What if they held an election but didn’t discuss the most important economic issues?
That’s what’s happening here in 2012.
Yes, taxes and the deficit are significant. But there are even more crucial issues that will determine whether the country continues to slide into wider income inequality and destroys what’s left of the middle class.
And these three crucial issues have been barely mentioned during a campaign obsessed with who pays what in taxes and who doesn’t.
Dean Baker, of the Center on Economic Policy Research, neatly summed up several of the left-out issues recently.
On one of the most critical economic issues, the so-called free trade pacts such as NAFTA and the more recent Korean trade agreement, both parties agree: they favor them.
The media cooperates in keeping this issue off the table by repeating the misleading claims of proponents of the agreements while omitting or marginalizing critics.
“Free trade” is really the big lie of our economy and our politics. As the critics point out, these agreements should be accurately labeled “corporate rights agreements” since they are much more concerned with that issue than with trade. Not only do they result in lower wages in the U.S. and devastated small farming in other countries, these agreements allow corporations to challenge environmental and labor protections in special courts in which the public has no voice.
Both parties crank up the rhetoric to promote the notion that the “free trade” is the road to economic prosperity for everybody. But as Baker points out, the reality of “free trade” is far grimmer for those that work for wages to earn a living because it puts “downward pressure on the wages of manufacturing workers by putting them in direct competition with low-wage workers in the developing world.”
The absence of any discussion of these agreements in the political debate exposes a major fraud on the part of both parties. While the Democrats tout themselves as the party of the little guy, their support for “free trade” shows how closely they hew to the corporate agenda on issues that matter most. For the Republicans, their support for “free trade” agreements which, in the real world, prop up some corporations while punishing others shows they’re less interested in picking economic winners and losers than their free market rhetoric lets on.
And there’s a huge trade deal being secretly negotiated right now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which I previously wrote about here, calling it a Free Trade Frankenstein. Others have called it “NAFTA on steroids.” As with other trade negotiations, the public has been kept out while the corporate lobbyists have full access.
The only TPP issue on which the president and his challenger disagree is who could whip out his pen faster and sign the TPP once the secret negotiations are concluded.
The second major economic issue left out of this election is the deeply unpopular 2008 bailout of the financial sector and corporate America, including the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program and the $16 trillion in cheap or free loans the Federal Reserve provided to corporate America in the wake of the financial collapse.
All this financial assistance was provided with little public debate and without any conditions imposed on the recipients.
The Obama administration dismisses all questions about the bailout by insisting that all the TARP money has been paid back. Case closed, the administration contends.
But could a different kind of bailout, one which imposed specific conditions on banks and corporations, helped more struggling Americans than the one we got, which propped up bank and corporate executives? Why did those portions of TARP that were targeted at ordinary Americans facing foreclosure fail so badly?
And how does this bailout, which picked winners and losers, jibe with the Republicans’ free market rhetoric? What about a belated bailout for the rest of us? Plenty of fodder for tough questions for the president and his challenger, if anybody cared to ask.
The third issue is one that the two parties have disagreed on: increasing the minimum wage.
As a candidate in 2008, President Obama promised to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.50 by 2011 but has taken no action to do so. For his part, Republican challenger Mitt Romney has said he favors tying the minimum wage to inflation, until the right wing of his party objected.
According to a recent paper by the Economic Policy Institute, phasing in the $9.80 minimum wage would raise the wages for 28 million workers, who would earn an additional $40 billion during the phase-in, while gross domestic product would increase by $25 billion and 100,000 new jobs would be created.
We need a robust debate on these issues in the remaining weeks of the presidential campaign that challenges the president and Mr. Romney on where they stand and what actions they’ll take, not just a stale rehash of the same old arguments on taxes. But we won’t get that debate unless we demand it.