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8 Questions We Want Answered During Tonight's Debate

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American presidential debates often appear to be decided on relatively trivial issues. For example, some commentators believe John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate because of Nixon's five-o'clock shadow. And when Ronald Reagan uttered his famous line, "There you go again," it seemed like a game-changer in his contest against President Jimmy Carter.

So yeah, little things do matter in presidential debates. But we think big issues still matter too. With that in mind, we asked some of our top analysts to come up with some questions about the economy that they'd like to have answered tonight by President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Fixing entitlements
Morgan Housel: The two of you have distinctly opposite views on how to make entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare sustainable in the long run. And a majority of Americans don't seem to agree with either of you. A 2010 Gallup poll showed three-quarters of Americans agree that entitlements pose a serious threat to the economy over the coming decades, yet two-thirds opposed reducing benefits, and more than half opposed raising taxes. Since nearly every American pays into the entitlement system and eventually receives benefits, it's in everyone's personal best interest to want more benefits and lower taxes. How do you convince Americans to sacrifice something they're not willing to sacrifice?

Getting the debt under control
Alex DuMortier: Gentlemen, the ratio of U.S. government debt to Gross Domestic Product is now roughly 1:1. A comprehensive historical survey (link opens PDF) by Professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff suggests that once this ratio exceeds 90%, the debt dynamics take a damaging toll on economic growth. Furthermore, the figure above does not include unfunded liabilities linked to health care and Social Security. While an immediate, significant change in government commitments would be a mistake, U.S. policymakers must demonstrate that they have the resolve to tackle this problem over a medium-to-longer-term horizon.

So my question is: How do you propose to address this problem, and will you agree to form a bipartisan commission that would produce binding recommendations to put this country's "debt path" on a sustainable footing?

Stimulus: Too much or too little?
John Reeves: In February 2009 Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which is often referred to as "the Stimulus." In the months after the signing of this bill into law by President Obama, unemployment peaked at 10.1%, which was considerably higher than White House projections, with or without the stimulus.

Despite that discouraging data, a significant majority of leading economists, in a University of Chicago survey earlier this year, determined that the stimulus kept unemployment lower than it otherwise would have been.

Given what we now know about the trajectory of the unemployment rate, was the stimulus too small? Or were there better strategies at hand to jump-start the economy at that time?

Strengthening Social Security
Ilan Moscovitz: It's estimated that by 2033, Social Security won't be able to pay out full scheduled benefits. Proposals for fixing the problem range from raising revenue by lifting the payroll tax cap or raising rates to cutting benefits through payment reductions or higher retirement ages. What proposal or proposals do you favor?

Energy and taxes
Aimee Duffy: The Congressional Research Service recently published a report (link opens PDF file) that indicates a modest tax on carbon could reduce our projected deficit by as much as 50% over the next decade. The study uses a $20-per-ton tax on carbon dioxide, increasing by 5.6% annually, to determine that the first year of the tax could generate $90 billion and cut the deficit from $2.3 trillion to $1.1 trillion over 10 years.

Another carbon tax analysis, this time from MIT (link opens PDF file), uses the same $20-per-ton figure and confirms the economic benefits of a carbon tax. This study also adds another compelling dimension: the environment. MIT analysts suggest that a tax on carbon will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions 14% below 2006 levels by 2020.

This is effectively a win-win situation for the economy and the environment. If elected, would you pursue a carbon tax, and why or why not?

Rich Smith: Governor Romney, President Obama: In 2011, America used 6.87 billion barrels of oil. At an average cost of $90 a barrel, this works out to $618 billion spent on oil.

The defense budget for 2011 was $708 billion, of which $159 billion was specifically earmarked for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (IAP). A glance at the map suggests that much of our annual defense spending is specifically aimed at preserving and defending U.S. access to oil. In fact, if even just the money spent on IAP was considered a "cost" of oil, you could argue that the true cost of a barrel of crude is not $90, but a figure closer to $113.

