The Mammoth Costs of Doing Nothing or Too Little

Robert Reich / Robert Reich's Substack
The Mammoth Costs of Doing Nothing or Too Little "The frequently-asked question 'how are we going to pay for it?' is nonsensical without an assessment of the costs of doing nothing," writes Robert Reich. (photo: Getty)

It's time to change the way we think about public policy

I’ve been implementing or teaching public policy for five decades (OMG has it really been that long?), and I never cease to be amazed at what occurs when the bean counters and columnists have at it.

You’re going to hear a lot in the next day or two about the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of the cost of Biden’s Build Back Better plan, along with how much of it will be covered by proposed taxes. Beware. Putting aside the accuracy of these estimates, the exercise omits the cost of doing nothing.

Tackling climate change will be expensive, but doing nothing about climate change will cost far more. If we don’t adopt ambitious measures, untold numbers of lives will be lost and trillions will be spent coping with the consequences of our failure.

Expanding Medicare would be costly, but the price of not doing so will be in the stratosphere. The nation already pays more for health care per person and has worse health outcomes than any other advanced country. (It’s estimated that Medicare for All would save $450 billion and prevent 68,000 unnecessary deaths every year.)

Investing in universal childcare, universal pre-K, and public higher education will be expensive, too, but the cost of not making these investments will be astronomical. American productivity is already suffering, and millions of families can’t afford decent childcare or college.

It’s not just official bean counters who are failing to assess the cost of doing nothing. The media also focuses on the costs of tackling big problems without mentioning the costs of doing nothing about them. Journalists wanting to appear serious about public policy routinely rip into progressives for the costs of their proposals but never criticize so-called “moderates” for the costs of doing nothing or too little about the same problems.

The frequently-asked question “how are we going to pay for it?” is similarly nonsensical without an assessment of the costs of doing nothing. Even if taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations were to cover only a fraction of the costs of tackling a large worsening problem, so what? As long as the costs of tackling it are less than the future costs of not doing so, it makes logical sense to tackle it.

Republican administrations have repeatedly doled out gigantic tax cuts to big corporations and the wealthy without first announcing specific cuts in public spending or other tax increases to pay for them because -- despite decades of evidence to the contrary -- they claim that the cuts will generate economic growth that will more than make up for any lost revenue. Yet when progressives propose ambitious plans for reducing verifiable costs of large and growing public problems, they’re skewered for not having ways to pay for them.

Finally and relatedly, I’m often barraged by conservatives claiming that progressive proposals are just too big. This argument might be convincing if the problems were growing slowly. But experts on climate change, the state of the nation’s health, and childcare and education are nearly unanimous in their view that all these are worsening exponentially.

Cautious incrementalism is wise under most circumstances. But where headwinds are turning into gales, incrementalism drives us backwards. Calling progressives “extremists” or “radicals” is absurd when they’re seeking to remedy problems that are themselves extreme and will radically harm Americans if left unattended. The status quo is not sustainable. (In my experience, young people understand all this, perhaps because they’ll live longer than the rest of us and bear the brunt of the cost of inaction.)

We can no longer pretend that climate change, a wildly-dysfunctional health care system, lack of childcare, deteriorating schools, and unaffordable higher education pose small or insignificant challenges. Doing nothing or too little about these problems has made all of them worse — and will make them far worse if we continue to do nothing or too little.

Obsessing about the costs of addressing them without acknowledging the costs of failing to address them is dangerously irresponsible.

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