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Michael Meeropol: The 2016 Presidential Campaign Doesn’t Have To Descend To Competing Sound Bites

Sometime soon, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush will declare whether or not they are running for President, as will a host of others. The campaigns will probably be dominated by personalities, opposition research, an endless series of debates, one gaffe or another, one catchy slogan or another and virtually nothing of useful substance.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Serious analysis of what actually ails the country, and a series of proposals on what to do about them could become the centerpiece of the campaign. But that will not happen of the candidates’ own volition. They have certain talking points that have been tested to yield the right results – and they hammer them home again and again. Ronald Reagan asserted “Government is the problem” Barack Obama promised “Change we can believe in.”

The only way to force candidates to seriously address the issues is to raise them over and over again and insist on detailed answers – not one sentence sound bites.

I would like to use these commentaries for the next 22 months to attempt to address issues that candidates should be addressing.

These will mostly be economic issues behind the policy choices. In particular, I will be exploring ways to promote full employment, higher wages, appropriate regulation, environmental protection and other goals that are not only important for the US economy but for the vast majority of the people.

This last point is particularly important. The economy as a whole has actually been improving rather significantly in the past six months. Unemployment has fallen below 6%, the rate of growth of real GDP has been strong, and over the calendar year 2014, total employment has increased over 2 million (averaging over 167,000 per month). However, the overall numbers are somewhat misleading. The median income of year round full time workers has barely budged since the end of the recession whereas per capita GDP has been growing significantly. According to the highly respected work of Emanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty on long run trends in the distribution of income, over 90% of the gains in income since the end of the recession have accrued to the top 1% of the population. (Details are available on the Emanuel Saez website in a paper entitled “Striking it Richer.”). Though overall unemployment rates are falling, the employment to population ratio has pretty much stagnated at just below 60% of the population.

For these reasons, I plan to focus on issues that would truly improve the lot of the vast majority of the population. Thus, for example wage increases are more important than the gyrations of the stock market. Job growth is more important than the painfully slow falls in the measured unemployment rate though the latter is an important indicator of success or failure for macro-economic policy. Median income – the income of the typical person – is a much better measure of the economic health of the population than average income – which is skewed by the extremely high incomes of a small percentage of the population.

When candidates say specific things related to these issues, I will discuss them at length and attempt to analyze what the real implications are of the (usually) too short summary statements that emerge from the candidate.

If listeners and readers find these discussions useful, I would urge them to try to get candidates to comment at length about the issues raised. Write letters to newspapers, post tough questions for candidates on social media, demand answers in person at town meetings – and get your friends, co-workers, relatives and fellow participants in civic groups to do the same.

Let me start with one example --- and it’s a useful one because it was prominent the last election. In a number of states, referenda to raise the minimum wage were on the ballot and they passed in every one. Other states had previously indexed their minimum wage to the cost of living and a number of those are taking effect this year.

[For details see the National Conference of State Legislatures, “State Minimum Wages: 2014-2015 Minimum Wages by States” (December 13, 2014) available at http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/state-minimum-wage-chart.aspx]

Why does such a popular measure have no chance of passing the Republican dominated Congress? Part of the answer is that too many members of the economics profession believe (and argue) that raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment among low skilled workers. [See for example, Rex Huppke “In Minimum Wage Debate, Both Sides Make Valid Points” Chicago Tribune (3/17/14) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-03-17/business/ct-biz-0317-work-advice-huppke-20140317_1_minimum-wage-income-inequality-increase]

For decades now, there has been a large body of research on both minimum wage and living wage experiences in states and localities and the vast majority of the findings are that these increases either do not increase unemployment at all, or the increase is so small as to be overwhelmed by the positive impact of the wage hike on the standard of living of the employed low wage workers. [For details see the Economic Policy Institute’s ongoing research at http://www.epi.org/publication/bp357-federal-minimum-wage-increase

Unfortunately, because of the ability to buy the largest megaphone, those research results have been successfully disparaged in the minds of too many members of the public. The result is that too many politicians can get away with one sentence arguments like the following --- “Raising the minimum wage sounds good – but in fact it will only help teenagers and other part time workers who are not family breadwinners and will actually increase unemployment among the poor who need those jobs.”

According to detailed research, every part of this assertion is incorrect but politicians know that most citizens will not take the trouble to look carefully and do their own investigating. I hope listeners who are interested will not be satisfied with such assertions. With charges and counter-charges flying back and forth it is often too easy for any of us to go with our “gut” feelings. I hope that many listeners and readers will be stimulated by these commentaries (and perhaps by frustration on how simplistic are the formulations of most politicians as they make their well-tested talking points) to pursue these issues themselves.

But that will not be enough. The next step after informing oneself is to demand of politicians that they seriously address these arguments. Even those politicians who disagree with the conclusions of this or that piece of research owe it to the general public to explain his or her reasoning in detail. That is the only way to avoid the kind of campaign I fear we will all be subjected to over the next 22 months.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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