So my question: If you were to consider the tax revenue spent defending access to foreign oil as part of the "cost" of oil, would this raise the "cost" of a barrel of oil high enough that alternative energy sources such as wind and solar would actually look competitive with fossil fuels? Alternatively, could greater emphasis on alternative energy permit us to decrease spending on the defense budget?

Time to abandon the strong dollar?
John Maxfield: The strong-dollar policy has contributed significantly to our rising standard of living since World War II. It allows domestic consumers to purchase goods from places like China at a relative discount, and encourages capital flows into the United States, fueling equity prices and making borrowing less inexpensive.

While this has helped consumers in the short-run, it has also contributed to a decline in domestic manufacturing, as imported goods are effectively subsidized by a strong dollar. I'm referring most pointedly here to China, which keeps the value of the Yuan artificially weak.

Since the financial crisis, many have argued that the U.S. Federal Reserve is set on reversing this policy. Most recently, monetary policymakers in Brazil, South Korea, and China have spoken out against the Fed's third round of quantitative easing, referring to it as a currency war and threatening consequences.

Given the benefits and detriments to a strong-dollar policy, in turn, my question is: Should the United States formally abandon it in order to spur manufacturing and thus employment?

Health care reform
Brian Orelli: The Affordable Care Act has affected many companies, from health insurers to drug makers to medical-device makers, which have had to pay taxes or offer rebates to consumers to help pay for the bill. But for investors, not knowing what parts of the law would stay and what parts would get struck down has been more nerve-racking than the actual changes that affect companies' bottom lines.

The Supreme Court kept most of the law intact, but Congress and the President have the power to tweak, replace, or repeal the law, keeping an overhang of uncertainty on the health care industry through this election at the very least.

So my question is this: What changes, if any, would you make to the current health care reform law and what time frame do you see those changes occurring in?

We hope you enjoyed reading the questions. Do you have additional ones that you'd like answered by the candidates? Thoughts about the ones we've provided? Let us know in the comments below.

This roundtable was compiled by John Reeves, who does not own shares of any companies mentioned in the article.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Read/Post Comments (40) | Recommend This Article (69)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 11:40 AM, DoctorLewis4 wrote:

    Gov Romney - how can we evaluate your candidacy if you won't get specific about anything?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 1:06 PM, DCUDFlyer wrote:

    MF - Very nice article. The questions were clear and well worded. Looking forward to receiving zero clear answers from the candidates...


  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 1:06 PM, Realexpectations wrote:

    Name the bills in congress that YOU created and PASSED that created jobs.

    BEFORE you STARTED running for President.

    That goes for both.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 1:27 PM, vidman81 wrote:

    @TMFDitty - why do you ask the candidates to focus funding on 'alternative' energy sources when all they have to do is remove restrictions on developing and deploying conventional North American resources?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 2:01 PM, sheldonross wrote:

    Where's Gary Johnson?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 2:35 PM, Fredo76 wrote:

    President Obama, in your first two years you had a super majority in the house and the senate. You managed to pass the Affordable Health care act.

    Why did you prioritize health care over National Security, Jobs, Economy or Domestic Oil?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 2:39 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    Pres Obama - how can we evaluate your candidacy if you won't take responsibility for anything?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 2:46 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    Just kidding, but the opportunity was too good!

    On a serious note, I think all of the questions are great ones.

    I'd add:

    "What is the best way for the U.S. to achieve energy independence within 10 years?"

    "Should the U.S. pursue a program to become an energy exporter, and if so, what would be a timetable and some of the SPECIFIC methods to achieve such independence?"

    "What policies would you pursue to eliminate waste and fraud in the current entitlement programs. For example, it is estimated that 10% of the entire Medicare budget is spent fraudulently"

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 2:50 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:


    I'll take a stab at that: Ask someone who's dying of cancer and doesn't have health insurance where domestic oil sits on their list of priorities.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 3:09 PM, devoish wrote:

    I'd like to hear answers from the left. So I am going to listen to the debate on Democracy Now where two additional candidates will be given an opportunity to answer the debate questions.

