Footnoting the debate!

October 16, 2012

Think of this as real-time context for the various statistics and ideas the two candidates talked about this evening. We let you know where you can find more information and whether there were any red flags for how candidates are using various pieces of evidence.

You can get a sense of how this works in these Wonkblog footnotes for the first presidential debate.  

[liveblog]

Has Obamacare stopped businesses from hiring?

Twice in the debate we’ve heard Gov. Romney talk about Obamacare as a deterrent to hiring new workers. The Romney campaign has previously cited a poll from the the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to support this claim, which found 73 percent of businesses to call Obamacare “an obstacle to growing their business and hiring more employees.”

Here’s what Factcheck.org has found about that poll:

That statistic was based on an online, opt-in survey of small-business executives. A press release from the Chamber of Commerce about the survey carries a large caveat: “This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.” In other words, the chamber can’t be sure it’s a representative sample of small-business executives. Those kinds of surveys can be useful for marketing research purposes, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center and the most recent past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. “But from the point of view of public policy decisions, they tend not to be given much credence.”

The health care law’s biggest impact on employers is its requirement that all employers with 50 or more workers must provide coverage. We do indeed have a bit of evidence of employers claiming to scale back on workers’ hours to dodge this requirement, but not much in the way of evidence that they’ve halted hiring.

Yes, exports have risen a lot under Obama. But so have imports.

Obama boasted that the country is now on track to doubling its exports, which he promised in 2010 to do within five years. In 2011, exports hit a record-setting high of more than $2.1 trillion, up 34 percent since 2009. Exports in 2012 are on track to exceed 2011's level as well. At the same time, however, the pace of imports has grown even faster, widening the trade deficit progressively each year since 2009. That's been particularly true with China. 

Some analysts believe that gap carries a real costs. "Between 2001 and 2001, the trade deficit with China eliminated or displaced more than 2.7 million U.S. jobs, over 2.1 million of which (76.9 percent) were in manufacturing," concludes the Economic Policy institute.

Why outsourcing is not a threat to the economy

The penultimate question in the debate was from a woman concerned that outsourcing is hurting the US economy, a concern both Obama and Romney appeared to share. But economists are unanimous that trade, including outsourcing, is hugely beneficial to economic growth at home and abroad. A poll of top economists found that literally none thought that NAFTA hurt the economy or that free trade in general was harmful, and the vast majority thought free trade measures were helpful. Columbia's Jagdish Bhagwati, one of the best trade economists currently working, has a good explanation of why we should welcome outsourcing here.

George W. Bush did want to turn Medicare into a voucher plan

"There are some things where Governor Romney is different from George W. Bush," Obama said. "George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher." That's not true. This comes from pages 233 and 234 of "Renewing America's Purpose," Bush's book of policy proposals from 2000. Does this sound familiar?

The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare was created as part of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. The 17-member commission was led by Senator John Breaux, a Democrat, and Representative Bill Thomas, a Republican. The commission introduced a reform plan modeled after the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, which provides benefits to approximately 9 million federal employees and their families and retirees. The plan called for a new solvency test based on the total cost of the program, guaranteed protections for low-income seniors, and a choice of government-approved and supported plans. Unfortunately, the Bipartisan Commission fell one vote short of the 11 votes necessary to approve the proposed reform plan...As President, Governor Bush will seek to reform Medicare by building on these recent bipartisan efforts.

That's not the clearest language in the world, but Bush is describing a premium support -- or voucher -- system for Medicare. Republicans have wanted to reform Medicare along these lines for a long time.

Obama and the assault weapons ban

Answering a question about gun control, Obama said that he would "look into" reintroducing a ban on assault weapons. This isn't the first time his administration has mentioned this. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said something similar in August:

“He does support renewing the assault weapons ban,” Carney said at his press briefing, one day after a shooter killed six people at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin. In response to several questions, he added that “there has been reluctance by Congress to pass that renewal.”

The top Obama spokesman reiterated several times that the administration intends to push for gun safety “under existing law” and “not infringe upon Second Amendment rights of citizens.” Evoking Obama’s recent speech in New Orleans, he said the president wants to improve background checks and enforce laws to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals.

But Obama certainly hasn't pushed for any such legislation while in office.

What does Romney really think of Arizona’s immigration law?

Obama accused Mitt Romney of saying that Arizona's SB1070—which allows local police to check for immigration status—should be "a model" for the nation, while Romney said he was referring to another law. 

Romney's correct: What he was referring to in those remarks was a separate law that allows Arizona employers to check the immigration status of potential workers. His position on SB 1070, however, has been vague. In June, he said that "each state has the duty—and the right—to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities." But he's declined to elaborate upon whether he agreed with the Supreme Courts to strike down major parts of the law.

However, Obama is right that an immigration adviser to Romney was a chief architect of SB 1070. Kris Kobach is an informal adviser to his campaign and was the legal mastermind behind Arizona'scontroversial law.

