Presidential Debate Prep

You know the drill. Tonight at 9 PM, Romney and Obama will debate domestic policy with PBS’s Jim Lehrer as moderator. With beltway pundits ready to pounce and make the debate about gaffes and “zingers,” we’re holding out hope for some substantive policy conversation to be introduced into the election cycle.

Here are five questions we hope Lehrer asks:

  • Do you think economic inequality in America is a problem and, if so, how would you address it?
  • What policies would you implement to reduce poverty in America?
  • Do you support the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v.FEC, the landmark case which prohibited the government from restricting independent public expenditures by corporations and unions? If you don't agree, would you support a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling?
  • This past September was the fourth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the worse financial crisis since the Great Depression that followed. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed in July of 2010. Simply put, do we have a safer financial sector now than we did leading up to the crash?
  • The 2008 presidential election saw the most diverse voter turnout and second highest youth turnout in history. Since 2010, however, more than 20 states have passed laws that raise new barriers to the vote. Some of these laws, like Voter ID laws in South Carolina and more recently in Pennsylvania, have been rejected in part or in full by the courts. Do you believe that these laws go too far?

To cram, here’s some background on these issues:

Rising Income, Falling Mobility by Rakim Brooks:

new report released by the Pew Center's Economic Mobility Project demonstrates that the incomes earned by this generation are indeed greater than that of their parents: 84 percent of workers earn more than their parents did at a similar age. But this generation still fails to transition into higher income classes. This is especially true among people in the lower quintile. While 93 percent earn more than their parents, only half manage to escape to a higher income bracket. Compare this with individuals in the middle quintile, 88 percent of whom earn more than their parents and two-thirds of which move up into higher income quintiles. The present economy does indeed appear stacked against lower income families.

Pew's analysis of wealth underscores the difficulty: 41 percent of lower quintile families remain unable to build enough wealth to chart a way into a higher wealth bracket. This is relevant primarily because it coincides with another trend: the decrease in overall wealth among the bottom three quintiles and the growth among the upper two.

It may be cliché but the truth is that only the rich are getting richer. The upper class is monopolizing a greater proportion of income and wealth than in past generations. This has been reported for over a decade now, and yet there still has been no national consensus on addressing the problem. Perhaps that is because people fail to anticipate the real costs: economic and political instability.

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Poverty's Up But Still on the Backburner by Bob Herbert

We abandoned the fight against poverty and it’s been growing like an infection in an untreated wound. It’s as much of a disgrace as it was in Kennedy’s era but the willingness of mainstream politicians to speak out candidly and forcefully against it seems as old-fashioned as carbon paper and rotary phones. 

Nearly 50 million people in this country, the richest in the world, are poor. Another 50 million, the near-poor, are just a notch or two above the official poverty line. They can feel the awful flames of poverty licking at their heels. Those two groups, the poor and the near-poor, make up nearly one-third of the entire American population.

And what are our mainstream politicians doing? When they’re not hammering the poor, mocking them, waging war on the threadbare safety net programs that help stave off destitution, they’re running as fast as they can away from the issue of poverty and from the poor themselves, running like sprinters chasing Olympic gold.

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10 Ways Citizens United Endangers Democracy by Liz Kennedy

Two years ago the Supreme Court got it supremely wrongwhen it held that corporations had the  same rights as people to spend money in elections. Campaign finance laws protect our democracy from corruption and preserve the integrity of our elections.  These rules governing the use of money in politics were in a sorry state before Citizens United v. FEC. Here are ten ways in which the Citizens United decision has made a bad situation much worse.

1. “Independent” Spending Farce Leads To SuperPACs 

The Supreme Court thought non-candidate spending would be “independent” and therefore non-corrupting. This proposition not only beggars belief, it led to the rise of SuperPACs, which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts because they don’t contribute directly to candidates and are purportedly independent. These Super PACs, more than 250 of which registered between their creation in 2010 and the end of 2011, have super-charged the influence of the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals. The Supreme Court still recognizes that contributions to candidates can be corrupting, which is why direct contributions can be limited; if outside groups coordinate spending with a candidate it is treated like a direct contribution and can also be limited. Rules exist to prevent coordination between candidates and outside groups. But these rules have been reduced to such swiss cheese that they barely maintain the pretense of independence.  That is how we’ve ended up with candidate SuperPACs - founded by former campaign associates, funded by family and friends, explicitly supporting one candidate, who is allowed to fundraise for these groups himself. These candidate SuperPACs are making a mockery of contribution limits by running figure eights around and through the coordination rules; the idea that they are independent in any real sense is absurd. 

Lehman's Toxic Legacy by Wallace Turbeville

Are we better off, vis-a-vis the financial markets, than we were four years ago? In one sense, yes, we are. The Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation was enacted and regulations are limping home, wounded by the relentless assaults of bank lobbyists and politicians in their sway. Markets will become more transparent and risks will be managed better – assuming, of course, that the regulators can work out how foreign jurisdictions can be prevented from offering the banks weaker regulatory regimes to attract their business. The biggest concern on this front by far is the European Union. Their lawmakers must deal with the UK’s politicians and regulators, serving a national interest that is thoroughly dependent on the banking business. They are even more at the service of the big banks than U.S. politicians, campaign contributions notwithstanding.

And the Volcker Rule, whose importance is best demonstrated by the ridicule and criticism heaped on its implementing rules, just might put a dent in the ability of the banks to put the economy at risk so that that this year’s bonus pool can be optimized by maximizing short-term profits.

Unfortunately, the disease lingers on even as the symptoms are treated.

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And actually, the next financial crisis may result from high speed trading:

The markets are now unreliable. Retail investors have fled even today’s bull markets. And institutional investors have opted for shadowy “Dark Pools,” venues in which they can buy and sell beyond detection by HFT. (HFT has infected Dark Pools, by the way.)

Perhaps the U.S. regulators will take courage from their international counterparts. It's time for a new speed limit on Wall Street.

Voting Rights

In the 21st century, there are still bureaucratic, outdated impediments to the vote. Brenda Wright calls for government to cut the red tape

Many states still impose lengthy pre-election voter registration deadlines that may have been established decades ago, despite the proven effect of such deadlines in dampening voter participation. Many citizens become most interested and engaged with the election in the last few weeks before Election Day, when candidate debates are taking place, just as registration deadlines may be closing in their state. Other voters who are already registered may lose eligibility merely because they move to a different neighborhood or county, or because of clerical errors with their registration, or because of flawed and erroneous pre-election challenges to a voter’s eligibility. 

If they fail to discover the problem prior to Election Day, when the registration deadline has passed, they may be unable to vote.

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Instead, we should be expanding the vote. One tried and true way for states to make a difference would be to enact Same Day Registration. Steve Carbo asks why not?

But in states like Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, voter participation is less dependent upon retail efforts of this sort. That’s because these states offer Same Day Registration. Eligible citizens can show up at the polls or elections offices on Election Day or during the early voting period, register to vote, and cast a ballot. . . easy as that.

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