A candidate committed to repairing our American Dream.
As we enter the final weeks of the presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders continues to raise substantial sums and campaign aggressively, forcing Hillary Clinton to tilt leftward and run for the nomination rather than prepare for the general election by moving to the center and attacking the Republicans. On the Republican side, John Kasich is doggedly determined to make it to Cleveland. He is hoping that convention delegates will favor electability and governing experience over a megalomaniac wannabe dictator and an assault weapon-toting culture warrior with a penchant for government shutdowns. Given this unusual state of play, Generation X+ still has a chance to shape the races, and we should use it send our own message: We support candidates who have credible plans for repairing both components of the American Dream – generational justice and economic opportunity.
The central duty underlying the American Dream – that each generation has a responsibility to leave the country better off than they found it — receives relatively little attention from most political candidates. Why would it? The most important and tangible policy commitment to this duty – reforming Social Security and Medicare — is decidedly unpopular with the elderly (who, unlike Generation X, actually vote). The only candidate who can credibly claim to be interested in entitlement reform is Mr. Kasich.
Mr. Kasich is also the only candidate interested in curbing the debt burden on younger generations. No other candidate wants to talk about our debt because it makes it harder to pander. Mr. Kasich, however, wants everyone to know that the cost of servicing the debt, which is growing by the minute, is going to explode when interest rates begin to rise. When younger voters go to the polls, we should think about the highly-educated and unemployed younger citizens of the so-called PIGS of Europe – Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain – and ask ourselves whether our increasingly large public debt could negatively impact our future.
There is one generational justice issue that does receive a substantial amount of attention, at least from the Democratic political candidates – the environment. The candidates are legitimately worried about the kind of country (and world) we will leave younger generations, even if some of their positions on combatting climate change are purely political (e.g., attacking big oil and coal but not the cattle and dairy industries) or lamentably laughable (e.g., blaming environmental policies on the Citizens United case). Although they are both environmentalists, Mrs. Clinton’s proposals for transitioning to a lower-carbon future are far more sensible and economically feasible than Mr. Sanders’ “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to combatting climate change.
The leading Republicans, by contrast, prefer to discuss “energy independence” and ignore the environment altogether. Only Mr. Kasich, a self-described “common sense” environmentalist, has a shred of credibility on environmental issues.
Mr. Kasich and Mrs. Clinton both seem to appreciate that environmental progress cannot come at the expense of economic opportunity. Although they do not frame it as a generational justice issue, it is. Generational justice is not served by growing our economy while watching sea levels rise or by bankrupting our children while saving polar bears. We must balance these objectives.
As much as political candidates avoid generational justice, they love talking about economic opportunity. Every candidate has a plan to improve economic opportunity, running the gamut from expanding subsidies for college education, to increasing the minimum wage, to reducing immigration (to increase jobs and wages), to increasing immigration by highly-skilled workers (to spur entrepreneurship and growth), to reducing income tax rates, to increasing taxes on workers and the “wealthy,” to increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, to curbing regulations (to spur growth).
When assessing these proposals for expanding economic opportunities, it is important to look behind the curtain to see if they are consistent with the notion that everyone should have an opportunity to realize their fullest potential through hard work. The American Dream is not about entitlements or particular outcomes, it is about macro political and economic conditions – creating an environment where individuals face no artificial barriers in their quest to achieve their goals and reach their fullest potential.
With this is in mind, here are some questions to consider when assessing the economic opportunity policies of the presidential candidates:
- Do the policies reward everyone equally or benefit those who work hard?
- Who best understands the role of government in preparing people for success in a 21st Century global economy?
- Has the candidate accurately identified the barriers to economic opportunity and developed narrowly tailored policies to reduce those barriers (e.g., should we worry more about the cost of higher education or the fact that a young person can obtain a college degree and nonetheless be woefully unprepared for the job market)?
- Do the policies promote a particular educational outcome (e.g., everyone should have a college degree) or focus on providing a more rigorous educational environment that prepares people for a wide array of occupations (e.g., expand and reform early childhood through high school education, support vocational training and community college programs designed to prepare people for skilled work in various trades and high-end manufacturing, and tie student loan subsidies to student and academic institution performance)?
- Do the policies encourage moral hazard (e.g., encourage people to take on too much debt knowing that they can default with little or no penalty)?
- What are the unintended consequences, and are they outweighed by the benefits (e.g., would a minimum wage increase make economic sense if it would cause widespread job losses and/or price increases)?
- Who pays? Are the policies designed to encourage economic benefits today that will be paid for tomorrow, thereby violating the principle of generational justice?
- Do the economics make sense? What do history, economics, and social science teach us about the efficacy of various proposals?
Unfortunately, the candidates all display weaknesses when assessed against these criteria. Mr. Trump advocates for a return to 1930s economic policy (remember how well that worked?) and his tax reform plan would benefit the wealthy more than anyone else. Mr. Cruz has a novel tax reform proposal that would likely accelerate growth (along with his other economic policy prescriptions), but the effect on our debt-to-GDP ratio is uncertain and some of his proposed spending reductions could be counterproductive. Mr. Kasich may be too focused on a balanced budget and debt reduction, which could undermine his efforts to spur economic growth. Mr. Sanders’ proposals carry a high risk of economic catastrophe, and he cannot pay for them even with the much higher tax rates he proposes on the wealthy and middle class. Mrs. Clinton vacillates between promoting opportunity and outcome, and her proposals are often at odds (e.g., she wants to spur small business growth but favors a substantial increase in the minimum wage).
On the Republican side, Mr. Kasich offers the best prescription for spurring economic opportunity in the 21st Century without making future generations pay for it. If Mr. Cruz were better on generational justice issues, his novel tax reform plan would be worthy of serious consideration. On the Democratic side, although there are inconsistencies in her policy prescriptions, Mrs. Clinton is more attuned to some of the key issues affecting economic opportunity (e.g., early childhood education) and is interested in policies that promote long-term economic growth that will benefit younger Americans.
With anemic economic growth, public debt spiraling out of control (fueled by the incessant increase in entitlement spending), and no political consensus for balancing environmental protection and economic growth, younger Americans literally cannot afford to vote for a presidential candidate who does not care about repairing our American Dream. Please think about generational justice and economic opportunity and vote responsibly. 2040 matters.
To remain current, this Post has been revised several times since its initial publication.