Watching last night’s debate*, there were a number of times where either candidates’ answers were not the answers that I would have given. So here is how I wished they had answered some of the questions:
(Note: This post was written Tuesday after the debate, and scheduled for posting today)
QUESTION: Mr. President, Governor Romney, as a 20-year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?
I wished they had answered… I’d tell your parents that I hoped you had picked a useful major. After all, what do you do with a BA in English? Seriously, for all our talk about bringing manufacturing and other jobs back to America, there is one characteristics that all these jobs have: technology. Service sector jobs (sales, etc.) can only go so far, and are eventually cannibalizing. However, if you can work with technology and mathematics, and know how to communicate well with people, you will be able to find employment. No matter how well you are educated, if you cannot deal with these areas, you will be at a disadvantage in the job market. To those of you studying engineering and math: Learn to communicate your findings so that your audience will hear you; speaking and writing skills are critical. Get on the stage, learn to perform, and learn to present your ideas. To those of you studying liberal arts: Learn something technical. Today, no matter what you will be doing, you will be using technology and math, and you cannot be a luddite and ignore those disciplines.
QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?
I wished they had answered… Let’s ask what goes into gas prices. It isn’t just the oil that comes into the ground. We can pump all we want, but the price that the oil sells for is based on the International market prices. That’s right: if an oil company can sell their gas for more money to some other country, they will. This is how the market works, and so the price that we pay for a barrel of oil will never go down just by domestic production. Further, producing more and more domestic crude means nothing if our refineries are at capacity. If we are not building more refineries, the bottleneck on prices is refined supply, not raw supply. Lastly, there is the profit motive at work here: every company that handles that barrel of oil from the ground adds their markup for profit. All of these combine to make the price you pay for oil, and very little of it can be affected by the Energy department, except perhaps permitting for a refinery. Everyone would just love to see more refineries… just not in their backyard.
This is why the best way to lower energy prices is to move to technology that people want in their backyards — solar, wind — and to take approaches that lower demand and improve efficiency. If you can go twice as far on the $4.00/gallon gas, your overall costs for fuel will go down, even if an individual fill-up is more expensive. The Energy Department is working towards these goals: encouraging clean energy, improving automobile fuel efficiency, as well as increasing domestic production (for what it is worth). You can help to by moving to vehicles that are more fuel efficient or use electric power. Alas, there’s not much we can do with respect to oil company profits: government cannot dictate corporate profit levels. Only shareholders can do that.
QUESTION: Governor Romney, you have stated that if you’re elected president, you would plan to reduce the tax rates for all the tax brackets and that you would work with the Congress to eliminate some deductions in order to make up for the loss in revenue. Concerning the — these various deductions, the mortgage deductions, the charitable deductions, the child tax credit and also the … education credits, which are important to me, because I have children in college. What would be your position on those things, which are important to the middle class?
I wished they had answered… Reducing tax rates is not the answer. Past administrations have shown that reducing taxes does not improve the economy. In fact, the economy was often stronger when taxes were higher. Back in WWII, the country had shared sacrifices to enable us to win the war. Everyone lived with rationed gas, sugar, and other necessities until the battle was won. We’ve lost the sense of shared sacrifice. We’re asking the lower and middle classes to sacrifice jobs and their standard of living, but not asking the top 1% to sacrifice anything. They still have their jobs, they still have their bonuses, and they still have their low tax rates on capital gains and exemptions on income. That must change. If we want to lower the national debt, we need to move to a period with budget surpluses — not just a balanced budget, but a budget that earns a little extra each year to pay down what we owe to a manageable level. To do this, the 1% must sacrifice some of their wealth through increased taxes and lowered deductions until the debt is reduced. We are all in this together to make this country stronger. It is only fair, and they’ll earn it back when the economy rebounds strongly. So where are their loyalties: personal wealth, or the economic strength of this great nation?
By the way, it is important to remember the distinction between the deficit and the debt. They are different things. The deficit is the net result of the US budget for the year. If we spend more than we take in, we have a deficit, and we have to borrow to cover the additional expense. If we take in more than we spend, we have a surplus, and can use that to pay down the debt, fund new programs, or distribute out to tax payers. This is all part of balancing the budget (overall, but note that a balanced budget is one with neither a surplus or a deficit). Now, if we have a surplus, or if we build into the budget principle repayment (which is essentially the same thing), then we can pay down the overall national debt. Note that we don’t want to pay off the national debt entirely, for reasons I’ll go into later (although what I’m saying is based upon Planet Money reports on When the US paid off the National Debt and What Happens If We Pay Off the National Debt).
QUESTION: In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?
I wished they had answered… Very simple. We reintroduce and pass the ERA. People doing the same work should earn the same pay. It is only fair.
QUESTION: Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter, because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration.
I wished they had answered… The problem with the Bush administration was the greatly increased deficit spending. In short, they went from a budget that was balanced to a budget that was in the red, meaning every year our deficit increased, and the amount we had to pay to service that debt increased. The first 4 years of the Obama administration still had a budget in the red, but less in the red. This meant that the debt still increased, but by significantly less. What is important to realize is that balancing the budget is not the answer. All a balanced budget will do is keep the debt at the current level. Balancing your budget, as payments on the debt are interest only, is like paying the monthly minimum on your credit card. What this country needs is a number of years where the budget has a surplus, and that surplus is dedicated to paying down the amount owed. Creating a budget surplus cannot be done simply by cutting. Creating a surplus by cutting alone is like expecting to increase household savings by only cutting expenses. Anyone with a household knows that’s only part of the answer. You need to get a second or third job for a few years until you are back on your feet.
