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Here are the big economic issues to look for in the Democratic debates


The culling of the large Democratic herd begins.

There are 24 candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination. Twenty of them will participate in debates Wednesday and Thursday night, in groups of 10 each.

Let the sound bites fly.

With so many candidates sharing one stage, meaningful discourse will be hard to come by. Nonetheless, the two nights will be the first time many voters hear from the candidates. First impressions are important.

Wednesday night’s debate lineup features (in alphabetical order) Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Elizabeth Warren.


Thursday’s players are Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.

Steve Bullock, Mike Gravel, Wayne Messam, and Seth Moulton didn’t meet the criteria to appear.

A broad range of questions are expected to be posed by the moderators. We focused on seven business-focused issues that have moved to the forefront of the national discussion.

Problem: GOP gutting of Obamacare

Solution: Medicare for All

Most identified with: Sanders, Warren, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris

The Democrats as a group believe that Trump is vulnerable on health care. The president has chipped away at the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, and has vowed to kill it and replace it with something better.

Expect several candidates to declare their support for “Medicare for All,” but remember this is a catch-all phrase that can mean everything from a single, government-run, Canadian-style health care system (Sanders) to extending the existing Medicare or Medicaid programs to achieve universal coverage. Harris has suggested getting rid of all private insurance, while other candidates say they would support more public options in the current system of largely employer-subsidized health care (Klobuchar and others).


The issue is one of the more divisive among the candidates. Moderates worry that talking about a massive taxpayer-funded health care program will scare off voters. The costs are also staggering and variable, depending on how a plan is set up.

“I reject the notion that it should become a litmus test of what it takes to be a good Democrat,” said Hickenlooper, who expanded Medicaid while governor of Colorado.

Problem: Saving the planet

Solution: Green New Deal 2.0

Most identified with: Biden, Inslee, O’Rourke

Time is running out to save the planet, and presidential hopefuls should build on what Representative Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and Senator Ed Markey started with their Green New Deal proposal, which could transform the economy.

Inslee is the most thoughtful when it comes to fighting climate change, so expect him to keep drilling deep on the issue. He has a track record of transformative environmental policies in his home state of Washington. Inslee’s “America’s Climate Mission” platform calls for a 10-year plan to accelerate the country’s transition to 100 percent clean energy and net-zero green pollution by mandating that new vehicles and new buildings be carbon-neutral. Beyond regulation, Inslee would offer tax incentives to promote clean energy and end subsidies for fossil fuels.

Biden and O’Rourke each have $5 trillion plans that call for net-zero emissions by 2050. Both want to use executive powers and rework the tax code to help meet and fund those goals. Biden wants to roll back Trump tax cuts for corporate America, and O’Rourke would look to structural changes in the tax code (i.e. getting the wealthy and corporations to pay more). Like Inslee, they want to end fossil fuel subsidies.


“The Green New Deal has forced this conversation among the Democrats,” said Greg Cunningham, director of the clean energy and climate change program at the Conservation Law Foundation. “It’s refreshing to see it, and I hope the momentum carries.”

Problem: Growing income inequality

Solution: Taxing the rich

Most identified with: All of the Democrats

Ask any of the Democratic candidates how they will pay for their major policy proposals and the inevitable answer is: Make the wealthy and corporations pay more in taxes. Tax hikes – or repeal of tax cuts – is not so much a big idea as the way to cover the costs of big ideas (see Warren and Sanders on student debt).

Just a few examples:

Harris would reverse tax breaks for the rich enacted in 2017 and impose a new levy on large financial institutions. She’d use the money to fund a massive expansion of Medicaid and a middle-class tax cut.

O’Rouke has trumpeted a progressive “war tax” to fund health care for veterans. It would be imposed each time the United States enters a new war.

Buttigieg hasn’t put forth any formal proposals, but he told CNBC recently: “I think we certainly need to consider a higher marginal tax rate for top income earners. . . . We should consider a wealth tax . . . We should think about turning to a more equitable use of the estate tax, especially for the biggest and wealthiest estates. I’m interested also — if we could find the right way to implement it, and the devil’s in the details — in a financial transactions tax.”


Biden, and maybe Klobuchar, will say they support repealing the 2017 tax cuts for upper-income earners.

Not coincidentally, 18 rich liberals, including former Stride Rite CEO Arnold Hiatt, posted an open letter to GOP and Democratic candidates endorsing a new tax on the very wealthiest of the wealthy – the top 0.1 percent. “A wealth tax could help address the climate crisis, improve the economy, improve health outcomes, fairly create opportunity, and strengthen our democratic freedoms,’’ they wrote.

