Politicians should take the test too.

Photographer: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Democrats' Dreams Need Data

Paula Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics for Bloomberg View. She was London bureau chief for Businessweek and Washington economics editor for the New York Times, and is a co-author of “Take on the Street: How to Fight for Your Financial Future.”
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Here's an open-book test for the three candidates facing one another in Saturday night's Democratic debate. Giving the candidates the questions in advance is aimed at making all the presidential debates more informative and the answers more substantive. Included are questions related to Friday night's Paris attacks, which have upended CBS News's plans to focus the debate mostly on economic issues:

Bernie Sanders: In the previous debate, you spoke about your role on the Senate Veterans Committee, and how it reminded you every day of the human cost of war. Do you still see Syria as a human quagmire, as you called it, like Vietnam in the 1960s and early 70s? Should the U.S. deepen its involvement or get out altogether? What are the risks of either course?

Hillary Clinton: If you were president, what would you do to reduce the chances of attacks like the one in Paris, beyond the obvious steps of tightening security at airports and along the borders? Would you, for example, close the borders, as France did? Would you put American boots on the ground in Syria? Or, alternatively, would you accelerate efforts to decrease our involvement in Syria?  

Martin O'Malley: You said earlier that Islamic State, along with a nuclear Iran, is the greatest national security threat to the U.S. What more would you do in terms of spending on and reforming the Pentagon, protecting military preparedness and improving intelligence-gathering to address those threats?

Bernie Sanders: You say inequality is the great moral issue of our time. While it's clear inequality has increased, it's less clear that it's the cause of the problems you cite, such as stagnant wages and slow growth. Can you point to statistical evidence that connects inequality to these problems? And doesn't some inequality spur hard work and innovation?

Hillary Clinton: You say you would attack inequality by making the wealthy "pay their fair share." But the top 20 percent of wage earners already pay 84 percent of federal income taxes. The bottom 40 percent on average pay no income tax; instead, they get refunds through various tax credits. What do you consider a fair share then? What should the top income-tax rate, now 39.6 percent, be?

Martin O'Malley: You want to break up the big banks. To do that, you would reinstate Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that separated commercial and investment banking but was repealed in 1999. Yet none of the financial institutions that failed, or nearly did, in the 2008 financial crisis -- Countrywide, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, Wachovia and AIG -- were financial supermarkets. All would have gotten into just as much trouble if the Glass-Steagall law had been on the books. So why is restoring that law necessary?

Sanders: You say another way to address inequality would be to stop corporations from moving profits and jobs overseas to avoid paying taxes. How, exactly, would you do that? And if, as most economists say, inequality is due largely to technology advances, why not give more priority to updating worker skills and improving education, over redistributionist tax policies? 

Clinton: You have come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal because, you say, it would harm American workers and wages. But the agreement says low-wage countries can't get access to the U.S. market without first allowing labor unions and collective bargaining, which over time would erode their advantages. Why would you oppose the TPP if it both forces Asian countries to raise their labor standards and opens their markets to U.S. companies? 

O'Malley: You said that 70 percent of Americans are earning the same or less than they were 12 years ago. But according to the best data available -- the Labor Department's quarterly census of employment and wages -- average weekly wages for non-supervisory workers have actually risen an inflation-adjusted 42 percent since 1975. And if you adjust the data using the Federal Reserve's preferred inflation gauge, wages for most workers hit a new high this year. What is your 70 percent figure based on?     

Sanders: You support corn-based ethanol as one way to reduce greenhouse gases and fight climate change. But various studies show that making corn ethanol uses up as much energy as it produces, and also drives up food prices. Congress has allowed ethanol tax credits to expire and the Environmental Protection Agency has cooled to corn-based ethanol. So what reason is there, beyond courting votes in Iowa, to support ethanol production? 

Clinton: In the last debate, you said you know how to find common ground, even when dealing with Republicans who never had a good word to say about you. On what major issue -- tax reform, Obamacare, student debt, immigration, criminal justice reform -- could you find common ground with a Republican candidate? Please describe what such a compromise might look like. 

O'Malley: You say special interests and wealthy financiers have corrupted politics. To make elections fairer, you propose giving a refundable tax credit to those who contribute $25 to a congressional candidate. But only 6 percent of taxpayers check the box on their federal income-tax forms to contribute $3 to the presidential election, even though it doesn't affect what they owe or what they're due. Doesn't your proposal ignore the fact that Americans have never liked the idea of publicly financed elections? 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net