By the way, it is also important to know that the US Government should never entirely pay off its debt. That would be disasterous. Every citizen in the US depends on the national debt. You hold it when you own savings bonds, when you put money in the bank (which invests in safe US Treasury Bonds), and when corporations and investment firms need someplace safe to put their money. Eliminate the national debt, and you eliminate a safe and secure harbor for investment funds, and move that investment to other countries. Our goal should be to bring the debt down to a pre-established manageable level, and then to let it fluctuate around that level to provide investments. The budget surplus should be used to establish a rainy day fund, so that when a crisis situation occurs — be it a natural disaster or national defense — we can address that crisis without having to borrow. This is just like your household retaining some level of debt in order to preserve your credit rating, while maintaining savings for emergencies.
QUESTION: Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I’m not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.
I wished they had answered… There was a lot that I did, and even more that I tried to do. But a President does not work in a vacuum. There is a limit on what a President can do when faced with a Congress that refused to compromise. The economy has not recovered as I hope it would because Congress has not worked with me to craft legislation to move the country forward. Instead, both parties have crafted legislation that advanced party aims, and have often blocked legislation that went against those aims. I cannot sign legislation I do not get. By the way, for that opposition party, that aim was to ensure I was not reelected. The best way to do that is to keep the economy failing. That’s a blunt statement, but it is also true. If you are the party out of power and want to get back in power, you cannot let your opposition make the country stronger or better. When you go to complete your ballot, ask yourself: Do you want to support people who actively blocked moving this country forward.
QUESTION: Mr. Romney, what do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?
I wished they had answered… If someone who is in this country can demonstrate that they are a productive, law-abiding member of our society, contributing their talents and skills to what makes America strong, they should be permitted to progress along the path to citizenship. This will permit them to share in all the obligations of this country: selecting our leaders, defending our nation, and economically contributing to its success both through work and through payment of income taxes.
Further, the issues of immigration should be separated from drivers licenses. Drivers licenses should be solely a proof that someone knows how to drive safely, knows the rules for driving in their state, and has an appropriate level of automobile insurance to protect themselves and other families. Period. We need safe drivers. If you need to show immigration status, that’s fine — use a distinct form of license as California is doing with new drivers — but do not deny the license and endanger others on the road. Further, people who do not have their licenses should not be driving. I’m looking at you, Amanda Bynes.
QUESTION: We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?
I wished they had answered… It is very easy to armchair quarterback after an event to figure out what we should have done. But without a time machine, we can only go on what we know. We are in an environment where there is a strong emphasis to reduce the costs of operating government. Guards are one of those costs, and at times, this function has been moved to local security, when advisable. It appeared advisable at the time in this place, and the specific requests for enhanced security had not worked their way up the chain. You’ve worked with the government. Have you ever known requests to be efficiently processed? As a leader, I can only act on information I have. So let’s not armchair quarterback. Let’s ask instead: Where did our processes break down, and how can we change them to improve the processes to not only prevent this specific incident from happening again, but to make it so that credible information moves where it needs to be quickly. Note the word “credible” there. Another problem with armchair quarterbacking is that information that seems “credible” after the fact often didn’t appear as creditable when first received.
QUESTION: President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
I wished they had answered… Simple answer: There is no reason that anyone other than military personnel on a military mission need assault or automatic weapons. End of story. We need to make this happen. Individual defense does not require guns like the AK-47.
QUESTION: The outsourcing of American jobs overseas has taken a toll on our economy. What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here in the United States?
I wished they had answered… First, ask yourself why jobs are outsourced. It isn’t that people overseas are more talented. They are cheaper. Why are they cheaper? Because they are not paid a living wage, because they work in intolerable conditions, because they work unreasonable hours, receive no vacations, receive no health care, and in general are disposable. American is better than that, and we treat our workers better than that (thanks to the hard work of our Unions). We aren’t going back to sweat-shop work conditions. That’s not America. We cannot compete with overseas on the raw cost of manufacture. So where can we compete? First, quality. Skilled workers produce better product faster. Second, we can reduce transportation costs by producing parts near where they are assembled and used. This lowers total overall cost of manufacture. That’s how we get jobs back: provide the right skills and efficient manufacturing that makes up in efficiency the cost of treating our workers like human beings. We can also refuse to import products that are produced with exploited labor. Companies such as Apple are starting to do this, requiring that living wages and appropriate working conditions be applied to the products built for them. Doing this will increase the cost of those products… and may return American manufacturing to a competitive conditions when the other factors are considered.
As we are talking about jobs, let me make one additional point. We talk about wanting to bring the unemployment rate down, but also talk about needing to drastically cut back government. The two are incompatible. When you talk government cutbacks, you aren’t talking about simply closing buildings — you are talking about cutting back or eliminating programs. Such cutbacks will mean that the government must cut back on its personnel requirements, meaning that unemployment will go up. Further, eliminating those personnel and programs will cut more than just the government employees, but will have corresponding impacts on all the service and related industries and contractors that support those programs. So when my opponent talks about cutting back government, he is talking about creating massive layoffs within the country. Government is not just a nameless beast; it is also a major employer in the United States.
Alas, they didn’t answer things this way. I still liked Obama’s answers better than Romney’s, but far too often they lapsed back into canned answers and responses instead of directly answering the question. It reminds me of the days of the Perfect Student Union at UCLA, where one of our candidates answered a question by saying, “Do you mind if I’m different from the other candidates, and actually answer the question that you asked…”.