Senator Bernie Sanders has never demurred when talking about what the American people should get for “free” from the federal government. To hear him tell it, every citizen should have a free education, free health care, and free paid family and medical leave. Of course, none of these things are free, and no amount legislation can make them so. The most government can do is to shift the costs of these things from people who use them to people who don’t, and, in the process, establish the federal government as an omnipresent middleman.
But now Sanders has turned his attention to jobs, saying that he wants to guarantee one to every American.
With this, Sanders is working from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 playbook. In his State of the Union address that year, FDR brought together the intellectual progressive tradition, which began with Herbert Croly’s 1909 book “The Promise of American Life,” with the political progressive tradition typified by the presidencies of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. That speech included what has come to be known as the “Second Bill of Rights.”
Often referred to as an “economic bill of rights,” Roosevelt’s vision included rights to education, medical care, unemployment insurance and retirement benefits, among other things. This progressive vision set in motion a massive increase in the size and scope of government necessary to secure these new rights. From 1789 until 1934, federal spending averaged less than 3 percent of GDP. From 1935 on, federal spending grew almost sevenfold to 19 percent. Enter Bernie Sanders.
One of the few things in Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights that remains unrealized in 2018 is the “right to a useful and remunerative job.” According to an early draft of his potential legislation, Sanders’ plan would guarantee every American a job that pays $15 an hour and provides health care benefits. This would be accomplished through government funding of hundreds of infrastructure, care-giving, education and other projects. People who are unqualified for any of the available jobs would receive federally funded job training in order to become so.
Like Roosevelt before him, Sanders gives no indication as to how this new, expansive program will be funded. Roosevelt left that to others to figure out, just as Sanders now does. And therein lies the rub. Roosevelt’s progressive vision yielded a suite of social programs, but at a tremendous cost. By the end of World War II, the federal debt was $270 billion.
Since then, the debt has since grown almost 7,500 percent to a point that is mathematically unsustainable. The massive spending has been mostly driven by two things: Social Security benefits and Medicare/Medicaid benefits. Just these two planks of Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights account for more than half of all federal spending, and almost three times total military spending.
We can’t afford just the part of Roosevelt’s progressive vision that was enacted, so how can we expect to afford even more? Because if we decide that everyone has a right to a job, then we empower the government to force us to provide those jobs. No matter the cost.
And it will cost. Just like every other right created from that day to this. That’s the part of the program that Bernie Sanders would prefer you not consider. As with Roosevelt, Sanders will be long gone by the time the monstrous bill comes due. He can afford to ignore the price tag. The rest of us cannot.