    Best wishes,


  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 3:51 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    Morgan, I think you're going down a bad road with your approach.

    "Ask someone who can't afford food how they feel about using corn as 10% of our automobile fuel?"

    "Ask someone who is being foreclosed how they feel about the Option-ARM they used to buy their home in 2007?

    "Ask any retiree how they feel about the 0.05% they get on their savings account, and the 0.7% on their CDs, as a result of the easy lending policies in this country for the decade preceding 2007?"

    "Ask any small business owner how they feel about the current regulatory demands imposed upon them by government?"

    "Ask any small business person how they feel about the tax code in the U.S,, the filing requirements, the labyrinth our Congress considers to be a "tax code" etc.

    "Ask anyone working at Wal-Mart how they feel about the "service economy" in this country, promoted by politicians beginning in 1993 as the solution to this countries problems?"

    "Ask anyone in Chicago how they feel about the public school situation. This is only the third largest in the country?"

    As is the case for so many things, the answer is dependent upon the question asked and to whom it is asked.

    "Ask Rachel Anne Maddow how she feels about the performance of Pres. Obama." and you will get her unbiased opinion.

    Etc., etc., etc.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 3:57 PM, mdk0611 wrote:

    Question for both:

    "Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici and many other independant analyses have all come up with similar prescriptions with respect to taxes and the deficit. While not exactly the same, they contain the following common elements:

    a) No increase in tax rates,

    b) An expansion of the base through reduction in deductions and loopholes that lead to (given ceterus paribus with respect to the economy) an increase in revenues,

    c) Major corporate tax reform, and

    d) Entitlement reform that includes an increase in the age to attain full benefits and limited means testing

    Both of you support some of these common elements but reject others. Would you be willing to sing compromise legislation which contained all of these elements?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 4:27 PM, recessrampage wrote:

    Darwood, I think that is the whole point that Morgan was bringing up in that asking why something was prioritized over something else is kind of a pointless question because it's purely a judgment call and really sits on the eye of the beholder. So to Fredo's point which may be "why did you choose to prioritize the way that you did?" it's almost impossible to come up with an answer that would satisfy anyone because it's usually not that one candidate thinks point (a) is important and point (b) is not... it sometimes just means that (a) just happened to rank higher than (b), even if by a small margin.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 4:38 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:


    "If you were to consider the tax revenue spent defending access to foreign oil as part of the "cost" of oil, would this raise the "cost" of a barrel of oil high enough that alternative energy sources such as wind and solar would actually look competitive with fossil fuels?"

    That is an interesting cost to add to a barrel of oil. I'll have to remember that.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 5:44 PM, bilbowler wrote:

    all obumma supporters are either ignorant of the facts or on some sort of welfare. period.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 5:57 PM, gogunth wrote:

    To Mitt Romney: You claim if elected you will creatte jobs and reverse the Affordable Care Act. How ill you create jobs and what will you suggest to Congress to replace the ACA?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 5:58 PM, Sunshyne43 wrote:

    Since we have enough untapped energy resources within the boundaries of the United States, why don't we develop those resources rather than spending so much money defending our access to the foreign oil?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 6:01 PM, SonicFoolAz wrote:

    would be nice about what sort of action would be taken to repatriate corporate funds.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 6:36 PM, julie1hahn wrote:

    good questions.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 6:43 PM, Fred4953 wrote:

    Most of your suggested questions should be addressed to Congressmen and Senators, Period!!

    In our system, the President's job is to manage the TOO MANY functions of the fed gov't, including Hire & Fire of officials..

    In our dream world, we look to a supreme power to make all the moves...that's NOT the way it works. If U want change, elect new House & Senate reps. Kick out the crooks in both houses!!

