Questions They Should Ask Tonight, But Won’t

Tonight’s presidential debate is expected to garner a Super Bowl-sized television audience – as it should. Our economy remains fragile, and we’re all hoping some new leadership will kick start our economy – and our investments.

But sadly, tonight’s show will not only rival a major sports event in viewership, it’s likely to be presented like a sports event too. The pregame show will be  more sound effects and breathless voice overs than a disaster-movie trailer.

And the post-game analysis by pundits and reports will jump all over the gaffes and confrontations while mostly ignoring the substance.

That’s too bad. Ask yourself what will matter most to you over the next four years: a slip of the tongue, or the president’s trade policy? An errant sigh, or the level of capital-gains tax?

This isn’t a sporting event. It’s a job interview…  for the most important job in the world.

Here are the economic questions moderator Lester Holt and the pundits should focus on tonight – if they can resist the temptation to try to make headlines:

What, specifically, will you do to boost economic growth?

The U.S. economy is performing better than most of the world’s major developed-nation economies by most measures. We’re in the one of the longest expansions on record, unemployment has declined steadily, the housing market has  recovered and wage growth is finally starting to pick up.

But the expansion has been tepid, especially lately: GDP growth has been 2.6% or lower (annualized) for seven straight quarters. Employment, while solid, is nowhere near the most recent golden years of the 1990s. Corporations are sitting on trillions in cash that could be invested profitably, potentially boosting growth – but they’re keeping it in the bank. Can that potential be unlocked?

We’re going to hear generalities about tax cuts and making government more efficient and infrastructure spending. What we need are detailed, realistic steps that will boost demand and corporate investment to help the economy grow.

How will the U.S. economy remain competitive in 2020, 2030 and beyond?

The federal government has great power, but its largest power is not over the day-to-day movements but the long-term trends – supporting growth in the private sector by providing things that the private sector doesn’t.

In the 1930s, Social Security created a safety net for senior citizens that has changed the American economy tremendously — making retirement much more possible for tens of millions of people, freeing up their jobs for younger generations and spurring the growth of businesses that cater to older people.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the G.I. Bill helped create the educated workforce needed for a successful modern economy.

Later, government investments in basic research encouraged the development of industries that remain at the center of our economic strength: pharmaceutical, biotech, defense, aerospace, chemicals – and technology. The success of these sectors are triumphs of the private sector, but much of the groundwork for them came from wise federal government investments.

What are we investing in today that will make the U.S. more competitive in this century?

You oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership. What’s your alternative?

Both candidates have labeled the TPP a bad idea and vow to oppose it. But neither has put forward a compelling alternative. Sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that protectionism is our path when globalization is clearly the way of 21st Century  is ignorant and dangerous.

There are a million nuances to trade deals, and some deals aren’t worth supporting. But there’s a reason that nine out of 10 economists broadly support free trade: the benefits outweigh the negatives. Politics isn’t black and white. It’s about trade offs.

We need to know how each of these candidates will handle the trade offs involved with trade agreements over the next four to eight years.

It’ll be an interesting night, for sure.

Let’s hope it’s also an enlightening night regarding the economic topics that really matter.