Gore and Bush on the Issues: Long on Assumptions, Short on Details

When Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore wrap up their nominating conventions in the next few weeks they will get back to campaigning in earnest, and voters are sure to hear plenty of talk about the state of the economy, the future of Social Security, health care, electronic commerce and foreign trade, among other issues. But will they hear the candidates describe complete programs or just a few vague thoughts?

So far, there hasn’t been much detail on key economic and business topics, according to several Wharton professors.

Social Security

The prime example is Social Security, which has received an unusual amount of attention from the two candidates despite its reputation as a hazardous "third rail" – an insoluble funding problem that is best avoided. Bush wants to attack the funding shortfall by permitting workers to invest a portion of their Social Security tax in stocks and bonds in hopes they can build larger retirement nest eggs. But he has not said how much of the 12.4% tax should be used this way, or how much the current level of benefits would have to be reduced because part of the tax is diverted to these new investments.

Gore prefers to use budget surpluses to shore up the existing Social Security system while establishing a new program permitting tax-deferred stock and bond investments similar to individual retirement accounts. But so much detail has yet to be described that it is unclear whether the government could afford to deliver the benefits it has promised to people who retire 30 or 40 years from now.

Insurance and risk management professor Kent Smetters says the Gore plan does not make clear how the traditional guaranteed benefit would be funded. If budget surpluses prove inadequate, would the payroll tax have to be increased? Moreover, Gore’s new investment plan requires participants to come up with additional money to invest before they can receive the attractive government matching funds. That could prove difficult for the poor, the group for whom Social Security is most vital.

"If you look at the savings rate among the poor, it is very low," Smetters says. "The poor just don’t have a lot of income, and therefore would not be able to participate very much in the Gore plan, whereas they would be able to participate in the Bush plan."

That’s because the Bush plan would not require participants to invest any money beyond the amounts already deducted for the Social Security tax. Still, Smetters says, it is not certain that benefits could be protected in the Bush plan either. The theory is that if 2 or 2.5 percentage points of a participant’s payroll tax is invested in stocks, the investment gains will more than make up for any cuts in guaranteed benefits that are needed to keep the traditional program solvent. But there’s no guarantee stock market returns will be big enough, Smetters says.

Health Care

A similar shortage of detail hampers evaluation of the candidates’ proposals for improving health care, says David A. Asch, executive director of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. "They’re not very fleshed out."

Bush, for instance, proposes an expansion of Medical Savings Accounts, which provide participants with tax shelters for funds set aside for medical expenses, and he would establish a tax credit of up to $2,000 per family for health insurance coverage. Gore proposes expanding existing programs aimed at poor children and their parents.

As with Social Security, many hard numbers are missing. But voters will have clear philosophical alternatives – Bush’s traditional conservative emphasis on individual choice and economic incentives versus Gore’s traditionally liberal push for bigger and better government programs.

Voters looking at the Bush approach may question whether tax breaks, which tend to be most valuable for wealthy people in high income tax brackets, will really provide poor people with enough money to pay for increasingly expensive heath care, Asch says. Yet voters also may wonder whether Gore’s proposal merely tweaks a program that falls far short of providing adequate coverage for millions of Americans in need.

"Both of these plans are incremental at a time when there are some people who believe that what we really need is a complete overhaul," Asch says. "In neither case are we making a big hit on the huge number of uninsured."

Neither candidate has offered a comprehensive proposal for preserving the viability of Medicare and Medicaid. Bush emphasizes allowing beneficiaries wider choice. Gore would use budget surpluses to extend the life of these programs and add prescription drug benefits.

"There are an awful lot of blank spaces," adds health care systems professor Mark V. Pauly. That’s to be expected, he says, as candidates who offer details give opponents more to criticize.

Electronic Commerce

Bush has proposed $80 million in matching grants to pay for technology centers in poor neighborhoods. He wants to extend until 2004 the current moratorium on taxing Internet purchases. He has not put much emphasis on privacy issues.

Gore, too, supports the moratorium on Internet taxes, and he has proposed an Electronic Bill of Rights to assure that personal information is kept private on the Internet. He has long supported government programs and tax incentives to encourage Internet development.

Management professor Stephen J. Kobrin thinks Internet issues, which have not received intense attention in either campaign, are quickly gaining importance and will have to be addressed by the next president. Privacy issues are surfacing more and more often because of the rapid growth of Internet commerce, which requires that purchasers transmit credit card data and other personal information that is easily abused.

"I used to think it’s a bomb about to explode. Now it’s exploding," he says. "The Net and electronic commerce are inherently invasive."

The candidates’ opposition to taxing Internet sales may run afoul of government revenue needs as Internet sales expand and the lost tax revenue grows to meaningful levels, Kobrin says. "The big question is: Why shouldn’t it be taxed and regulated?" Old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar businesses will have good reason to cry foul if they must continue to charge sales tax while their Internet competitors do not, he adds.

Trade

Voters hoping to pick a candidate on the basis of trade issues will have a tough time, according to management professor Mauro F. Guillen.

"As in other major economic issues, Bush and Gore do not differ much in their approach to trade," he says. "They both support liberal trade policies. They also agree that it is better to integrate countries into the global trading system rather than use trade as a weapon to make countries conform to certain policy principles." Both candidates, for instance, favor admitting China to the World Trade Organization.

Interestingly, the candidates have taken similar positions despite the views of important constituencies, he says. Conservatives with a protectionist bent are annoyed with Bush, while liberals and unionists oppose Gore’s free-trade stance. The 2000 campaign is quite different from some past ones, such as the Carter-Reagan race, in which differences on trade issues were wide, Guillen says.

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