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Questions for the presidential debate

Questions for the presidential debate

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We can guess what some of the questions at next week’s presidential debate will be about. Racism. Law and order. The pandemic. Health care. Here are two that Donald Trump and Joe Biden probably won’t be asked — but should be.

1. The “great divergence” in the economy. It’s fine to debate whether the economy is going well or not but even in the best of times, the overall job statistics paper over one key trend. Economists call this “the great divergence” — the widening gap between urban areas that are prospering in the new economy and rural areas that aren’t. There’s always been a gap between the city and the country, of course, but there’s always been some kind of economic connection, too.

Technology was supposed to result in “the death of distance” and a rural renaissance. While it has enabled some remote workers to live where they want and work someplace else, it’s mostly accelerated the gap between the “haves” and “have not” communities. In 2019, 79% of the nation’s venture capital went to start-ups in just three states — California, Massachusetts and New York, according to axios.

Neither party is to blame for this, but neither one really has a solution to it, either. For Republicans this is an uncomfortable topic because the solutions would likely require more governmental activism than their limited-government philosophy is comfortable with. Democrats aren’t squeamish about an activist government but have generally lost interest in rural America so this isn’t top of mind for them.

We challenge both candidates to address this: What do they propose to close this economic gap?

2. Demographics. Demographics, the saying goes, is destiny, which makes it odd why there’s so little discussion of this topic. We argue about some ancillary issues — immigration, Social Security — while missing the big picture. Here are some numbers the presidential candidates ought to be forced to address. In 1950, there were 16.5 workers paying into Social Security to support one beneficiary. By 2018, there were just 2.8 workers paying to support one beneficiary. That’s why your Social Security taxes are so high — and why many workers worry they’ll never get any benefits, because each year that worker-to-beneficiary ratio gets smaller. To guarantee those benefits, we need more younger workers paying into the system.

However, the nation’s fertility rate is dropping. The number of babies born in the U.S. last year was the lowest since 1985, according to federal report issued earlier this year. Demographers will tell you that the “replacement rate” for each generation is 2.1 babies born to each woman during her lifetime. The rate is currently 1.705. You don’t have to be a math expert to see that these numbers don’t work out well. This is why older Americans — the whitest age cohort — have a vested interest in seeing more immigration, not less. Their Social Security and other benefits depend on it. Trump has done his best to reduce immigration, even though that hurts the age cohort that supported him most enthusiastically four years ago. When Democrats talk about immigration, they often do so in social justice terms. That’s nice, but misses the math.

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