The second round of presidential debates have come and gone, but familiar Democratic talking points remain largely consistent.
A total of 19 candidates sparred over two nights on CNN—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, and John Delaney on Tuesday; Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee, and Andrew Yang on Wednesday.
Despite the good intentions of many of the candidates’ ideas, the proposed policies ignore basic economic realities.
1. Medicare for All
Healthcare was a prominent topic in both debates. While all or nearly all of the presidential contenders said they support expanding taxpayer-funded health insurance, Medicare for All was a source of contention among the candidates. The policy, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and supported by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris (who recently introduced her own version), drew fire from other members of the crowded primary field.
“If you start under-paying all the health-care providers, you’re going to create a two-tier market,” Delaney said.
Former Congressman John Delaney pointed out that Medicare, on average, pays hospitals about 87 cents on the dollar compared to the $1.45 private insurers pay. Expanding Medicare to the entire health care system would put hospitals out of business and create a two-tiered system, similar to Brazil’s.
“If you start under-paying all the health-care providers, you’re going to create a two-tier market where wealthy people buy their health care with cash,” Delaney said, while people “like my dad, the union electrician,” will be “forced into an underfunded system.”
What We Say: Americans’ healthcare costs are out of control, but expanding the role of bureaucrats and lobbyists won’t improve access to care or health outcomes. Whenever wishful terms like “universal” and “free” precede policy suggestions, candidates are encouraging you to ignore the inevitable costs and trade-offs of implementation. Doctor shortages, long wait times, and lack of access to critical care will be made worse. Public plans are written by lobbyists to protect their own interests, not yours.
2. Free College
Candidates on both evenings of CNN’s two-part debate made promises about "free" college, while some touched on the "cancellation" of existing student loan debt.
Several candidates, including Warren, Sanders, and Harris, have released plans to forgive all or part of the $1.6 trillion student loan debt. (Of the three, Harris’s plan is by far the most modest.)
Government-backed loans are already the cause of huge tuition increases.
Several candidates recognized these policies are unrealistic and offered alternatives. Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, for example, have laid out proposals to make it easier for student debt holders to refinance at lower rates.
“You're going to hear a lot of promises up here, but I'm going to tell you this,” Klobuchar said. “Yes, I have bold ideas, but they are grounded in reality.”
What We Say: Government-backed loans are already the cause of huge tuition increases. Expanding the scope of government to “fix” the problems it created without addressing the disconnect between cost and value of a degree will further bury taxpayers under unpayable debt and other unintended consequences.
3. Gun Violence
Candidates talked a great deal about gun violence and what they’d do to solve it. CNN host Don Lemon posed this question to the Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
“Mayor Buttigieg, other than offering words of comfort, what’re you specifically going to do to stop this epidemic of gun violence?”
Buttigieg and many other candidates offered various gun control measures, including universal background checks, red flag laws, and bans on “assault weapons.”
What We Say: Evidence suggests that bans on rifles like the AR-15 and mandatory background checks would have little to no impact on gun violence. In fact, actual data do not show this “epidemic of gun violence.” Gun homicides are down roughly 40 percent since the early 1990s.
4. War in Afghanistan
Most candidates openly asserted their opposition to the war in Afghanistan, now in its 18th year. Pete Buttigieg, a veteran of that war, vowed to end it within his first year in office and require Congress to vote on future military engagements.
“I was sent into that war by a congressional authorization as well as a president. And we need to talk not only about a president committed to ending endless war, but the fact that Congress has been asleep on the switch,” Buttigieg said. “And on my watch, I will propose that any authorization for the use of military force have a three year sunset and has to be renewed.”
What We Say: Buttigieg’s pledge to quickly end the conflict in Afghanistan sounds promising. However, recent history suggests following through on such pledges can be a challenge. Neither President Obama nor President Trump lived up to their words regarding a drawdown of forces in the Afghanistan theater. In fact, each expanded America’s wars once they were in the Oval Office. As of today, the War in Afghanistan alone has cost at least $2.5 trillion and claimed the lives of at least 3,459 coalition members, as well as untold numbers of Afghan civilians.
5. The Wage Gap
In Wednesday’s debate, candidates were asked how to “fix the wage gap” between men and women. Though some candidates deflected the question—Sen. Gillibrand used the question to attack former Vice President Joe Biden and Andrew Yang used it as an opportunity to plug the “Freedom Dividend”—candidates generally accepted the moderator’s assumption that women in America are systemically underpaid. Senator Harris, however, answered the question most directly and forcefully.
People who cite a “wage gap” fail to account for a host of factors that explain why men on average earn more than women.
“Since 1963 when we passed the Equal Pay Act, we have been talking about the fact that women are not paid equally for work,” Harris said. “Fast forward to the Year of our Lord, 2019, and women are paid 80 cents on the dollar.”
