Brux column: The Economics of the 2020 Presidential Debates, Part I
This opinion column will address the economics of current policy issues. Writer Dr. Jackie Brux is an emeritus professor of economics and founder/director of the Center for International Development at UW-River Falls; and author of the college textbook, “Economic Issues and Policy.”
Did you enjoy the two nights of the debate among the 20 top Democratic candidates for president, or were you somewhat overwhelmed? (I personally was a bit put off by candidates interrupting each other and thought Kamala Harris' admonishment was right on: "People don't want to witness a food fight. They want to know how to put food on the table."
Harris, the only black woman among the candidates, also made a stunning assertion, directed at Joe Biden, when she explained how she benefitted from bussing to avoid segregated schools and how she was hurt when Biden boasted of working across the aisle with segregationists. Biden seemed to offer a weak response.
Let's consider the economics of the debates, focusing on healthcare, education and immigration. We can consider these issues more deeply at a later time.
HEALTHCARE: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren stood out with their proposal of Medicare For All. This really is not socialized medicine. That would require the government to own all the hospitals and clinics and hire all the doctors, nurses, etc. as government employees. No one is proposing this.
The main issue was whether to rely on a single-payer healthcare system (Medicare for All), or to add a "public option" to the ACA (as was in Obama's initial bill). The latter proposal would retain private insurance that some want to keep. I think that most voters would prefer the latter, but there are important reasons to consider transitioning to single-payer.
"Single-payer" is ultimately what will keep healthcare costs low. No more separate billings of Medicare (Parts A, B, and D), Medicaid, veterans' health, workers' comp and private insurance. Research suggests that by streamlining healthcare charges, untold hundreds of billions of dollars in bureaucracy, cross-checking, paperwork, and mailings could be avoided. Excessive profits by insurers would also end.
Savings from single-payer eliminates the question of "how to pay for this". Not one candidate recognized that entirely free universal and comprehensive care can be fully funded by Medicare for All without raising government spending. Despite this, Sanders and Warren came on strong.
EDUCATION: Many candidates promoted free college tuition and student debt forgiveness. Biden provided the best (though incomplete) response. Simply eliminating college tuition and student debt does not particularly benefit low-income students. Biden realized that we need to begin with high quality pre-K opportunities for all kids. He skipped the part where we also need high quality K-12 public education for all children. Opportunities are generally poor for children living in low-property value school districts, since funding comes from the property tax. We need to reform school funding by providing "equalizing" income tax revenue to the mix. Only then should we should consider 1) tuition-free community colleges and tech schools, 2) Pell grants for low-to-middle income students at 4-year colleges sizable enough to cover tuition (as well as the greater "cost" of income foregone while in school), and 3) debt relief based on income after college. (Amy Klobuchar also proposed expanding Pell grants.) Without these actions, the college proposals miss those in greatest need.
IMMIGRATION: All candidates agreed that illegal border crossing should be decriminalized and made a civil offense instead. This would enable better sourcing of real criminals. All candidates were horrified by child separation and detention at the border.
Julian Castro and Cory Booker had the best answers on Wednesday. Castro, who was raised by a single low-wage working mother, was the most comprehensive. On Day 1 in office, he would end Trump's zero-tolerance policy that results in child separation and forces immigrants back over the border to wait in squalor for months. He would process and honor asylum claims, provide a path to citizenship to all non-criminal immigrants, and assist in treating the root causes of the humanitarian crisis in Central America. Booker, along with Castro, would end human rights violations at our border and stop massive raids of immigrants for detention. Both men came on strong.
Sanders and Pete Buttigieg had the best answers on Thursday. Buttigieg: "The Republican Party cloaks itself in the language of religion. But, we must call out hypocrisy when they suggest that God would smile at the division of families ... and would condone putting children in cages. They've lost all claim to use religious language again." Sanders, more crudely but simply: "On day one, we take out our executive order pen and we rescind every damn thing on this issue that Trump has done."
Kirsten Gillibrand and Biden also offered their takes on fixing the root causes of Central American asylum-seekers. Neither, however mentioned that our aid has largely gone to police and the military, and that we need to provide real development assistance instead.
And, these are my first takes on the Democratic candidates.