“Washington Bureaucrats” and contraceptives

President Obama says that Gov. Romney would turn women’s health care decisions back to Washington when it comes to contraceptive coverage. Gov. Romney says, under his administration, “Washington bureaucrats” would have nothing to do with the issue.

Gov. Romney seems to be pretty much right here: He would repeal the Affordable Care Act, and that would turn the decision of whether to cover contraceptives back to employers - no Washington bureaucrats involved. It’s worth noting that prior to the health care law that 86 percent of employers offered such coverage, although often with co-pays (which the Affordable Care Act outlaws).

Obama and Romney on Lilly Ledbetter

The Lilly Ledbetter Paycheck Fairness Act was the first bill that President Obama signed into law. Ledbetter had alleged gender discrimination in her work as a supervisor at a tire factory, but lost a Supreme Court case on the issue. In response, Congress created a law in her name that would allow more workers to sue on similar grounds, expanding the statute of limitations.

When asked by the Huffington Post's Sam Stein what he thought of the law, Romney replied: “Sam, we’ll get back to you on that," as Obama alluded to. But a few hours after Stein published the story, the Romney campaign clarified that Romney would not repeal the law.

Mitt Romney’s plan for low-income capital gains: not a big deal

Mitt Romney highlighted his plan to eliminating capital gains taxes on the 94 percent of Americans who make up $200,000 a year. Only problem: they don't pay much of those taxes. Here's their average rates, calculated using Tax Policy Center figures and means for its income classes:

People below $200,000 pay, on average, less than one percent of their income on capital gains or dividends taxes. The only taxpayers for whom these are a significant burden are the very poor - for whom all taxes are onerous - and the very rich, who get much of their money from investments.

Further, Romney could actually discourage work and investment by causing a sudden, huge spike in taxes for people at that $200,000 cutoff. See Matt Yglesias for more on that.

How much credit does Obama deserve for the oil and gas boom?

During the energy portion of the debate, Obama and Romney argued over who deserves credit for the recent boom in U.S. oil and gas production.

Both candidates agree that oil and natural gas production has risen under President Obama. The debate is over where it's occurred. Romney gives most of the credit to oil and gas companies working on state and private lands, while arguing that production is actually down on public lands thanks to Obama's policies. Let's take a closer look:

Natural gas. Natural gas production is up considerably on state and private lands, up "16.4 billion cubic feet per day" from 2005 and 2011, according to Adam Sieminski of the Energy Information Administration. That's thanks in part to new fracking techniques that allow companies to extract natural gas from shale rock.

On public lands, meanwhile, gas production has been steadily falling since 2003. That's mostly due to a fall in offshore gas production in public waters, particularly the Outer Continental Shelf. On land, natural gas production is slightly higher than it was during the waning years of the Bush administration. But all told, the share of U.S. natural gas coming from public lands has dropped from 35 percent in 2003 to 21 percent in 2011. That's partly because many of the big shale plays are located on private land.

Oil. This is a little more complicated. According to Sieminski, oil production on state and private lands was declining or flat during the Bush years and early Obama years. That all changed in 2010, when it rose by 385,000 barrels per day, thanks in large part to a boom in production on state and private lands in the Bakken formation in North Dakota.

On public lands, meanwhile, oil production rose from 1.6 million barrels per day in 2008 to 2 million barrels per day in 2010. It then dropped about 14 percent in 2011, partly because there was a moratorium in offshore drilling after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and partly because oil drilling on private lands was cheaper and easier

Since then, however, Obama has been fairly supportive of new oil drilling in federal waters. In January, the Department of Interior announced a deal to lease 38 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil exploration. That said, it's true that Romney supports a much bigger expansion of drilling on the minority of federal resources that are still off-limits.

Permits. Okay, so what about Romney's contention that Obama has cut the number of drilling permits in half? According to data from the Bureau of Land Management, the federal government issued 42 percent fewer leases on public lands during the first three years of the Obama administration compared with the last three years of the Bush administration.

Some of the drop in permits (though not all) was tied to the moratorium after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And even Obama's critics at the Institute for Energy Research concede that the president isn't wholly to blame for the decline: "[T]his decrease isn't a result of President Obama's policies exclusively, but it is the result of decades and policies that have systematically reduced energy production on federal lands." Still, IER does make a case that Obama hasn't done more to reverse that broader permitting slowdown.

Bottom line: Romney is right that state and private lands are becoming increasingly important for U.S. oil and gas drilling. But Obama's record on public lands is somewhat mixed. Onshore gas production is up. Oil production on government lands was up before the oil spill but the fell in 2011. So some of this question depends on whether one thinks the offshore drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill was warranted. It's also true that the Obama administration hasn't sped up the pace of federal leasing nearly as much as the oil and gas industry would like.

Romney’s deductions cap would raise $730 billion. His tax plan costs $5 trillion.

When asked what tax breaks he'd get rid of to pay for his rate cuts, Romney suggested that "everybody gets $25,000 of deductions or credits." That is, rather than get rid of individual deductions or exclusions, he'd have a total cap. 

