President Obama and Governor Romney danced around last night's economic questions because, well, they're running for president. If only they had the audacity of bluntness ...
When you're running for president, every question is answerable, and every problem has a solution. Want to lower gas prices by a dollar? Add 18 million jobs in four years? Cut the deficit without raising taxes or cutting entitlements? Oh, there's a policy for that.
Except when there isn't. It's considered unbecoming to acknowledge the limitations of presidential power, but those limitations are real. The executive is merely one branch of the federal government, the federal government is merely 20ish% of the U.S. economy, and the U.S. is merely a slice of global activity.
So rather than litigate the facts and half-facts of the debate, I want to provide alternate -- and hopefully, more illuminating -- answers to Wednesday's questions about the economy.
THE COLLEGE EMPLOYMENT 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?"
Both candidates launched into talking points, especially the president, who went on about manufacturing jobs and green jobs, neither of which are likely destinations for a New York public college graduate. : Jeremy, I have bad news and I have good news. The bad news is I cannot promise you a job, and I cannot tell you what that job is going to pay. Nobody can. This economy is big and complicated and in flux.
But here's the good news. Unemployment for college students is barely 4%, compared to nearly 14% for people who only graduate from high school. What's more, at every level of education, from high school to college to grad school, the overall story is that the more you learn the more you earn. So you're right to be concerned. But the real story is that we need more people to feel your pain, literally. We need Americans going to college and being conscientious about balancing their debt with realistic expectations for what they can earn in their first years after college.
THE GAS PRICES 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?"
The candidates debated domestic energy production, all the while dancing around the fact that the easiest way to lower gas prices would be something crazy -- like a direct subsidy to consumers a la Venezuela -- since the price is set on an international market.
Real-talk answer: The U.S. doesn't set gas prices. The world does.
U.S. oil production in 2011 hit an 8-year high, and we're using less gas to run our cars, and it's still not making much of a dent on prices. That's because gas prices are set based on global supply and demand. When there's a global supply shock, like in the 1970s, prices go up. When there's a global demand shock, like in 2009, prices go down. The best way to lower gas prices right now might be to start a nuclear war with Beijing. It would devastate China, crater the world economy, and make your gas really cheap. But that's neither an advisable policy nor the purview of the Energy Department.
THE TAX-PLAN 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?"
The candidates answered with a long, occasionally honest dialogue about tax policy -- with both men essentially promising the same thing for the middle class: low taxes that aren't very different from what families pay today.
Real-talk answer: Well, of course you love deductions and tax credits. It's money in your pocket!
But eventually we will have to cut some very popular tax spending measures. In fact, what will have to happen is something very much like Romney and Obama's plans mashed together. Taxes will have to rise, first on the rich, but eventually on some not-so-rich people, too. And the best way to raise taxes isn't to add more rates but to cap deductions, first on the rich, but eventually on some not-so-rich people, too. For now, big tall deficits are good for the weak economy. But eventually, the country will realize that historically low effective tax rates and historically high spending can't live together without causing major problems.
THE ROMNEY vs. BUSH 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. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?"
Romney said his five-point plan was different than President Bush's and Obama gleefully pointed out that the governor had moved to the right on some issues, like health spending and immigration. Romney was mostly wrong about how different his five-point plan really was, and Obama was mostly right that Romney has moved with his party to the right in the last four years. Romney's real-talk response should have put a gloss on Obama's criticism.
Real-talk answer (for Romney): The chief difference between President George W. Bush and my policy platform is that I'm more of a pro-market conservative.
Under Bush, government jobs grew by a lot, real non-defense government spending grew by a lot, and tax laws made the code more complicated. Under my plan, government pay will grow slower, non-discretionary non-defense spending will grow much, much slower, and my tax plan is designed to eliminate the deductions that have proliferated over the last few decades. We don't need a president who's pro-this business and pro-that business. We need a president who's pro-market.
THE IMMIGRATION 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?"
Romney said he thinks "we should give visas to people who graduate with skills that we need" but also said we need to crack down on illegal immigration. Obama made a pitch for comprehensive immigration reform. Neither acknowledged that we can reform our green card program for college graduates without handling comprehensive immigration.
Real-talk answer: You know what the most obvious policy in Washington is right now? I mean, the *most obvious*? It's stapling green cards to international students' degrees -- especially in the sciences, technology, engineering, and maths.
But instead of passing the most obvious policy in Washington, Congress is wrapping it up with other immigration measures that don't have a shot at making it out of committee. Our border immigration issue and our immigration visa issue frankly have nothing to do with each other except that they both include the world "immigration." Comprehensive immigration reform is elusive. Expanding visas for the world's most intelligent people is gobsmackingly obvious. We should just do it. It's pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-everything.
The real-talk answer