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Bill Owens: Did We Forget Some Thing(s)?

The presidential campaign has taken some surprising twists and turns, no doubt, and this may yet turn out to be the most interesting of elections.

The candidates, presidential and those down ballot, seem to have forgotten some of the country’s major issues, such as debt and the deficit, tax reform, Obamacare, and education. Debt and deficit – given the rancorous conversations that filled Congress from 2009 to the present, the silence is deafening. It is worth noting that the national debt currently stands at $19.4 trillion and has grown since 2014, while the deficit is approximately $474 billion for fiscal year 2016, and has been relatively stable. Congress has made a number of attempts to find ways to control the debt and the deficit, including the famous Murray/Ryan agreement of December 2013 and the budget deal of 2015, which were supposed to control spending by forcing cuts in military and domestic spending if the targeted agreements could not be reached. What caused the debt and deficit issues to disappear without a whimper? Did Washington discover that since the world didn’t end when the debt increased and the economy got stronger, the public had simply grown weary? Or, is it because no one really has a solution that doesn’t include slashing their favorite programs?

Tax reform – something much discussed, argued about, and the source of ideological friction. It appears, however, that no one, either liberal or conservative, has come up with a proposal that would garner their constituents’ support. All those who wanted lower rates also wanted to retain their special deductions/credits, even if those deductions would have little, if any, practical value once rates are dramatically reduced. The idea of repealing taxes, which no one actually understands other than a very small percentage of the population (Wall Street, sophisticated tax lawyers and accountants, and maybe a few members of the public), had some interest, and has been a source of banter by Mr. Trump, but there have been no serious proposals. Chairman Camp, in the House, prior to his retirement was a proponent of tax reform, but as he traveled around the country and attempted to gather a coalition to support his well-reasoned reform proposal, he found exactly what I described above—everyone wants lower rates and to keep deductions.

I can recall numerous conversations with constituents, particularly those who represented municipalities, and others who relied on tax-exempt bonds when they pushed the idea of reducing tax rates; I countered with the question of whether or not tax-exempt bonds would still be marketable after a reduction in the tax rates. In other words, if you lower the tax rates significantly enough, what is the benefit of tax-exempt bonds for an investor with a lower interest rate versus a bond with a higher interest rate?

Obamacare – early in the election cycle there was some discussion of a Republican plan to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, although it got very little coverage, and you don’t hear Mr. Trump talking about it. Nor have I read or heard in the news media any significant mention of this proposal. The repeal of Obamacare, or should I say the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, has been under discussion since the day it was passed in March 2010, and yet now it seems to have been forgotten. We had some mention of a single-payer option by Mr. Sanders, and a recent article by the president that proposed a relook at the concept. Republicans have, however, largely ignored this as a campaign theme. One can only assume that polling indicates that this is not a topic the public is particularly interested in listening to, nor does it elicit the kind of excitement it did in the early years of Obamacare. Maybe this is the result of multiple court decisions that have essentially confirmed Obamacare, or perhaps there is fear that taking away coverage from people would result in a significant backlash. My view is that Mr. Trump simply has no concept of what needs to be done, what the health care needs of the country are, and likely does not care.

Education –We have had the charter school movement and the core curriculum movement, but fundamentally, the education system in certain environments is clearly not functioning properly. As noted by Mr. Rainy, a city alderman in Milwaukee, students in poor communities are underemployed and undereducated. I don’t hear the debate raging. For many reasons, we should be looking to solve that problem. We need a population that is well educated and has the skills to perform all of the tasks required in a technology-driven society, as well as numerous other non-technology related skills. Unfortunately, this, like many issues, is going to require an investment that we do not seem prepared to make. I have often focused on the results of the GI Bill after World War II and the Korean War and the tremendous positive impact that it had on American society, not only in terms of education, but on the growth of GDP and the middleclass. Similarly, we should now focus education on the actual needs of society, which includes people with college degrees to work in technology, doctors and research scientists, as well as the trades—plumbers, electricians, engineers, etc., as opposed to focusing education in ways that do not result in filling our needs.

One obvious approach to this is to create a nonrefundable tax credit which would provide relief to students who obtained degrees or other training in subject areas that are needed in the community in which they live. This would not prevent someone living in the Northeast from obtaining a degree in a subject that was in need in Arizona, and moving to Arizona to secure that position. We would then permit a tax credit for the amount of the student loans paid off annually, with some form of a carry-back and a carry-forward of three to five years, to allow full implementation of this credit. Bernie raised these ideas but they seem a dim distant memory.

One ad hoc thought to conclude on: the “power of positive thinking.” This was a phrase that was common in my youth but seems to have been completely lost in the political conversation and discourse we have today. You hear and read an endless stream of negativity in the candidates’ speeches, comments from the public, or ads on television. The thrust is always negative. If we are going to move out of the constant state of anger and conflict, then the tone of the conversation must change.

When I was running for office, my friends would often comment about the negative ads they saw and how much they despised them. Unfortunately, negative ads do, in fact, move voters, far more than positive ads do. This reflects on the overall mental and emotional state of the American public. Changing this will take some considerable hard work, but should be a focus of the candidates. These are a few thoughts on how to move an election cycle, one that has truly evolved into a reality TV show, to a series of discussions based upon facts and issues. This is the first step in continuing America’s greatness.

Mr. Owens is a former member of Congress representing the New York 21st and a Senior Advisor to Dentons.

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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