The problem is, a deduction cap at a $25,000 level wouldn't come close to paying for the $5 trillion in rate cuts. The Third Way calculates that it would only generate $730 billion in revenue. Lowering the cap would raise more money, but it would risk hitting middle-class taxpayers, which Romney has also sworn not to do. So doesn't resolve the central conundrum of Romney's plan.

No, Mitt Romney, deficits don’t cost the average taxpayer $4,000

MItt Romney cited a study by AEI’s Aspen Gorry and Matt Jensen that calculated the cost of servicing new debt under Obama's budget, and claimed it put the number at $4,000 for a typical family. Nope, not what the study said. Gorry and Jensen found the debt burden is highly progressive. High earners would pay most of it but middle-class families would pay much less. Indeed, a family making between $40-50,000 (the median household income as of last year) would see a tax hike of $530.85, not $3-4,000 as Romney stated. Further, Obama has promised future spending cuts and revenue raisers that would reduce that debt burden. It’s also possible to avoid tax increases to pay for new debt by cutting spending, or focusing revenue raisers on high earners.

Romney: “Let Detroit go bankrupt”

Obama accused Romney of calling for the auto industry to go bankrupt, while Romney says he wanted those companies to go through formal bankruptcy in order to save the industry. Here's what Romney's position was at the time, as he laid out in a 2008 op-ed called "Let Detroit go bankrupty."

Remembering when Romney supported higher gas prices

It's true that Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has said he doesn't see it as his job to lower gas prices. But that's a policy Mitt Romney used to agree with.  Here's Alec MacGillis:

When lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, a fellow Republican, called for suspending the state’s 23.5 cent gas tax during a price spike in May 2006, Romney rejected the idea, saying it would only further drive up gasoline consumption. “I don’t think that now is the time, and I’m not sure there will be the right time, for us to encourage the use of more gasoline,” Romney said, according to the Quincy Patriot Ledger’s report at the time. “I’m very much in favor of people recognizing that these high gasoline prices are probably here to stay.”

 There was a time when politicians from both parties agreed on the threat from global warming and saw higher gasoline prices as one way to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels. That time has passed, at least for now.

Romney backs Pell Grants, but Ryan wants to cut them

"I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing," Romney said early in the debate. But it's a little unclear what would happen to the program under Romney's proposal. In his education plan, he criticizes an "expanding entitlement mentality" for jeopardizing the finances of the Pell Grant program.

Instead, he says he'd like to "refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches." But he doesn't go into the specifics.

Paul Ryan has been a lot more specific—his budget has proposed to make significant cuts as well as reforms to the program. US News sums up his proposed changes:

It would lower the income level at which students qualify for an automatic maximum grant, create a maximum income to be eligible for a grant, reduce the amount of income a student or family can keep to cover minimal living expenses before being expected to contribute toward college costs, freeze the maximum grant at the fiscal year 2012 level of $5,550, and make students attending school less than half-time ineligible for grants.

What’s happened to college grads during the recession

Mitt Romney said there is now "less jobs and more debt" for college graduates than there was pre-recession. That's not really true. Overall job changes during the recession were basically zero for college grads and those with advanced degrees actually gained jobs:


And indeed, those with bachelor's degrees are by far the best off of any group in terms of unemployment:


There's no doubt that graduating into a bad economy is really bad for students, and continues to hurt them years into the future. But college grads are actually making out pretty well following the recession.

Unemployment for college graduates is only 4.1%

Tonight's first question came from a college student asking what the candidates will do to make sure he can get a job right out of college. It's worth saying, for the record, that the unemployment rate for college graduates is 4.1 percent. That's not where the problem is. The unemployment rate for high-school drop-outs is 11.3 percent.

George H.W. Bush was right

This is the seminal moment from the 1992 town hall debate. Arguably, it's the seminal moment from the 1992 election, and certainly the seminal moment from any town hall debate. President George H.W. Bush gets asked how the national debt affects him, and if it doesn't, how he can possibly solve the nation's problems. He flubs the question. Bill Clinton knocks it out of the park. Game, set, match.

But just for the record: It's a nonsense question. The economy was in recession in 1990 and 1991, and unemployment was rising through much of 1992. But it wasn't the fault of the national debt. Bush shouldn't have let his contempt for the question shine through as much as he did, but his response to it showed a perfectly clear understanding of the underlying issues: Namely, the debt wasn't driving the economic pain Americans were feeling (tight monetary policy and the oil spike after Iraq invaded Kuwait were much more central), and the fact that some Americans think otherwise is a huge problem.

Today, of course, we're in much the same boat. The labor market is in bad shape. The debt isn't to blame, except insofar as misguided fears of debt are holding us back from more appropriately stimulative policy. But, as often happens during bad economies, the debt has come to loom large in voters' minds, even as it's not our top economic problem. What the country needs is some Bush-esque real talk (not to mention, when we do get down to cutting the debt, some Bush-esque Republicans willing to agree to a deal that raises taxes). What we're going to get is a lot of Clintonian feeling of the nation's pain.

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