Government has a dramatic influence over how much money you're able to make and how much of that you're able to keep. Policies and regulations regarding employment, taxes, government spending and healthcare have perhaps the greatest influence over Americans' wealth. In case you haven't been following the primaries and the debates, here's a summary of the major economic issues the candidates are arguing over, plus some thoughts on how these issues will affect your personal bottom line.
Jobs and the Economy
The housing crisis and Great Recession have been defining moments of our lives for the last four years. Unemployment rates and investment performance have improved somewhat in recent months, but the country has yet to truly recover. With Americans still struggling to support themselves, a viable plan to slash unemployment and restore economic vitality will be essential to any candidate who wants to win.
Obama's campaign highlights the recent reversal in the unemployment rate, various acts and agreements with foreign trading partners that are supposed to protect American jobs, the retraining of unemployed workers and green energy tax incentives as examples of the president's economic achievements.
His campaign also considers the auto manufacturer bailouts a success, while claiming that the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act rules out the possibility of future Wall Street bailouts. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided minor tax relief, most notably in the form of $400 payroll tax credits and first-time home buyer tax credits.
Anyone can see how effective these measures have actually been. The incumbent faces a difficult battle over jobs and the economy, in that his claims and promises can be measured against actual performance. New candidates only have to make eloquent speeches. So what are they proposing?
Romney, Santorum, Paul and Gingrich say that worker retraining, balancing the budget and cutting and simplifying taxes will create jobs and improve the economy. They have also called to lower the regulatory burden on the economy by eliminating or reforming the Environmental Protection Agency, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley. Paul stands out in this category for his call to end the Federal Reserve and return to sound money, thus preventing the government from printing money to pay off its debts and eliminating inflation, wealth's silent killer.
Your ability to earn a living is, of course, essential to your ability to be financially secure. If government regulations discourage hiring, stifle business productivity with burdensome bureaucratic rules, and take a large chunk out of owners' and employees' incomes through taxes, the economy, and your bank accounts, will continue to suffer.
Healthcare costs can be astronomical, and health insurance can be expensive and difficult to obtain. Obama claims his Affordable Care Act, which is being gradually phased in and becomes fully effective in 2014, will increase health coverage while saving Americans money. His opponents don't deny that the current healthcare system has high costs, is inefficient and leaves many Americans without coverage, but they disagree with Obama on how those problems should be corrected.
The Republican candidates say Obamacare will achieve the opposite of its stated goals and increase healthcare costs, increase efficiencies, worsen care and raise taxes across the board. All four men present similar solutions. They want to repeal Obamacare, provide tax credits or deductions for health insurance premiums, make health savings accounts more accessible and give Americans the option to purchase insurance across state lines, to increase price competition.
Healthcare costs have bankrupted plenty of families and are an ever-present threat for everyone else. The inability to obtain individual insurance ties many of us to jobs we'd rather leave. Furthermore, inadequate care can keep us sick and prevent us from working, and an ineffective and overpriced healthcare system actually threatens our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
The Obama administration has brought U.S. troops home from Iraq last year, captured or killed several major al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and reduced the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Obama's campaign website focuses on his national security accomplishments while in office, but says little about what he would do in the next four years other than stating that he wants to maintain a strong military.
Romney also supports a strong American military and sees the United States as a patroller of the global commons and force against terrorism. He criticizes Obama for supporting defense spending cuts and says our military is outdated. He wants to increase defense spending to modernize the military and supports a national nuclear missile defense system.
Gingrich is concerned about defeating radical Islam around the world, reducing dependence on foreign oil and securing U.S. borders against terrorists. Santorum also wants to reduce dependence on foreign oil from "unreliable and adversarial nations" to increase national security, and he is focused on increasing domestic energy production and lowering energy costs, through increased oil and gas exploration and green and nuclear energy development.
Paul opposes using the military for nation-building and world policing and wants to prioritize border security, eliminate waste in the defense budget, and only use American troops for conflicts with a clear mission. He also wants to end foreign aid, which he claims takes U.S. taxpayer money and hands it to foreign dictators, and abolish the TSA.
The government's attitude toward national security has a major impact on government spending, which in turn has a major impact on your tax bill both today and, thanks to massive deficit spending, in the future. Defense spending, along with Social Security and Medicare, make up the biggest components of Americans' federal tax bills, with each category representing about 20% of government spending. An effectively managed defense budget could leave you with a significantly bigger paycheck, if the government doesn't find another way to spend your money first.
The Bottom Line
Many people find campaign politics distasteful, and for good reason; but ignoring politicians won't make America's problems go away. The economic issues that will influence the outcome of the 2012 election aren't just abstractions - they will affect your livelihood and your pocketbook.