Thinking About Things: Questions for Presidential Candidates

By John DeQ. Briggs

As an interested voter, it has been depressing to see the debate moderators continue to skim the surface of policy questions without coming close to addressing the implications of the answers to those questions. The moderators have also failed to challenge candidates on matters on which, in more normal times, one hopes the candidates would want to be challenged. Not in any divinely inspired order, here are questions that I would like to see each of the Democratic (and Republican where applicable) candidates answer. Few candidates will answer these questions but their manner of avoiding answering would itself be informative.

1. On unifying the country. The country is now seemingly more divided than at any time over the last 100 years. Some 63 million voters voted for President Trump, a great many of whom still apparently support him. Can you address them now and tell them why they should vote for you in the general election, and how it is that you will try to address their concerns and also seek to unify the country?

2. On Foreign Policy. Virtually all of you have decried the way President Trump has carried out foreign policy in this country, whether it be with respect to China, North Korea, Europe, or more recently, Turkey/Syria/the Kurds. Putting to one side, if you can, your distaste for Mr. Trump and the manner in which he uses twitter and other media to announce and effectuate policy changes, do you believe that:

  • frontally addressing the longstanding Chinese theft of intellectual property from American companies was a necessary or desirable course of action?
  • demanding that NATO members contribute their agreed share for the finances of NATO, as had been done by all past Presidents, was a mistake?
  • opening a dialogue with Kim Il Sung of N. Korea made nuclear war more likely than the absence of such dialogue?
  • The United States should remain in Syria indefinitely and, if so, to what end?

3. On A Taxpayer Bailout for Student Debt Voluntarily Incurred. Much has been said about student debt during the campaign. Student debt stands at $1.7 trillion, or $37,200 per indebted student. The average total cost of public colleges is $25,299 (in-state); $40,940 (out-of-state) and $50,900 for private colleges. See here. These costs have roughly tripled since 1977-78 . For decades now, college tuitions, both private and public, have increased at an annual rate of 8%, doubling about every nine years. This has been far in excess of the nationwide cost-of-living.  

Students can procure their own loans without parental consent. And under federal bankruptcy law, student debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. Like tax obligations, student debt remains forever.

Public and private colleges and universities are immediate and direct beneficiaries of the student loan program; the ready availability to colleges of billions of loan dollars each year eliminates or relaxes pressures on colleges to moderate price increases or ensure that students enjoy success post-graduation.

Many Democrats seem to support policies that would forgive all of the outstanding student loan debt and provide future all students with a “free education.”

Taking into account the circumstances, would you support a change in federal law that would not only make student debt dischargeable in bankruptcy, but also require the colleges who took the funds to be responsible for some percentage (say, 35%) of the bankrupt students obligations on unpaid loans? Would this not avoid requiring citizens who did not go to college financing those who did? Would it not also give colleges a greater stake in monitoring the debt level of students and hence limiting tuition costs somewhat, as well as giving them a real stake in the success of their students post-graduation? How would merely eliminating the student debt with taxpayer funds address any of those problems?

4. On the Economy. One of few things that does not seem to be in serious dispute is that unemployment has not been this low since 1969; median 2018 household income in the United States was $62,000, the highest ever; and the poverty rate (12.3%) has fallen to its lowest point since 2014 (12.3%). What will you say to people across the political spectrum to assure them that your stewardship of the economy will not upend the economy by raising taxes, creating more unemployment and reducing the incentives for business investment in this country, all to the detriment of union retirement funds, 401k plans, and other retirement funding sources that depend of invested assets?

5. On Impeachment. Each of you has been forthright, and for quite a while, that you believe that President Trump should be impeached.If Mr. Trump is as horrible as you and many others say, would it not be wise for the American people to remove him from office through the upcoming electoral process rather than for the people who elected him to be denied the opportunity to vote him out of office in a democratic process?

  • If the outcome of a Senate impeachment trial divides almost completely along party lines, how could an impeachment process tend to unify the country and how could it be taken by the electorate as anything other than a thoroughly partisan process? Why is that a desirable outcome?
  • If the proceedings in the House of Representatives have a purpose, should that purpose not include a good degree of transparency so that the electorate, especially Republicans, can be fully informed of the conduct that is said to warrant impeachment? Absent such support, how could impeachment be a healthy political process?

6. On the Federal Debt. Other objective facts as to which there is probably no dispute are that the federal debt of more than $74 trillion ($874,000 per family) and the Federal budget deficit of more than $1.2 trillion (106% of GDP) are the highest they have ever been. This is unusual given the historically strong economy, inasmuch as a strong economy is usually an occasion for reducing the federal deficit. What will you do as President to bring the debt to GDP ratios back to the levels that existed, for example, between 1980 and 2000 (34.7% to 56%)?

Also, the persistent low levels of interest since the financial collapse have facilitated the creation or more and more federal debt. What would you do about the debt if interest rates were to double or triple, thus making interest on the federal debt a much greater part of the federal budget (it is now $3.5 trillion or about 4.5% of the federal budget)?

7. On Health Care. You and many other elected politicians demonize insurance companies. But are you aware that spiraling health costs are driven by providers of health care services, not by insurance companies, and that insurance company margins are very small compared to most businesses? These circumstances, and their relationship to government-sponsored health care and private health care, present serious policy questions.

Many providers (physicians, and some hospitals) cannot afford to accept Medicare patients because Medicare reimbursement rates can be at or below the actual cost of services and hence may not permit providers to be profitable.

Nearly all providers are profitable because private insurance companies subsidize Medicare. For example, where Medicare will pay only about $80 for a particular service, private insurance companies will pay something like $140 for that same service on behalf of their subscribers.

  • If elected, what would you do to control the high cost that providers charge for their services?
  • If elected, what actions would you take to relieve private insurance companies of the burden of essentially being required to subsidize Medicare patients?
  • If this were done, are you aware how much more expensive Medicare would be?

8. On Social Security. The Social Security Trust Fund will be insolvent by 2035, only 16 years away. This means the program will be insolvent when today’s 51-year-olds reach retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 78. At that point, all beneficiaries will face a 20% across-the-board benefit, which will grow to 25% over time. See here.

  • You have been able to advocate for remedial legislation. Why have you not done so?
  • Could this problem not be solved by increasing by, say, two months each year, the age for eligibility of benefits? Why would it not make sense to defer citizens’ entitlement to benefits until age 68, or perhaps even 70, given that life expectancy is so much longer and many people do not retire until well after age 65?

9. On Immigration Policy. Are you in favor of having a comprehensive immigration policy for the United States?

  • Is there something wrong with having quotas by country, by profession, or other quotas that permit the nation to align immigration allowances with national needs and interests?
  • Is there something wrong with requiring immigrants to demonstrate that they will have gainful employment as a condition of non-tourist entry, as is the case in most other countries?
  • You and others have made the point, and correctly, that no person in this country, including the President, should be above the law. So why is it that you believe that undocumented or illegal immigrants should be above the law and protected from federal law enforcement in hundreds of sanctuary jurisdiction?

10. If you could not vote for yourself as President, for whom would you vote? If you had to vote for a candidate from the other political party, which one would you vote for?

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