Debate Reality Check: We Can't Cut Our Way to Prosperity

As political commentators discuss Obama's lack of eye contact and Romney's unexpected charisma, it would serve us well to refocus on the substantive issues facing our country. Every topic covered in last night's debate -- from taxes to education to healthcare to rebuilding the middle class -- focused on the economy.

Governor Romney's economic growth plan, based on massive tax cuts, is at best an impartial solution and at worst ineffective, given what "math, common sense, and our history" have taught us about trickle-down economics.

Interestingly, President Obama hit the high point among undecided voters when he talked about "investments in America." Unfortunately for the president, he did not offer much beyond this. But these three words are the secret to unlocking the door to our economic and societal prosperity.

Saving the economy is not about cutting government costs. It is about implementing policies that wisely invest government dollars -- meaning they reap high rates of return to produce long-term economic growth. Romney's and Obama's policy solutions should be evaluated on the basis of the benefits that they return to the nation, and particularly to those who most need assistance: working and middle class Americans who keep our economy alive.

The electorate, the candidates and lawmakers in general should understand that all policies are government investment choices that will have direct consequences on our nation's future.

When we fail to view government choices through this lens, we end up with policies that stunt economic growth and compromise our democratic ideals. Take, for example, our criminal justice system. Our government spends $70 billion annually imprisoning millions of people in a "justice" system that doesn't work and squanders human capital in the worst way. Missed educational opportunities, interrupted employment and severed family connections weaken the communities to which prisoners return and make our nation poorer as a whole. Children of the incarcerated, and future generations of Americans, suffer academically, socially and economically. These consequences -- combined with the disenfranchisement of people with criminal records face from employment and voting -- increase stratification in our society and delete whole communities from being able to contribute to the economy, our democracy and the country's future.

Yet we continue to funnel cash into this system while vastly underfunding public education, ignoring our crumbling infrastructure, and defunding job training programs when we know that investments in these types of policies actually do help lead all of us toward prosperity. When we believe the myth that economic solutions only involve cutting costs -- instead of analyzing costs and benefits together -- this is the insanity we end up with.

The president has offered investments in education, innovation and infrastructure as pillars of his plan to rebuild the economy. But he still has not offered specific policy solutions. He should start with explaining how he plans to stabilize the foreclosure crisis, create more jobs at home, reduce prison populations, make higher education affordable and raise the household income of American families.

As long as Obama does not lay out the details, voters will be unable to understand the difference between the candidates' plans to grow our economy and will be spellbound by the fairy tale that cutting government spending alone leads to economic growth. The president needs to rapidly get more comfortable talking about investments, economics and efficiency. These common sense goals go hand in hand with our American moral ideals and appear to resonate with voters.

Both candidates must offer specific plans toward economic prosperity that go beyond taxes and budgets. Achieving economic recovery, growth and stability is far more complex. As we begin our slow climb out of one of the worst recessions on record, Obama and Romney need to offer us holistic plans, focusing not just on narrow budgetary policies but on specific policies that will be wise investments to bring us all shared future prosperity. There is too much at stake for them not to do so.

Chettiar is the director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. The program seeks to end unnecessary incarceration and close the "justice gap" for low-income Americans.