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Economics weren’t the driving theme of Thursday night’s main-stage Republican presidential debate. But four important pocket-book issues got an airing:
Fox News moderator Chris Wallace got Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee to go head-to-head on entitlement programs—that is, Social Security and Medicare.
Chris Christie claimed the current system will either “bankrupt our country or lead to massive tax increases” in the long run, and advocated for a shift towards one that benefits only those who actually need it. Christie’s 12-point plan on entitlement, unveiled back in April, includes a proposal to shift back the Social Security retirement age by 2 years—from 67 to 69—over the next 25 years. It also calls for the Medicare eligibility age to be raised from 65 to 67, and for reduced Social Security benefits for Americans making over $80,000 a year in other income. Christie also wants to eliminate these benefits altogether for anyone making over $200,000.
Huckabee attacked Christie’s proposal. “Lets all be reminded, 60 million Americans are on Social Security—60 million,” he said. “A third of those people depend on 90% of their income from Social Security.” Huckabee has said in the past that cutting benefits now would be breaking a promise to the American people who have been forced to pay Social Security taxes throughout their careers. He insisted all our current system needs is some funding, and that a national retail sales tax—an idea branded as the “FairTax”—could add to Social Security’s funding by bringing in more taxpayers, including the “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers—all the people that are freeloading off the system now.” The sales tax was one of two unusual, far-reaching tax proposals discussed Thursday night.
Huckabee’s tax plan would eliminate the income tax altogether, instead instituting a single national retail sales tax on all goods and services. Huckabee’s idea that the tax would capture the income of people in the underground economy, such as drug dealers and prostitutes, comes from the fact that they’d pay a sales tax whenever they purchased goods. (However, if they are not paying income taxes now, they might also under the new system collect their earnings without charging a sales tax.)
Huckabee also noted another group that does not currently pay taxes into Social Security. “Most of the income in this country is made by people at the top who get dividends and capital gains,” he said. A flat sales tax would capture a share of any income they spent. However, it could lower the effective tax rate of wealthy people who are able to save much of their income.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson outlined a proposal for a flat taxation system he said would be similar to the Biblical practice of tithing, saying, “I think God is a pretty fair guy.” Just as many Christians set aside a flat 10% of their income for giving, Carson wants a flat tax across the board, with everyone paying the same rate. “You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way,” said Carson. “And you get rid of the deductions, you get rid of all the loopholes.”
Carson called his proposal a “proportional tax.” A proportional tax is different from our current system, which charges higher rates to higher earners. Proportional taxes can impose a heavier effective burden on lower earners, since high earners tend to have more money left over after paying for necessities.
Stoking economic growth
There was much talk of job creation: Christie spoke about creating 192,000 private sector jobs in New Jersey in the past five-and-a-half years, then John Kasich touted his addition of 350,000 jobs in Ohio in the past three-and-a-half. Scott Walker had to defend an earlier growth promise: Wisconsin only gained half the 250,000 jobs in his first term that he promised during his campaign to govern the state.
Jeb Bush was thrust into the center of the discussion when moderator Chris Wallace asked him about his claim that he would deliver 4% economic growth and 19 million jobs if he manages to be elected for two terms in office. Bush accused the political left of being complacent with “2% growth,” saying that the United States has achieved 4% growth 27 times since World War II.
In terms of action to get there, Bush said the U.S. will need to “fix a convoluted tax code,” axe regulations, and repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He also said he would “embrace the energy revolution.”
Fact-checkers at the New York Times say that only four presidential terms since WWII have included 4% growth, and that while Democrats including Hillary Clinton have also expressed a need for exceeding 2%, a sustained 4% rate is unlikely unless our economy can either gain workers or increase efficiency.
Health care reform
Two candidates were questioned by moderators for championing policies traditionally associated with Democrats.
Megyn Kelly grilled Ohio governor John Kasich on his expansion of Medicaid in Ohio to prisoners and the mentally ill, a move she said is “already over budget…by some estimates costing taxpayers an additional $1.4 billion in just the first 18 months.”
Kasich shot back by comparing himself to Ronald Reagan, who expanded Medicaid multiple times, and defended the expansion as a move to get Ohio’s working poor and its prison populations “on their feet.”
Moderator Brett Baier noted that in the past, businessman Donald Trump openly favored a single-payer healthcare system, a universal system in which the government funds all care via taxes. Trump didn’t deny it. “It works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland,” he said. And he said universal health care might have worked in the U.S. “in a different age.”
Trump said he now supports a private healthcare system. Echoing John McCain’s 2008 health-plan proposals, Trump wants to see America “get rid of the artificial lines around every state,” allowing people to buy insurance across state lines. As for “people who can’t take care of themselves,” Trump suggested he’ll have “a different system.”