Who really has a plan for repairing our American Dream?
The 2016 presidential election is in its most critical stretch. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders continues to raise substantial sums of money, which means that he and Hillary Clinton will spend even more time arguing about who is more “progressive,” notwithstanding their records and proposals on various issues. “I do not think [that word] means what [they] think it means.” For the Republicans, many pundits would have you believe that their choice is now between a megalomaniac wannabe dictator and an assault weapon-toting culture warrior with a penchant for government shutdowns. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, is struggling to assume the mantle of the default “establishment” alternative, perhaps because of his youth, limited time in the Senate, and lack of public or private sector executive experience. For John Kasich, the only Republican candidate with governing experience and a plausible claim to centrism on a handful of issues, his presidential aspirations are dependent upon Michigan and Ohio. The race is not over, and Generation X+ has a chance to shape its outcome. We cannot afford to squander this opportunity.
Although it may be tempting for Millennial and Generation X voters in the upcoming primaries to back a candidate based on momentum, edgy debate performances, a desire for change, or a position on a single issue, I would encourage you to dig a little deeper before making up your mind. Similarly, if you are a frustrated voter who would like to use this election cycle to “send a message,” I would encourage you to think carefully about what message you would like to send, and the best way to convey that message with your vote. By sending an angry not-so-young man to the White House, the only message voters would be sending is that they prefer one type of utter dysfunction to another. For those of us in the 2040 Matters community, there are many messages we will want to send with our votes, but the most important is that we will 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 to stop the transfer of wages earned by younger Americans to subsidize the retirements of wealthy older Americans — is decidedly unpopular with the largest group of voters.
To propose entitlement reform is the opposite of pandering; it is an act of political courage. The 2040 Matters community should reward those who carry this torch for Generation X+ and future generations. Unfortunately, we appear to be doing the opposite, as the leading candidates from both parties either ignore entitlement reform or propose expanded entitlements (and deficits). The only candidates with serious Social Security and Medicare reform proposals have dropped out of the race, leaving Mr. Kasich as the only candidate with a more-than-passing interest in the subject (and a genuine interest in reducing our debt).
Speaking of debt, the next most important policy reform – curbing the debt burden on younger generations – is only slightly more popular than the first. Candidates love to talk about spending money and/or reducing taxes. But who wants to be the bearer of bad news? It gets in the way of pandering. Who wants to talk about the fact that the cost of servicing the debt, which is growing by the minute, is going to explode when interest rates begin to rise? Perhaps rather than asking candidates about their proposed spending increases and tax decreases, we should be asking them about their plans to reduce discretionary spending, raise taxes, and increase inflation to service our mushrooming debt? If the candidates won’t come clean, perhaps we should ask the younger citizens of Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain whether large public debt actually matters?
This is not to say that any proposed spending increases or tax decreases should be off limits in policy debates; rather, the 2040 Matters community should insist that any such proposals be designed in a way that does not add to the debt burden we have already foisted on younger generations or crowd out other necessary federal spending. And we should reject overly simplistic assertions that we can simply tax the wealthy or grow our economy in order to service our debt and return our debt-to-GDP ratio to a healthy level.
There is one generational justice issue that does receive a substantial amount of attention from some (i.e., Democratic) political candidates – the environment, especially climate change. The Democrats who are concerned about the environment and climate change 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).
The Republicans, by contrast, refuse to discuss climate change or offer any policy proposals that could be reasonably construed as pro-environment. Better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt, I suppose. They act as if The Nature Conservancy’s policy on combatting climate change — “promoting practical, innovative solutions to create a prosperous, low-carbon future that is cleaner, healthier, and more secure for everyone” – is radical leftist propaganda. And although the candidates like to discuss over-regulation by the EPA, they do not like to mention the fact that a Republican President supported the EPA’s creation.
To accept the need for the EPA and the fact that environmental issues are central to generational justice, however, does not mean that one needs to agree with every proposed environmental regulation or measure to curb climate change. Instead, there is a range of reasonable responses to various environmental challenges in light of the best available science and the need to balance a variety of competing interests. Generation X+ should insist on defensible positions along this spectrum. Of the remaining candidates only Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kasich clear this bar (barely in both cases).
Moreover, even if members of the 2040 Matters community believe that climate change is the most pressing issue facing our next President, this does not mean that they should simply line-up behind candidates who are concerned about climate change. Instead, the 2040 Matters community should reward candidates who have the most coherent policies addressing all aspects of generational justice. Generational justice is not served by growing our economy while watching sea levels rise or by bankrupting our children while saving polar bears.
As much as political candidates avoid generational justice, they love talking about opportunity, especially economic opportunity. Every candidate has a plan that he or she claims will 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?
As these questions clearly demonstrate, economic soundbites are not the same as sound economic policy prescriptions. The 2040 Matters community should reward candidates who have serious proposals for expanding economic opportunity consistent with the tenets of the American Dream, acknowledge the costs and benefits of their policy prescriptions, and provide actual evidence that their approaches are better than the alternatives.
Supporting those who make the grade
I intend to continue scoring the leading candidates from both parties against the above criteria and others that I will describe in future Posts. I hope to have the opportunity to assess a Michael Bloomberg candidacy against these criteria as well. In the interim, I would encourage you to start thinking about the remaining candidates in terms of whether they truly care about the American Dream and have coherent approaches to repairing that Dream. Viewed through this prism, the field of responsible candidates in the two parties is quite narrow and, notably, inconsistent with the Republican primary results to date. Given that we cannot afford to squander four-to-eight of the next 25 years, this means the 2040 Matters community must engage now to support candidates who care about repairing our American Dream, and we must start pushing the leading candidates to move closer to our positions as they position themselves for the general election.
To remain current, this Post has twice been revised since its initial publication.