Despite their differences, both Presidential campaigns have something in common: they seem to hold on an overly simplistic view of the economy. On Monday, both campaigns released new ads on the economy explaining their divergent views but still offering no details on their policy proposals. Both Mitt Romney and President Obama want to reduce taxes—albeit for different populations—and both candidates want to control government spending—though in different ways.
What has been missing—and will likely be missing from tonight's debate—is a discussion of what Romney plans to do other than simply cut government spending, and exactly what Obama plans to do to grow the economy "from middle out, not from the top down." Americans asking candidates questions tonight should press Mitt Romney to jettison the mistaken idea that government spending and the 47 percent are the enemy. They should also push President Obama to offer more concrete proposals for boosting economic growth. Otherwise, both candidates will continue to offer generalized talking points and rhetoric that fail to address the depths of problems we face as a nation—including rebuilding the middle class and the struggling communities who have been hardest hit by the recession. These communities keep our economy alive, and reconstructing them will help our country achieve prosperity.
Every government policy has consequences and is an investment decision. Candidates need to explain – and voters need to ask – what the costs and benefits are of each proposal. If we cut government spending, what happens to the government programs that support our economy? If we spend to grow the middle class, how will that grow our economy? What types of cuts will this spending entail? We would be well served to recognize that every government policy affects the economy and has broad social consequences. From improving reproductive health to resourcing education to expanding voting rights, all policies have large effects on the economy and human capital – our largest economic asset.
As an example, our criminal justice system – which definitely will not be addressed tonight – has huge consequences for our labor force. The system costs taxpayers an $70 billion per year. But fiscal costs are the tip of the "cost iceberg." Using incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution to every social quandary has led to a ballooning of our prison population to 2.3 million Americans behind bars—the highest per-capita rate in the world.
You would be surprised at how many people are locked up for low-level crimes like jumping a subway turnstile, nonviolent crimes, or drug crimes. Half of those in state prisons are locked up for nonviolent crimes; half of federal prisoners committed drug crimes. This zeal to imprison people squanders human capital by removing large sectors of people from society. Many of these individuals do not pose public safety risks, but are nonetheless prevented from contributing to our job force, participating in our democracy, and advancing educationally. Often, their children—and their children's children—face similar obstacles to participating in our country. As a result, fewer people are able to contribute to our economy, intellectual leadership, and democracy.