James Kwak (Dean Baker makes the same point):
Bernie Sanders Wants to Spend $18 Trillion: So What?: The front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article claiming that Bernie Sanders wants to increase federal government spending by $18 trillion over the next ten years—an increase of about one-third over that time period. This was apparently supposed to raise some kind of alarm—what kind of maniac is this?—and I’m sure both Republicans and Hillary Clinton are happy the Journal is doing their work for them.
The problem is that a spending figure, even one as big as $18 trillion, is meaningless on its own.
Most of that money—$15 trillion—is the expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans. Yes, that’s a lot of money. But we are already spending a ton of money on health care—with embarrassingly poor results. In 2013,... Americans ... paid ... $1.4 trillion... Project that out for ten years, add health care inflation, and you’re talking about a lot more than $15 trillion.
At the end of the day, what matters isn’t the amount of money that the federal government spends for health care. What matters is the amount of money that the American people spend for health care. The government is just a device that we use to provide certain services that are better handled collectively than individually. If the government can provide equivalent service at lower prices, then the gross dollar amount involved doesn’t matter. ...
Now the big issue, I admit, is whether the government can provide equivalent service at lower prices. For the vast majority of consumer goods and services, it can’t. ... But real economists have known for more than half a century that health care doesn’t behave like ordinary consumer goods. ...
If you don’t want to read economics papers, the best evidence that health care is different comes from comparing the United States to other rich countries, which all have something closer to a single payer model for health insurance. As is well known, we spend a lot more money and have comparable or worse aggregate health outcomes. There is a huge ongoing adebate about why this is, which I’m not going to try to settle here.
The main point, however, is that if you want to argue against the Bernie Sanders health care plan, you have to make the case that Medicare for all will actually produce worse outcomes or higher costs than our current system. The fact that it costs a lot of money is beside the point.