Politics 101: Fact-checking (and explaining) the GOP debate

Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

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For all the much-deserved talk of the lack of substance and moderator-candidate conflict in last week’s Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, there were numerous (sometimes substantive) claims by candidates that are in need of fact-checking. Today, we’re running down everything from Donald Trump’s shock-value comments to the candidates’ tax plans to the all-important topic of college tuition and student debt. We begin, of course, with Trump.

Trump on Mexico and immigration
The idea of building a wall on the Mexican-American border seems outlandish to begin with, but Trump took it a step further and asserted that he would get the Mexican government to pay for it. His plan is to stop all remittance payments (money sent home) from undocumented workers, raise fees on or cancel visas for Mexican CEOs and diplomats, raise fees on worker visas and increase fees at entry points along the border. These measures, Trump argues, should convince Mexico to pay.

The problem is that technology is providing increasingly less traceable ways for immigrants to send money back home, and it’s far from clear how Trump would actually pass into law the other hostile proposals — Congress would be wary of alienating the U.S.’s third-largest trading partner. And Trump’s proposal to deport America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants still isn’t backed by a concrete action plan, unless we count canceling all visas related to countries who won’t “accept their own criminals” back — and that would likely face heavy backlash from both Congress and the public.

Trump on gun laws
In the debate’s only discussion on gun control, Trump criticized gun-free zones as “target practice for the sickos and for the mentally ill” and said that if teachers had been armed, the Oregon mass shooting wouldn’t have happened. Calling the idea a “catastrophe,” Trump echoed criticisms from other conservatives who oppose the zones. The Oregon school in question, Umpqua Community College, was wrongly tagged as a gun-free zone by commentators after the incident.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has in the past suggested that the solution to school shootings is to put more armed guards in schools, but the presence of armed guards and police in the D.C. Navy Yard and Fort Hood shootings did next to nothing to prevent deaths from happening. This was also the case in the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. Evidence suggests the more guns you add to a home, city, state, region or country, the more likely homicide is to occur there — which is troubling for Trump’s suggestion that teachers should be armed.

It’s also worth noting that a Mother Jones study of mass shootings from 1982 to 2015 found no instances of gunmen being motivated by the knowledge that a location is gun-free.

Carson, Rubio, Cruz and Trump on (flat) taxes
Many a Republican candidate has floated the simple-sounding idea of a flat tax — a system where everyone is charged the same income tax rate — and candidates did little in this debate to silence their critics. Sen. Ted Cruz claimed that the numbers “add up” in his plan, and Ben Carson basically ignored moderator Becky Quick’s point that his proposal would result in a large revenue hole for the government. Does anyone’s plan really add up?

The answer is a “no” from the often-cited Tax Foundation, which analyzed Cruz’s plan and concluded it would lower government revenues by at least $768 billion over the next decade. Cruz showed no plan for cutting any programs to close this hole at the debate.

The Upshot’s analysis at the New York Times suggests that it would be unlikely for Carson’s plan not to leave a hole in government funding — and that’s even with taxing everyone, including the poor, who likely would not be able to handle paying 15 percent in income taxes.

Sen. Marco Rubio’s plan is more responsible and involves a two-rate bracket system — 15 percent for those making up to $150,000 and 35 percent for above that. But the plan as a whole still grows the debt by $2.3 trillion in the short term, and continues to add to it until 2040, according to the Tax Foundation. Trump’s plan is not a flat tax, but it would leave a $10.14 trillion hole (yes, that’s trillion with a “t”) in government funding over the next decade.

It’s true that Cruz’s, Trump’s and Rubio’s plans would all grow the economy in a GDP calculation, but none of the candidates have put forth concrete (or in some cases, any) plans to cut federal programs anywhere near enough to make up for these deficits. Even in 2015, candidates are relying on Reagan-era ideals of tax policy, despite the fact that the myth of “Reaganomics” (and the myth of Reagan sticking to those ideals) has been debunked extensively at this point. It should be noted that of the four plans, all but Rubio’s heavily benefits the wealthiest over the poor and middle-class.

Rubio, Carson and Trump vs. the moderators
During the debate, Trump and Carson had dishonest moments with the moderators. Rubio had the night’s slickest lie, however, when moderator John Harwood asked him about the fact that his tax plan would benefit the rich almost twice as much as the middle-class. Harwood was right — but Rubio was able to wriggle free by saying Harwood wrote an article on his plan that required a correction. Several outlets were quick to jump on Harwood, but his mistake concerned a difference between the poor and the rich, not between the rich and middle-class earners. Harwood’s question on debate night was actually valid.

Fiorina (and Kasich) on college tuition
The candidates commented more on student debt than you might think — it just wasn’t what students may have wanted to hear. Carly Fiorina actually gave us the most important line on student loans without being asked, with her claim that “the student loan problem has been created by government.”

This is a big claim, partly because it’s so popular among conservatives who oppose government spending. It’s akin to implying that without government aid, somehow college costs would never have started climbing, rather than the other way around. But the issue is a little more complicated than that.

A New York Times column by CU law professor Paul F. Campos outlines the argument behind Fiorina’s claim: since the baby boomer generation began to reach college age, state funding to higher education more than quadrupled from 1960 to 1975. But along with it, college tuition costs also rose, more than doubling from 1960 to 1980 (Campos uses tuition rates for the University of Michigan here.) Thus, more aid for higher education correlates with higher tuition costs.

The big word here is “correlates” — Campos does not prove that government aid caused hikes in tuition costs, or even that it’s the main factor. He also acknowledges that the growth in administration and faculty, as well as the trend toward seven-figure salaries for higher-up administrators, pushes costs up, and that the increasing amount of students who go to college also plays a role.

A debate between economists in the Wall Street Journal notes that along with rising administrative costs, colleges’ tendency to spend on amenities like new dining halls drives costs up. One economist argues that the “Bennett hypothesis,” which says that more aid causes higher tuition, is supported by little compelling evidence across economic studies.

To be fair, there is a study that came out this year by the New York Federal Reserve Bank that concluded schools with more aid increases raised tuition more. The Fed only looked at school years 2008 and 2009 — so it’s by no means an encompassing study, but it is an often-argued point.

So let’s say that’s the main factor, just for a second. The problem is that even in that case, the solution is not to stop government aid — it’s to push colleges to stop hiking costs, as Gov. John Kasich actually argued during the debate and before it. Cutting spending on flashy gyms, outdoor pools, huge administration salaries and multi-million dollar college football coach salaries could be a start. Cutting funding without passing incentives to push schools to save would only leave schools to increase tuition to make up for the loss.

Common sense tells us that at some point decades ago, governments increased aid because students needed it to keep up with costs. But even if we somehow proved that aid rose disproportionately before costs did, it doesn’t change the situation today. Now that both aid and costs have ballooned, cutting assistance without focusing on cost control (as some states have successfully done) would only leave universities, and students, to foot the bill. Fiorina’s claim is at best oversimplified, and at worst, woefully uninformed — at a time when the GOP needs to make a play for millennial voters, they may be dropping the ball.

Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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