Harris went on to explain that if elected president, she would force “companies to post on their websites whether they are paying women equally for equal work.” Companies that failed would be fined, she said.
What We Say: As economist Antony Davies pointed out in his coverage of the debates on Twitter, it is already unlawful for employers to pay men and women differently. People who cite a “wage gap” fail to account for a host of factors that explain why men on average earn more than women, including the number of hours worked, occupation, and work experience. An abundance of research, including a 2018 Harvard University study, suggests the wage gap is overwhelmingly, and perhaps entirely, about the choices men and women make.
6. Criminal Justice
Some candidates came under fire for their track records regarding the entrenched injustices of the War on Drugs, and while it’s now acceptable for some candidates to speak about cannabis legalization, true reform seemed a distant dream for debaters.
We doubt their ability and willingness to challenge the decades-long War on Drugs.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard forcefully criticized Harris for being a drug warrior when she was California’s attorney general. “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard noted. She also cited a particular case where Harris blocked evidence that would have freed a man on death row. “When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” Gabbard said. “And worse—in the case of those on death row—innocent people? You actually blocked evidence that would have freed them.”
Harris is not the only candidate with a record of intensifying America’s abusive War on Drugs. Joe Biden, for example, has branded his 2020 campaign around combating racism despite his longstanding support of anti-drug legislation that targeted and destroyed minority communities.
What We Say: While some Democratic candidates (especially Sen. Corey Booker, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and Beto O’Rourke) have put legislative action behind their calls to scale back the failed War on Drugs, frontrunners like Biden and Harris carry the burden of direct contributions to America’s mass incarceration problem. We doubt their ability and willingness to challenge the decades-long War on Drugs, especially after building careers in the broken system.
Race featured prominently in the Democratic debates. This included a discussion of financial reparations for slavery, an idea many Democrats seem open to exploring further but few currently support. CNN host Don Lemon posed this question to candidate Marianne Williamson, who has made reparations a plank of her campaign platform: “...you are calling for up to $500 billion in financial assistance. What makes you qualified to determine how much is owed in reparations?”
Williamson’s lengthy reply focused on healing divisions and redressing
the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with. That great injustice has to do with the fact there were 250 years of slavery followed by another 100 years of domestic terrorism….If you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult, and I believe that $200 to $500 billion is politically feasible.
Several other candidates on stage supported a federal commission to study the possibility of direct financial reparations, accepting the utility of such a solution even if they lacked Williamson’s economic bravado. While some viewers and voters will undoubtedly rejoice to hear such plans, there is no evidence such redistribution would meaningfully address history injustices.
What We Say: The blight of slavery cannot be erased by cash reparations by or to people now living. The US Constitution provides a framework to protect the rights of individuals, and efforts to impose collective punishment on individuals by assigning them a historical group undermine the ideals of American liberty and individualism. We also note that much more recent government policies that created and exacerbated race-based economic inequalities among persons now living (exclusion of black soldiers from the GI Bill, and of black families from federal housing programs, to start) would be a more appropriate subject of debate than centuries-old debts.
What Did Not Come Up at the Debates: The Federal Debt
There were a lot of promises made during the debates, so many it was difficult to keep track of. Lots of “free” stuff—purchased at the expense of people who didn’t agree to it. Biden spoke of free community college and free universal pre-k. Harris and Buttigieg promised free four-year college. Sanders vowed to eliminate all the student debt. Everyone invoked “free” health care. More welfare benefits. The $1,000 “Freedom Dividend.” Billions in promises, stretching decades into the future.
Even some of the candidates on stage took issue with the proposed spending extravaganza. Delaney spoke of “fairy-tale economics.” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock quipped about “wishlist economics.” But economics—the science of incentives and tradeoffs—couldn’t have been further from the candidates’ focus.
Not one candidate or moderator brought up the harsh reality of the federal debt.
Televised debate spectacles lose their sparkle when the lights go out.
Every child born in the United States is already saddled with an enormous share of that debt, fueled by unchecked government spending, reckless borrowing, and ballooning interest payments. More capital devoted to interest on the debt squeezes out investments and economic growth, and reduces workers’ wages and productivity. So-called lockboxes of taxpayer funds have been emptied to serve short-term political purposes, looting the long-term security used to sell them to the public. The interest on the debt will consume 10 percent of all federal spending in 2020. The nation is overextended and teetering toward debt disaster, and no candidate seemed willing even to acknowledge the problem. Instead, they suggested new and even more extravagant spending programs, calculated to bribe voters into believing they’ll be the beneficiaries of an ever-worsening crisis.
Candidates on a debate stage are selling dreams, fairy tales of abundance where everyone can live at the expense of everyone else and the bills never come due. But ignoring the debt has the potential to destroy the world’s most productive economic system. Televised debate spectacles lose their sparkle when the lights go out.