Friday, October 12, 2012

The Fantasy Debate

It's the debate period of election season, and people are asking... who won? Was that a gaffe? What did the focus groups say? Less asked is whether these debates are really a helpful exercise for the average American. In last night's VP debate, ABC's Martha Raddatz got a lot of praise for her moderating skills (which, while excellent, benefited greatly from the low bar Jim Lehrer set the week before). But, while she did facilitate a good dialogue between the two candidates, the scope of her questions was rather limited (and Lehrer even moreso). As Grist's David Roberts lamented on Twitter, "They got asked about God, civility, and their souls, but not immigration, education, energy, or climate change. Travesty."

If you only watched these debates, you would think the top economic priorities for Americans are the top marginal tax rates for millionaires, and the budget deficit. Foreign policy? The hypothetical state of Iran's nuclear ambitions, and the state of security at U.S. embassies abroad. Seems rather narrow for a country as famously diverse of opinion as ours.

So I will attempt to do better. If I were hosting a debate, what are the top 10 questions I would want answered? While I come at this from the left, I believe these questions would elicit answers most conservatives would find helpful as well. I did my best to word them as neutral and academic as possible. Feedback is welcome.

1. Four years ago, we had a global economic crash brought on by a housing bubble and risky bets by large banks and the financial sector. This crisis is not only being felt by Americans, but has wrecked havoc across Europe and beyond. Why have there been no prosecutions in the financial sector for this? And with Too-Big-To-Fail still intact, how can we ensure this won't happen again?

[Potential follow-up: If we reject regulation in a free market society, are potential economic crashes and recessions a natural consequence we must accept?]

2. While many actions have been taken to heal the wounds of the crisis, unemployment remains high, with many having to settle for part-time or temporary jobs. Given additionally how much the economy is changing globally, what new ideas can we turn to to reverse these trends? Or, with many large companies choosing to keep their payrolls low (even with so many needing work) to boost profits, is 5-8% unemployment going to become a new normal for the immediate future?

[Potential follow-up: If tax cuts are proposed, note growth of tax cuts & credits as job growth declined... ask what difference there would be this time.]

3. One other big trend in terms of the economy over the last few decades has been a sharp rise in income inequality. In 2010, for instance, 93 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent... in addition to the larger trend of flat-lining wages for the average worker as CEO pay and tax breaks for investment earners grew. What policies do you see as accounting for this?

And how do we fix this, if you believe we should at all.

4. While partisan differences here remain sharp, the scientific consensus on climate change has never been stronger. With the potential to disrupt ecosystems, cause economic shockwaves, and global resource conflicts, why has this issue been ignored? Given the global scale of the problem, what needs to be done?

If this isn't a problem, what did the scientific community get wrong?

5. Between existing programs (Medicare, Medicaid, private plans) and new (the 2010 Obama law), more Americans are getting access to healthcare. However, the costs of healthcare across America continue to rise, affecting all Americans, in these programs or not. Medical bills are now the #1 cause of personal bankruptcy in America. What can be done to resolve this?

[Potential follow-up: If candidate proposes to repeal or change one of these existing programs, ask how what replaces it will be more cost-effective for the gov't and taxpayers.]

6. Money and politics have always been bed-fellows. But critics insist the recent Citizens United decision has opened the flood-gates of secret money from special interests in elections. How does this spending affect the legislative process?

What controls or limits would you support on this spending? Be specific.

7. Issues of minority rights are a growing concern across America. Women are seeing a growing effort to roll back previous victories on reproductive freedom issues. Minority groups are seeing new attacks on the Voting Rights Act, and affirmative action is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Latino groups feel they are unfairly targeted by new laws, and that documented and undocumented immigrants are being conflated and scapegoated.

Can you comment on each of these issues? Where will your administration stand on pending (and/or new) legislation related to these groups?

8. There has been a growing, though not yet majority, consensus that the drug war, as we know it, has been a failure... wasting police resources, and ballooning our prison systems with small, one-time offenders. Is it time to re-think the laws and policies that make up the drug war?

If yes, what is the new direction? If no, what costs can we allow in maintaining this status quo?

9. Moving on to foreign policy, the United States has been at war now for over 11 years. How has a decade+ of non-stop war affected the country?

Furthermore, what would constitute a victory in the war on terror? If it, by definition, cannot end, how do we factor the ever-increasing costs when evaluating other priorities? What sacrifices is your administration willing to make in service of this?

10. Finally, a growing concern for Americans across the left-right spectrum has been the rise in the use of drones... both overseas and here at home.

For use in foreign policy, does the use of drones (which eliminate the pain of asking Americans to sacrifice ground troops, or notify us at all) make it too easy for a President to engage in military action? What about the costs of civilian deaths in the countries we engage in?

For use at home, what assurances can your administration give about Americans' privacy and civil liberty concerns?