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Forget About the Price Tag

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York

When it comes to fiscal policy, pundits love to talk about price tags. Whether discussing President Biden’s proposed “$3.5 trillion” reconciliation bill, or the “$1.9 trillion” American Rescue Plan, right-leaning political commentators, journalists, and politicians marry the names of policies to their price tags. However, conservative voices such as those of South Carolina Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham are not the only ones who ‘price-tag’ their opponents’ proposals. In fact, Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer have also consistently referred to the Build Back Better reconciliation by its cost. Because price-tagging casts the cost of a certain policy in a negative light, and overlooks the investments such policies make, progressives must rebrand their flagship policies without their costs in order to successfully advance their legislative agendas. 

Emphasizing the costs of fiscal stimulus packages omits the tremendous returns they generate for every American worker and the national economy. President Biden’s proposed “social-infrastructure” reconciliation package would provide universal pre-kindergarten and free two-year community college to all Americans, which would undoubtedly prepare an efficient next generation that would contribute tremendously to the economy. Additionally, the reconciliation package invests in affordable housing and clean energy jobs, building a more sustainable energy grid to power future American innovation. In addition to the benefits people across the country will reap, a strong economy will increase the government’s tax revenue for years to come, meaning that price-tagging misleads the true cost of such a bill. 

Ever since Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats unveiled their sweeping budget proposal in July, conservative legislators, strategists, and media networks immediately began slandering the proposal’s “socialist” size. Instead of focusing on what the bill would target and accomplish, as expected, Fox News nested a quote attributed to Chuck Schumer that reads, “you add that to the $600 billion bipartisan plan and you get $4.1 trillion,” right beneath an article’s headline. Former President Donald Trump went so far as to remark to his supporters that, “the Radical Democrats advanced a plan that will be known as the $3.5 trillion Communist Plan to Destroy America.” Republicans have weaponized the scope of the bill to fire up their supporters and convince the country that the bill goes too far. In their relentless opposition, Republicans have fused a negative “communist” connotation to the bill and its price tag, making many voters apprehensive when they hear the phrase “$3.5 trillion.”

Despite the negative association Republicans intertwined with the phrase “$3.5 trillion,” Democrats continue to reference the Build Back Better agenda exclusively by its price tag. In announcing the American Jobs and Families Plan, Chuck Schumer proclaimed that Senate Democrats had “reached a landmark agreement on a $3.5 trillion budget resolution.” Similarly, Senator Bernie Sanders wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion article titled, “Why We Need the $3.5 Trillion Reconciliation Package.” Although Sanders and Schumer seek to challenge the conservative assertion that $3.5T is too expensive, and instead claim it is the amount Americans need, the negative association Republicans generated detracts from their argument. By using the price tag to sell the proposal to constituents, Democrats perpetuate the negative stereotype fabricated by the Republican fear-mongering machine.

Fortunately, many progressives have since tread more carefully when referring to the Build Back Better bill, and no longer call it the “$3.5 trillion” reconciliation package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated in late September that the proposal is “not about [the] price tag. It’s about values – not dollars.” However, Republican messaging has already taken hold across the country. As compared to the phrases “Build Back Better” and “American Jobs and Families Plan,” Google users have searched for “3.5 trillion” significantly more frequently – a gap that widens even further specifically in West Virginia. Unsurprisingly, the Republican demagoguery has put sufficient pressure on Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to compel them to oppose the bill purely due to its “$3.5 trillion” size. Merely consider how frequently you’ve heard references to the $3.5 trillion cost over the last few months, and the Republicans’s successful fear mongering is evident.


This isn’t to dismiss valid claims about America’s astonishing level of national debt, which price-tagging somewhat quantifies. However, price-tagging implies that a bill’s cost will directly translate into a larger national debt, when in reality most bills’ costs – including that of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill – are largely offset by tax increases.

Not only does emphasizing the price tags of fiscal policies gloss over their immense benefits, it perpetuates political divisions in an already fragile political climate. If the political and media establishment as a whole continues to normalize the narrative of these price tags in all debates, our nation’s divides will only deepen – then again, polarization is likely the establishment’s exact intention. Seeing as Republican slander will remain relentless for the foreseeable future, Democrats must meticulously focus on how they brand their proposals – without price-tagging – in a positive light moving forward. 

Photo: Image via Flickr (Daniel Foster)