A Pathetic Democratic Debate: The Unmentioned Elephants in the Room

September 17,  2019

The third Democratic presidential debate, held last Thursday, is not notable for what the candidates said, but rather for what they did not say, for the problems and solutions that remained unmentioned.

In the first place, no one on the stage did justice to the urgency of the present moment. Climate change alone represents a greater threat to human civilization than that presented by Adolf Hitler and his war machine in World War II. And on top of that threat comes the backlog of serious problems that plague the United States here at home: our crumbling infrastructure; the growing economic inequality that strains our social fabric; the loss of upward social mobility, which threatens to divide our society into hereditary socioeconomic castes; the absurd cost of our health care system, which eats up twice as much of our GDP as it does in other advanced societies, and doesn’t even give all our citizens health insurance. And standing above all these problems, and blocking their solution, the dysfunction of our political system, which has largely ceased to be a democracy, hollowed out from within by campaign cash and now under sustained assault by the Republican Party (partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, etc.) and a president with blatantly authoritarian leanings who routinely violates the spirit of our Constitution. The challenges we face, collectively, are the moral, political and economic equivalent of total war, and no one in our political class even acknowledges this obvious truth.

Secondly, although Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders alluded to the corruption of our political system by big money, no one talked about a possible solution, except for, of all people, Andrew Yang. Yang mentioned the idea of “Democracy Dollars,” which has even been introduced into our Congress as a bill in December 2018 by Rep. Ro Khanna. Under this novel public financing mechanism, the government would give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could then assign this campaign cash to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters as of 2016, this translates to $10 billion of public financing, dwarfing even the $6.5 billion spent on the federal elections of 2016. Democracy Dollars could break the stranglehold of big donors on our political life and make this country a democracy again. Why is no one besides Yang talking about this? To be sure, we can understand why, say, Nancy Pelosi can’t make this a leading issue. She’s the party’s top fundraiser and gets all this money from millionaires and billionaires. Talking about Democracy Dollars would, to say the least, complicate her conversation with her donors. But Warren and Sanders don’t have that problem. They rely primarily on small donations. Why aren’t they making this reform their central issue?

The third unmentioned elephant in the room was taxes. To her credit, Elizabeth Warren has grasped the nettle of taxes, with her excellent proposal of a wealth tax. But even this idea doesn’t go nearly far enough. To address the challenges that we face, and that we must lead the rest of the world in addressing (e.g. climate change), we need trillions upon trillions of dollars of new revenue. This money must come from the people who have it, in the form of massively higher taxes on the wealthy, a level of taxation that we last saw in this country during World War II and the administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. (Under Eisenhower, the top marginal income tax rate was 91 per cent.) We need top marginal income tax rates of 70% or even 80%, the rates many economists consider ideal. We need estate taxes that are positively confiscatory above the level of the current $10 million exemption. We need Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. And we need to seriously consider ending the preferential treatment of capital gains on stocks and bonds, which benefits only a small sliver of the American population. Needless to say, however, as long as millionaires and billionaires fund the election campaigns of most of our politicians, no serious discussion of taxes will be possible in this country.

In telling you all of this, I am reminded of the fable of the emperor’s new clothes. Our entire political class is marveling at the wonderful, double-breasted Armani suit that the emperor is wearing, and I’m the eight-year-old kid who speaks up and says the emperor is naked. Is anybody listening?