As the U.S. primaries move toward their conclusion and it becomes increasingly evident that Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton will fight it out to the end, the question many economists are asking is, on the issues that matter to us, are the two Democratic candidates different?
From the series of debates held between the two and their Republican challengers, few differences emerge. Both have promised to reverse President Bush´s tax cuts for high-income Americans and make the tax code more middle-income-friendly. Both have discussed the need to protect consumers from predatory credit card companies and dubious college loans, and both have pledged to end corporate tax breaks that they blame for taking jobs outside U.S. borders. They also agree on the need to protect homeowners.
Similarly, Clinton and Obama have avoided protectionist rhetoric, in a departure from earlier Democratic tradition. «I won’t stand here and tell you that we can — or should — stop free trade,” Obama said recently. “We can’t stop every job from going overseas. But I also won’t stand here and accept an America where we do nothing to help American workers who have lost jobs and opportunities because of these trade agreements.» In contrast to the Republicans, and in keeping with party tradition, both candidates offer government solutions to job loss, mortgage defaults, rising debt and sagging incomes.
How will they pay for the extra government spending needed to finance their plans? Here they also agree on eliminating tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas. But Clinton has further plans: she intends to lay the burden for tens of billions of dollars of planned investments in renewable energy technology on oil companies (they can either invest in renewable energy on their own or finance the federal effort out of royalties paid for drilling on public land). She also wants to close the «carried interest» tax loophole that has allowed private equity and hedge fund managers to pay very low tax rates.
Though the policy contrasts are small, the two candidates´ underlying attitudes may be more different than they appear. In the debates, Clinton´s approach leans most heavily and most specifically on government solutions to the economy´s current problems, while Obama tends to stress personal choice and initiative. The candidates´ health care proposals illustrate this difference between the front-running Democrats. Both promise to extend health insurance to (nearly) all Americans, but Clinton plans to do it through mandatory coverage while Obama relies on reducing health care costs while preserving Americans´ freedom to choose whether or not to participate in a public health insurance scheme. One U.S. organization calls Obama´s approach “left-libertarianism”, and describes it this way:
Advancements in behavioral economics, public and rational choice theory, and game theory provide us with an opportunity to attend to inequality without crippling the economy, enhancing the coercive power of the state, or infringing on personal liberty. The cost – higher marginal tax rates – is real, but eminently justified by the benefits. (click here )
The conservative twist on classical Democratic logic that this rhetoric implies could stem from the fact that Obama´s top economic advisor is Austan Goolbee, professor at the business school of the University of Chicago, a bastion of conservatism. Whether the ideas that Obama embraces are his or Goolbee´s, the difference with Clinton is significant and could have huge implications for the next four years of economic policymaking and the business climate in the United States.
Want to see where the candidates stand on more issues, and whom you agree with? One online quiz can be found here .