Election 2012

Some Follow-Up Questions for Mitt and Barack on Education Spending, Immigration, Marriage Equality, & Old-Age Entitlements


Here are three follow-up questions I would have loved to see get asked in last night's debate.

1. Obama touted his "Race to the Top" initiative that he says was really helping kids learn. He also pushed for even more teachers to be hired, despite the fact that the number of teachers per student in K-12 public schools is at an all-time high. Mitt Romney signed on with the notion that we need yet more teachers, but said the decision should be made at the state level. When asked about federal support for education, Romney said he wouldn't "cut education."

Since 1970, real expenditures per pupil in the nation's classroom have more than doubled; indeed, when you add in a truer accounting of costs that includes teacher benefits, school construction, and the like, expenditures have basically tripled (see chart below). Yet over that same time frame, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the so-called Nation's Report Card—shows exactly zero improvement in test scores among high school seniors.

The question: The federal Department of Education was created in 1980. Given the chart below, how can you justify the existence of the Department of Education and the $77 billion it spent on K-12 education in 2010? Is the only argument that performance would have been even worse absent large and growing amounts of federal dollars?

2. Here's a short video about a lesbian couple that lives in Los Angeles and runs a school for trapeze artists. The woman on the right is an American citizen who not only attended a military academy but served her country in uniform. The woman on the left owns the school and is a Canadian immigrant who works on a O1 visa granted "to aliens of extraordinary ability." She employs about 16 people but has not been able to score permanent residency or a path to citizenship. That means she regularly has to spend thousands of dollars and leave the country to comply with immigration law. She says in the video that she could marry a man—a prisoner even!—who is a U.S. citizen and get put on the fast track to a green card and citizenship.

Neither of you actively supports marriage equality at the federal level (though President Obama did acknowledge over the summer that he no longer personally believes it to be wrong), so she can't marry her partner of choice. Both of you have negative positions toward immigrants. Mitt Romney has called for "self-deportations" and increasing border security as a way of keeping immigrants out of the country. Barack Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants.

The question: Pretend these women are in front of you. How do you justify keeping them from marrying? How do justify immigration laws that make it more difficult for hard-working foreigners to come to the United States and create precisely the sort of small businessess that you both profess to love?

3. In last night's debate, President Obama asserted that Social Security was "structurally sound" and that Medicare was part of a trans-generational compact that Republicans would destroy via "premium support" and "vouchers." For his part, Mitt Romney responded that nobody anywhere near the age of retirement would need worry about changes to Social Security or Medicare, a program to which he is fully devoted to maintaining (indeed, one of the main Republican lines of attack on Obamacare was that it was paid for in part by "gutting" Medicare).

In reality, Medicare and Social Security present massive fiscal problems for the government's balance sheet. Those two entitlements accounted for 37 percent of all federal outlays in 2011. Absent significant changes to these programs (of the sort that are always waved away as politically impossible), that figure will grow to 44 percent of federal spending in 2020 and 50 percent in 2030. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security is already paying out more annually in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes and all of its trust funds will be spent by 2033 at current levels of taxes and benefits. By design, Medicare's payroll taxes were never designed to cover the full cost of the plan's benefits and currently account for about one-third of expenses. At current tax rates and benefit levels, its primary trust fund will be broke by 2024.

Beyond such pressing balance-sheet issues is one of fairness. Average wage-earners who retired in 2010 or later can expect to take less money out of Social Security than they paid into it (the amount paid in includes both the employee's and employer's payroll tax shares). For instance, a single man earning the average wage over his career who retired in 2010 would have paid in $300,000 in Social Security tax and can expect to receive just $266,000 in benefits. For women, the case is slightly better because they tend to live longer. But they too are still rooked and that imbalance will only grow with time. When it comes to Medicare, every beneficiary gets far more than they pay into the system, a structural problem that underscores its unsustainability (more evidence: Medicare costs per enrollee are expected to double over the next 30 years even as the number of enrollees will also double).

The question: How do you propose to fix Social Security and Medicare so that they neither bankrupt the country over the next generation nor suck up ever-higher levels of money from younger workers who will almost certainly never see any benefits from either plan? Would you even consider the possibility of ending old-age entitlements and replacing them instead with a safety-net system that helps the poorest and least-capable Americans on the basis of income and wealth rather than reaching a particular age? And if not, why should anyone under the age of 50 vote for you?