How Pols Will Spin Five Key 2020 Issues
Millions of voters remain undecided about the presidential and congressional candidates. They’ll continue watching this year’s debates, primaries, and town halls with inquisitiveness and confusion. And candidates on both sides will only compound the muddle by addressing the issues with their own combinations of substance and spin.
That isn’t to say that candidates aren’t telling any truths. Many, however, are simply not likely to tell all of them. Voters should be aware of the blind spots in their debate statements and campaign promises and use them as a starting point for further research.
On that note, here are five truly urgent issues that will come up over and over this election season — and how the candidates could duck and dodge.
Deficit and Debt
Debate moderators often state that the public debt is spinning out of control. And they’re right: The Congressional Budget Office recently forecast trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, piling up debt faster than our GDP is growing. That cannot keep going on, and the problem will not solve itself.
Candidates always answer that their wish lists of tax cuts and new spending programs are “paid for.” But that is not an answer. First of all, the public debt is already exploding. Paying for a new program leaves us with the spiraling deficits with which we started. Beyond that, the “pay-fors” are often vaporware. They are fantasies like a “wealth tax,” which has failed repeatedly in other countries and will have accountants moving and hiding assets by the billable hour. Or they are retreads like “penny-plan” across-the-board spending cuts that will not apply to Social Security, Medicare, or interest on the debt — the only programs that are actually growing and building the debt.
Candidates will claim that their pet projects and tax cuts will pump up economic growth. They will ignore that today’s slow-growth economy is built on past “pro-growth” tax cuts and spending programs. And they also won’t mention that their fanciful “pay-fors,” if they happen at all, will directly lose jobs by taking money out of the economy.
And don’t expect an explanation of how we’ll have millions of new jobs generating massive new growth, while the unemployment rate is already at a 50-year low, with slow economic growth and a massive, growing deficit and debt.
Rising health care costs are busting family budgets — so voters really care. Rising Medicare costs are busting the federal budget. Some candidates will say that they will solve the problem for families by putting them on the federal plan. Don’t expect to hear that we should create a new system that will encourage the creation of new versions of the most successful existing private health care plans — the kinds of plans that both experts and typical citizens say they wish they could have to deliver their care.
Some candidates seem almost to believe that America should export, but not import. They try to appeal to the voters with promises of tariffs that will supposedly protect U.S. jobs. They need to understand that about half of U.S. imports are materials (including those that we do not have within our borders), tools and assemblies that US exporters use to build their products.
Several candidates advocate some form of free college, as well as blanket forgiveness of student loans. They say that the cost of college is keeping worthy students out of school, and that the loans that young adults carry are holding them back in life. All true — to some extent. But many well-off parents and their well-off kids with outstanding loans already have expensive degrees and have landed good jobs. Many parents and even students worked hard to pay tuition in real time instead of borrowing. And looking forward, having government pay tuition for affluent families would be far too expensive, and grossly unfair.
Our Aging Workforce
And here’s an issue the candidates won’t talk about at all: America is getting older. The baby boom is becoming the senior boom. That makes it harder to achieve economic growth: The nation can’t produce more output if it doesn’t have the workers to do it. Getting those workers requires pulling more adult Americans into the workforce; upgrading their skills; and attracting talent in key fields — which include but are not limited to cutting-edge technology — from all around the world.
In politics, as in the rest of life, if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. The reasoning behind many eye-catching promises is shallow, and “too good to check.” The harsh reality of a nation sinking in debt and struggling to pay its health care bills doesn’t make a cheery campaign rally. But if the United States is going to maintain its prosperity and leadership in this challenging world, it’s time to really face up, and the voters should hold their would-be “leaders” to that standard.
Joseph J. Minarik is senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board. He served as chief economist at the White House Office of Management and Budget for eight years under President Clinton.