If you're putting together a presidential-debate drinking game, there are at least six things you shouldn't even bother to include, because they're not happening.
President Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, meet Wednesday night for a highly anticipated episode of Kabuki theater, also known as a "debate." It will ostensibly be about domestic issues, or whistling, or fishin' holes, or whatever else the moderator, National Treasure Jim Lehrer, decides it will be about. The constraining rules of the debate, along with the debaters' natural aversion to saying anything interesting, will leave the audience hungry for knowledge, beyond the usual "zingers," "gaffes," "sighs" and "too much tanner."
Unfortunately, there's a lot of interesting stuff you're not going to hear at the debate, because the candidates aren't even discussing them out on the campaign trail or at fundraisers. Here are just six. There are lots more, but these are the most important economic issues that aren't getting talked about:
Thing One: I Can Haz Moar Stimulus? The economy needs more fiscal stimulus, and it needs it now. Job growth has slowed lately, even with the unemployment rate stuck above 8 percent, not far from where it was a year ago. Economic growth has ground to a dangerously slow rate, leaving the economy vulnerable to shocks.
The Federal Reserve, for its part, has traveled through the looking glass to find increasingly exotic ways to provide more stimulus, recently saying that it is just going to keep buying bonds and pumping cash into the economy until the Rapture or a real recovery, whichever comes first. But what about President Obama and Congress? They've stood back and wished the Fed luck, not lifting even a finger to help. Obama proposed a stimulus plan of sorts, the American Jobs Act, more than a year ago. But he has apparently given up on even mentioning that the Republicans have been blocking it. Now the only thing serious people want to talk about is reducing the budget deficit. Which brings us to Thing Two:
Thing Two: The Deficit Isn't Going Anywhere; Leave It Alone For Now: Everybody's worried about the budget deficit, but doing anything about it right now would be economic suicide. For more details, see the European debt crisis, where austerity measures have hurt economic growth, leading to lower tax revenues and wider budget deficits. Rinse, repeat, weep. As Mattea Kramer at Mother Jones puts it, "the hard truth of the matter is that deep deficit reduction anytime soon will be a genuine disaster," adding that "any move to immediately reduce the deficit does increase the likelihood that you will lose your job."
A running tally of outstanding national public debt
A couple of things are shocking about the political obsession with cutting the budget deficit: First, it is having absolutely no effect on U.S. borrowing costs right now. Interest rates on Treasury bonds are near record lows. All of the bond-market vigilantes that caused trouble back in the 1990s are underground like Morlocks, counting their gold. Second, voters do not care about the budget deficit. They really don't! Every single poll that asks about this -- what do voters care about the most -- finds that voters overwhelmingly care about the economy and jobs and care very, very little about the budget deficit. And yet, lots of hot air will be expelled over the budget deficit at the debate. Not once will you hear somebody say it's a pointless, even self-defeating, discussion.
Thing Three: End The Drug War: Here's an idea for stimulating the economy: End the drug war immediately, then tax legalized drugs to raise government revenue. Take some of that revenue, along with the savings from not having to incarcerate millions of drug offenders, and help those former drug offenders get treatment and/or education. Put monstrous for-profit prisons out of business. You may find this plan full of holes, but one thing we can agree on is that these problems probably won't even get an argument this debate. Meanwhile, we will continue to have more black men in prison, on probation or on parole today than were enslaved in antebellum America, as Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker noted earlier this year. Think Progress rightly put this at the top of a list of un-discussed election issues recently. This is the new (not so new, really) slavery: A national disgrace. And, again, it's also an economic issue.
Thing Four: Do Something About Global Warming: This is another issue that directly affects the economy directly, about which you've heard bupkus in this election. Americans and their insurance companies face billions of dollars in losses every year as a result of droughts, fires, floods and devastating storms, which are increasing in frequency and severity as a result of global warming. As Neil Katz points out, Mitt Romney once flirted with the idea of a cap-and-trade system in Massachusetts -- a market-based approach to cutting carbon emissions. Now, even the idea that such a thing might be necessary is taboo. Instead, we'll hear a lot about energy independence, a goal that too often involves increasing reliance on domestically produced oil and gas. Maybe Lehrer will raise this issue at the debate, but the candidates have studiously avoided it.
Thing Five: Extend The Payroll Tax Cut: At the end of the year, about 160 million Americans will suddenly see an alarming drop in their take-home pay, when a two-year payroll-tax holiday abruptly expires. This will represent a $920 annual tax increase for the average family, as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein notes. And yet both parties have apparently lost their appetite for doing anything to stop this, because of their aforementioned self-destructive obsession with the budget deficit.
Thing Six: Prosecute Wall Street Fraud: Since the financial crisis that began more than four years ago, nobody from Wall Street has gone to jail for any of the wrongdoing that caused the crisis. It's probably never going to happen. This apparently only makes people on the fringes of both parties, like Tea Partiers and HuffPost bloggers -- oh, and most voters -- angry. Obama plainly doesn't want to spend a lot of government time and money chasing down evildoers from the financial sector, and Romney, who happens to be from said financial sector, is probably just fine with that. This matters, because if there's not a real deterrent to bad behavior on Wall Street, then it will happen again, and we will have more financial crises and bailouts.
A moving chart showing the rapid rise of high-frequency trading in the past few years