democratic socialist who unabashedly wants to raise your taxes.  While he leans most heavily on raising revenue out of the highest earners, he would also increase taxes on low-income and middle-class families to pay for a host of new government programs.

And a growing legion of Democratic primary voters have decided they are completely okay with this.  The Sanders campaign has insisted that voters consider both sides of the ledger, arguing that tax increases are worth it to pay for new government-provided goods like single-payer healthcare with reduced out-of-pocket costs, and like free college with no out-of-pocket tuition.  Millions of voters seem to agree.

This is a revolutionary political achievement.  Sanders has cracked the decades-old Democratic taboo that says it’s political suicide to even suggest middle-class tax hikes.  He has asked us to embrace not just Scandinavian-style policy, but a Scandinavian-style mindset that tolerates higher taxes in exchange for more collective goods and, in turn, more choice and freedom.

Which is why it is such a disappointment to see Sanders seemingly abandon these principles in the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary.  Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney has proposed to provide universal preschool for the city’s four-year olds.  He has also proposed paying for this initiative by implementing a soda tax, levying a 3 cents-per-ounce on sugary drinks.  As Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times explains, “That means a tax of $4.32 on a 12-pack of soda, which typically costs between $3 and $6 at the grocery store. It would come to 60 cents of tax on a 20-ounce bottle, which usually retails for about $2.”

Hillary Clinton came out in favor of the plan, implicitly arguing that universal pre-K is sufficiently important to justify the tax increase.  But Sanders strongly opposed the mayor’s plan.  He argued that it’s a regressive tax that disproportionately hits low-income consumers, who tend to buy more sugary drinks. “Mayor Kenney deserves praise for emphasizing the importance of universal pre-kindergarten,” he wrote in a Philadelphia op-ed.  “But at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, it should be the people on top who see an increase in their taxes, not low-income and working people.”

There are a few curiosities about Sanders’s position.  For one, a tax on soda would hardly be the first sin tax to disproportionately impact the poor.  Mayor Kenney’s plan is reminiscent of the Clinton administration’s Children’s Health Insurance initiative, which provided healthcare for low-income children and was funded by an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes.  Yet low-income Americans tend to be heavier smokers than the wealthy, meaning that the poor bear the brunt of higher cigarette taxes.

In their recent legislative biography of 1990s era Ted Kennedy, authors Nick Littlefield and David Nexon explain the political strategy behind this funding scheme for CHIP.  By paying for a new government program through a tax increase targeted at cigarette smokers and manufacturers, congressional liberals were able to catalyze public health groups as a constituency backing the proposal as a counterweight to opposition conservative anti-tax interest groups.  When tax increases are more diffuse, the anti-tax groups often go unopposed during the legislative process.  In this way, liberals were able to ride the momentum of the anti-smoking push of the 1990s to finance an important new social program.

Today in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney is attempting to replicate this strategy by garnering support from public health organizations to counter the anti-tax messaging of conservative groups and the American Beverage Association.  Like cigarette taxes, a soda tax can be pitched as not just a funding stream, but a good in itself as a health-improving deterrent against bad consumption habits.  Kenney is making the same calculation today that Kennedy, Clinton, and other liberals made in the 1990s: that any regressive impact of a sin tax is outweighed by both the health gains from the tax and the gains for poor children from the program the tax is funding.

This is a quintessentially Sanders style of analysis, which is why it’s so odd to see him dispensing with it at this stage of the game.  Take Sanders’s proposal for free college tuition.  Sanders has proposed treating public college the same way we treat K-12 education, where all students can attend for free.  It turns out that this is a fundamentally regressive proposal.  The rich reap most of the benefits from free college, largely because they tend to attend more expensive schools, and because colleges already impose a sort of private progressive redistribution via financial aid packages.

Sanders justifies his free college plan by arguing that any regressive impact is counteracted by his progressive tax plan—that the rich will more than pay their fair share through higher taxes.  Specifically, he plans to pay for free college through a tax on Wall Street high-frequency financial transactions.  Here, Sanders asks us to consider both sides of the ledger, arguing that it’s worth enacting a somewhat regressive social program—one that disproportionately benefits the rich—coupled with a progressive funding scheme.

Philadelphia’s pre-K plan is the opposite: a progressive social program coupled with a somewhat regressive funding scheme.  But Sanders isn’t evaluating both sides of the ledger now.  It would be one thing if he was arguing that the value of universal pre-K is too uncertain to justify a regressive new tax.  Given the uneven findings around the long-term impact of pre-K, it’s a case he certainly could be making.

But Sanders isn’t making that argument.  He agrees that pre-K is important, but nonetheless rejects Philadelphia’s plan out of hand because it relies on a “totally regressive tax.”

Bernie is better than this.  He has done wonders to shake the Democratic Party out of its fear-driven Tax Pledge Lite dogma.  Just five months after saying “I don’t see how you can be serious about raising working and middle-class families’ incomes if you also want to slap new taxes on them—no matter what the taxes will pay for,” Hillary Clinton herself has come around to embrace a tax that impacts low- and middle-income Philadelphians.  That quick evolution, however slight, is directly traceable to Sanders proving that it’s not a political death knell to raise taxes outside of the top 5 percent.

To get a robust social insurance system in the United States, our debate can’t just focus on taxes in isolation.  Instead, Americans must look at both costs of a policy and its benefits, and decide if a given program is a good deal.  If they come to agree that new social insurance programs are worth paying for, that’s a far bigger achievement for liberalism than telling Americans they can have new benefits paid for entirely by the rich’s money.

That is the reasoned calculus the Sanders campaign has been offering throughout the 2016 primary.  While a progressive tax code should of course tilt toward taxing the rich, the scope of Sanders’s social democratic vision also requires broad-based buy-in from working Americans.  He shouldn’t abandon a message with massive long-term political import for the sake of a futile last-ditch effort to win cheap political points.

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