The GOP Debate Finally Got Substantive… But That Didn’t Make It Any Less Terrifying

Last night’s debate on economic issues showed yet again how uninterested the GOP is in fighting inequality.

Marc Daalder

Ben Carson at last night's Republican debate. (Fox Business)

I went into last night’s Republican Presidential debate expecting the candidates to discuss the issues that have been making headlines recently — important topics like whether the pyramids were used to store grain, or to kill or not to kill baby Hitler (Jeb Bush’s response: Hell yeah, I would!”), or if, as Michele Bachmann recently asserted, the end times are nigh. But to my surprise, the debate was actually populated with serious questions on the economy and foreign policy.

Some substance was there, but the candidates’ willingness to lie to the American people was still stunning.

Frontrunner Donald Trump was, of course, his usual bloviating self, and while most of the rest of the candidates made seemingly genuine attempts to engage with one another and provided answers to moderators that at least sounded substantive, the truth is that few did little more than repeat memorized talking points. Rand Paul couldn’t stop talking about real” conservatives, Carly Fiorina seemed incapable of answering a question without mentioning a three page tax code, Marco Rubio took every opportunity to speak as a space for him to quickly reiterate his entire platform (“tax reform, regulatory reform, fully utilize our energy resources, repeal and replace Obamacare, and modernize higher education”) and Jeb Bush slammed Hillary Clinton each time he opened his mouth, like a reflexive twitch.

Some substance was there, but the candidates’ willingness to lie to the American people was still stunning. For a debate focused on economic policy, the Republicans uttered an incredible number of demonstrably false statements. They criticized reasonable reform and expansions of welfare programs and touted tax plans they claimed would benefit middle- and working-class America, when in reality these schemes would only further concentrate the wealth in the hands of the corporations and the wealthy few.

The deception began from the very first question, one on the Fight for 15 campaign (which pulled off another nationwide low-wage worker strike yesterday) that was answered by the three front-running candidates: Trump, Rubio and Ben Carson. The three repeated the same old right-wing talking points on raising the minimum wage, arguing that doing so will increase unemployment at home and reduce American competitiveness in the global market.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, these points have been repeatedly refuted. Numerous conflicting studies searching for a negative or positive impact on wage hikes have proven inconclusive, and the recent case of Seattle’s increase to a $15 minimum showed none of the prophesied business closures, job losses or the appearance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse over the horizon. In fact, new businesses are actually opening throughout the city, especially in the restaurant industry, which employs a vast number of minimum-wage workers.

Beyond this purely utilitarian view, the minimum wage is also a moral issue. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argued recently, Some jobs are worth risking if a strong moral case can be made for a $15 minimum. That moral case is that no one should be working full time and still remain in poverty.” Does Donald Trump really want the American workforce to resemble the exploited and impoverished Chinese one, just so the American 1% can enrich themselves instead of the Chinese 1%?

Of course, the Republicans never explored this level of nuance in their debate. Instead, they moved on to criticisms of American entitlement. Senator Ted Cruz defended his own plans to cut welfare for the elderly, including his proposal to raise the retirement age and strip future retirees of benefits. Rand Paul attacked Marco Rubio for daring to suggest that low-income parents be granted tax breaks. He’s talking about giving people money they didn’t pay,” Paul noted — a cardinal sin on the Right.

Fortunately, the debate’s coverage of welfare issues was short-lived. A much greater focus was placed on obscure and shaky tax plans that each of the candidates had put forward. The vast majority proposed implementing some sort of flat tax, universal for all or most citizens.

Cruz had the lowest, with a 10 percent flat tax that doesn’t kick in for a family of four unless they’re earning more than $36,000, and a 16 percent tax for all businesses. Paul was only just above that, with a universal 14.5 percent flat tax that moderator Neil Cavuto argued would risk causing a near-term budget crisis at the start of his potential presidential term. Paul waved these concerns away without doing much to assuage them.

Carson also advocated a 15 percent flat tax, advancing the old argument that such schemes are the fairest a tax code can get. Carly Fiorina didn’t put forward a specific number, but repeatedly promised a three-page tax code. (Maybe she’d use a smaller font and tiny margins.)

Despite Carson’s protestations, the flat tax is not actually fairer than a progressive tax structure. As numerous studies have shown, when the numbers are finally crunched, a flat tax will often increase taxes for the middle- and working-classes and drastically cut them for the rich. By comparison, a progressive tax structure increases the percentage that people pay as their income rises. Since their respective announcements, both Cruz’s and Paul’s plans have been torn apart by economics experts.

In the end, the only person to advance even slightly reasonable views on taxes was, ironically, Donald Trump, who has embraced the idea of taxing the wealthy more than the poor (though certainly not to the levels that Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have proposed). In addition, Trump harshly criticized President Obama’s just-revealed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. While his condemnations were more based on his vehement anti-Chinese views, Trump now finds himself on the side of progressives who believe that the TPP benefits corporations over the workers whose jobs it will ship overseas.

With the exception of Trump’s moderate views in some realms of economics, last night’s debate was a terrifying display of the Republicans’ willingness to undercut and marginalize American workers in the name of the free market. After all that, I suppose that at least Michele Bachmann can take some solace in the fact that she could be right — the end times may well be nigh.

Marc Daalder is a journalist based in Detroit, Michigan and Wellington, NZ who writes on politics, public housing, and international relations. Twitter: @marcdaalder.
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