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 6:51 PM, riverpickers wrote:

    Energy pundits postulate that increasing domestic oil production up to the entire US requirement, totally eliminating imported oil, would not decrease the price of gasoline . . . "because oil is sold and priced on the world market". That crazy thinking presupposes that the USA would permit OPEC's cartel power to continue to set the price of oil produced in the U.S.

    The obvious remedy for this is to prohibit exports of U.S. oil except in excess of monthly U.S. refinery demand, and to vigorously enforce U.S. Anti Trust laws to prohibit gasoline price fixing.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 7:07 PM, NickD wrote:

    reduce inmates

    remove all illegals

    stop giving to the poor

    end Obama care

    don't pay some 1 to not work that is a easy 500 billion a year right there

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 7:07 PM, rma1344 wrote:

    Mr Romney

    Please tell us precisely how your tax proposal will be revenue neutral and how we can afford to increase defense spending without increasing the deficit? What will be the impact of your tax proposal on each category of taxpayers (i. e. top 1%, 5%, 10%, etc.)?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 7:12 PM, Geophyte1 wrote:

    We are setting our price for oil and gas these days. Look at the difference between brent and WTI.

    Also, I can't believe you still want to ask a CO2 question - give it a break. Why not just be straightforward and tax oil and gas consumption.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 7:13 PM, Maidson wrote:

    Why is that the pundits and politicians always attack the "entitlements" that I paid into for decades yet never mention the entitlements that GE, Apple, Exxon, BP and others get?

    When will we address corporate welfare/entitlements?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 8:31 PM, SkipnAmos wrote:

    I would ask Obama what his connection is toGeorge Soros who is committed to destroying this country?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 8:55 PM, mountain8 wrote:

    Here's really what I feel is the only real question that would probably give us answers to all the other questions:

    "What will you do as president to get congress to work for the country and away from party line blockage of anything of value? What tools will you use? And how can we trust you to do it?"

    Aside from that, I'm wondering why congress talks about cutting everything from medicaid to Defense, but no one mentions cutting congressional salaries and perks. We could save billions if they had to work a basic minimum of 20 years to vest. Congress should lead with their own cuts before they consider cuts to any of those who pay their salaries.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 10:11 PM, TMFAleph1 wrote:

    <<I would ask Obama what his connection is toGeorge Soros who is committed to destroying this country?>>


    Can you provide some credible evidence to support your statement that George Soros "is committed to destroying this country." Please note that conspiracy-oriented blogs do not meet the standard for evidence.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 11:13 PM, chris293 wrote:

    It was under President Cliton that banks and stocks brokers were allowed to be combined changing a law passed during the great depression in the 1930s' during the time of FDR. Why do some people keep missing this?

    Post debate comment, a small comment or I consider important, billions for green companies who in turn fund the President's re-election efforts. Or is this politics we should encourage?

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2012, at 7:11 AM, commerce wrote:

    President Obama, you have spent and spent and you want to spend even more. How much is enough? What has all that spending bought? Most important, where are the jobs?

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2012, at 10:14 AM, kbell101 wrote:

    Carbon Credits? Devaluing the dollar? Propping up Alternative Energy?

    I suggest you get some questions from working Americans. Like...

    "How will you stop dividing this country along class lines and get the Congress back to work on the real problems facing this nation."

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2012, at 10:27 AM, chillin7 wrote:

    I would ask the candidates how they would feel about 100% of Americans changing their party affiliation status to Independent. Since it is commonly heard that the independent voter is the "all important" one shouldn't we all change to that status?

    The only way for Congress to work together is if they have to and without Democrats and Republicans already counted into the equation for both sides they would actually have to govern on merit.

