Notice a few things about this list. It does not include social issues. Many Americans on both sides of politics legitimately believe that matters such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, contraception and religious liberty (I could mention others) are of absolutely central concern. Some of them would reject my agenda at the outset. I’d defend it by insisting that the vast majority of Americans, whatever their views on any of these vexing subjects, want to get to certain basics first. They know the social issues won’t go away.
Conservatives might rebel against the way I frame our objectives. In talking about the budget, I do not even bring up reducing taxes. That is because I think the evidence shows that if we are serious about balancing the budget, government needs more revenue. The brute facts of (1) the steady rise in the costs of health care and (2) the aging of the baby boomers mean that we can’t just hack our way to a balanced budget without eviscerating programs such as Medicare and Social Security that most Americans want.
Thus a challenge to conservatives: If cutting taxes is really more important to you than fiscal balance, why not just say so? Why pretend that balance matters when your real goal is a sharp reduction in the size of government? Alternatively, if we could agree that revenue is needed, let’s argue about the right mix between spending cuts and tax increases, and about which taxes to raise.
And can politicians and commentators stop hiding behind vague promises of “tax reform”? Offer specifics or shut up about tax reform. Let’s also agree that slashing programs for poor people — and I’m one who thinks we should spend more — won’t come anywhere close to resolving our fiscal difficulties.
Job creation is at the heart of the campaign, and it is the issue about which we will have the least clarity. To me (and, I would say, to most non-ideological economists), it is perfectly obvious that rolling back government, both here and in Europe, has been exactly the wrong thing to do in a time of high unemployment. To save words, I refer you to a pile of fact-rich Paul Krugman columns.