Problem: $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt

Solution: Loan forgiveness, free tuition

Most identified with: Sanders, Warren

Student loans account for 11 percent of all outstanding US household debt, a burden that hinders economic growth as borrowers delay or give up on major life decisions, including buying a car or home.

Sanders made free tuition at public colleges a key plank in his 2016 presidential campaign, and he’s back with a new twist: forgiving all student debt for 45 million Americans. The total cost: $2.2 trillion over 10 years, paid for with revenue from a tax on financial investment transactions.

Warren’s plan would forgive $460 billion worth of student loans for most borrowers, with amounts capped based on income. Anyone with household income above $250,000 wouldn’t qualify. Like Sanders, she is pushing for free tuition at two- and four-year public colleges. She would cover the costs with revenue from a 2 percent tax on people with wealth of more than $50 million. Both plans have a big hole: They don’t cover tuition at private colleges or for graduate degrees, which accounts for more than half of all such loans. There is also a fairness issue for future students.


“Will those later debts be forgiven, too?” Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the research nonprofit New America, wrote in The New York Times. “People who had already paid back their loans would get nothing. People with future loans would get nothing. People with debt on the day the legislation was enacted would be rewarded.”

Problem: Big Tech is too potent

Solution: More privacy protection, break ’em up

Most identified with: Klobuchar, Warren

Like Hollywood, Silicon Valley has long skewed blue. But the relationship is fraying as several candidates say the biggest companies — Amazon, Facebook, and Google — are monopolies that need to be reined in.

When she announced her candidacy, Klobuchar emphasized her determination to protect consumers from all the data collection, monitoring, and monetization that has made these companies so rich. She would also toughen up antitrust enforcement of mergers.

Warren made headlines with her proposal to bust up the Big 3. She would reverse some tech mergers (Amazon’s purchase of Zappos, for example) and prohibit platforms from both offering a marketplace for commerce and participating in that marketplace (forcing the spinoff of Google search from its ad business, as another).

You can expect other candidates to at least pay lip service to tech privacy and antitrust issues.

Facebook, which has drawn the hottest criticism for a series of privacy leaks, is trying to get ahead of the issue. “From what I’ve learned, I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March.

Problem: Closing the gender pay gap

Solution: Requiring firms to obtain “equal pay certification”

Most identified with: Harris

Women who work full time are paid less than men, on average, and the gap has been stubbornly hard to close, despite antibias laws. Harris wants employers to prove they’re not paying women less than men who do comparable work. Under her proposal, companies would be fined 1 percent of their profits for every 1 percent difference in the gender wage gap.

Companies with 100 or more employees would be required to obtain an “equal pay certification .” They would also have to disclose on their websites whether they are “equal pay certified.”

Beyond pay, Harris wants businesses to report statistics on the percentage of women who are in leadership roles and among the top earners.

Harris is focused on changing the way equal pay rules are enforced by putting the responsibility for rooting out discrimination on corporations.

By itself, mandating companies to report gender wage gaps publicly can be a powerful tool.

Shareholders already have put pressure on corporations to do this, allowing the public to keep track of pay inequities.

And some countries in Europe have required companies to disclose more data about gender.

Harris has taken the concept one step further, by proposing steep penalties.

What to do with all that newfound money? She proposes using it to fund universal paid family and medical leave. It’s a virtuous circle that could help keep more women in the workplace.

Problem: Robots may take your jobs

Solution: Freedom Dividend (a.k.a. universal basic income)

Most identified with: Yang

There’s Medicare for All, and if tech entrepreneur Yang becomes president, there would also be a Freedom Dividend for all. Each American over age 18 would receive a universal basic income of $1,000 month.

Why? Yang believes technology will displace many workers, and they need the means to retrain, relocate, or simply pay their bills during the transition. Yang isn’t the only one who believes the robots are coming after our jobs: A McKinsey study estimates that as many as a third of workers by 2030 could be displaced by automation.

Yang proposes to pay for this by revamping welfare programs, taxing top earners and polluters, and implementing a European-style value-added tax.

Universal basic income is not a new idea. It has been kicking around for decades, even drawing support from big thinkers like the economist Milton Friedman. While such a program may seem fair and simple to operate, it may not lead to the results you might imagine.

“It’s a very steep price for simplicity,” said Robert Pollin, a professor and codirector of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “While means-tests programs are more complex, you get a lot more bang for the buck, because you aren’t spending money on people who don’t need the support.”

Larry Edelman can be reached at Shirley Leung can be reached at