    It is in our power, the American citizen, to make Congress a true representative of the people. If everyone is an independent there will be no more:

    1. Gerrymandering http://en/

    2. Political infighting and achieving nothing as they will have to represent the people and not the party

    3. No more aisle to reach across just fellow legislators on equal grounds.

    4. No more free passes to election

    5. No more special interests being especially served without being exposed.

    If we want to take back our country to be a one of the people, by the people and for the people we have it in our power by changing our status to independent, ALL OF US! That is the only way we can make all of our votes count, stop lifelong corruption by congressmen and crony politics.

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2012, at 10:54 AM, dcorley wrote:

    Excuse me for the interruption of this love fest.

    Who cares what the "promises" are.

    This is just an amusing horse race.

    For those of you old enough to remember, Jimmy Carter promised a $50 income tax rebate if he was elected. I'm still going out the the mail box every day looking for my check.

    Remember, every Senator is a multimillionaire when he leaves office. Some worth more than $100 million. All this making $180,00 a year.

    But, us dumb f**ks keep re-electing these corrupt ba*tards. So if you want to blame anybody, look in the mirror.

  • Report this Comment On October 05, 2012, at 9:20 PM, pjlawall wrote:

    Ok I am soooo tired of Social Security being called an entitlement. I have paid in a lot of hard earned money to this "entitlement". It's not an entitlement for people who pay in - it's an entitlement for people that don't pay in. If I was able to collect the sum of what I have paid in (not even getting interest over the 30 years I've paid) I would gladly take it.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2012, at 2:59 PM, patches222 wrote:

    President obama,

    It is known you used illegal drugs earlier in your life.

    your preformance on the first debate ,your facial expressions,and your mumbling and incoherent answers to Mr.Romney's brillant and "spot on" questions and statements,resulted in several viewers of this debate to wonder,"Are you back on hard drug use?,maybe cocaine or "crack?,If so, please get treatment now!!,America cannot aford to be at the disadvantage of having a "drug Addict" in our oval office!


  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2012, at 2:36 PM, NoviceStocker wrote:

    These were great questions. Too bad we did not get the answers to them. It's no too late to ask them in the next debate, however.

    To bilbowler: What does every discussion board have to have one or two people who bash anyone with whom they do not agree? I am an independent voter who supports Obama. I am well-read, well-informed, and have a Masters degree from a respected university. I am also a Christian who believes we have an obligation to help the poor. I have never been on welfare. I do not know who Mitt Romney is. Every time I hear him speak, he completely contradicts something he said previously. Hope he figures out what he really stands for by November. That will be the only way to sway us independents.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2012, at 3:43 PM, mikecart1 wrote:

    Are you two candidates the best that America can offer these days?

  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2012, at 3:55 PM, 48ozhalfgallons wrote:

    Why is it so difficult to grasp that cheap, abundant, dependable energy is the only way to prosperity?

    Abundant alternative energy in the future can only be achieved by economic prosperity today.

    Prosperity has nothing to do with imports, religion, gay rights, or choice.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2012, at 2:12 PM, patches222 wrote:

    President obama,

    I asked you ,in an email on this forum, "if you were on "hard drugs"during your last debate"?

    It is well known you used illegal drugs your younger days.

    your sorry actions in the last debate with Mr.Romney,looked to me that you are back on "hard drugs" again!!

    This could explain many of your anti-american positions that you favor both here inAmerica and overseas in your strange foreign policy!

    I find it very difficult to believe, as millions of americans also question if,your actions and words are those of an "American President",one of sound mind and purpose!

    Therefore i must ask the question,ARE YOU BACK ON HARD DRUGS,MR.PRESIDENT??

  • Report this Comment On October 19, 2012, at 5:19 AM, thidmark wrote:


    I'll take a stab at that: Ask someone who's dying of cancer and doesn't have health insurance where domestic oil sits on their list of priorities."

    I'll take a stab at it, too. It's the economy, stupid. That mantra helped the last Democrat president easily get re-elected. Ask someone who's losing their home and can't feed their kids where health insurance sits on their list of priorities.

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