Photos by Carrie Parker
By Carrie Parker
No less than eight American flags adorned the stage. Images of national monuments, servicemen and wheat fields streamed across a floor-to-ceiling screen. America the Beautiful and The Battle Hymn of the Republic resounded throughout the hall. Doors to the Sidney Gelber Auditorium opened to this patriotic scene around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday night, welcoming students and the public alike to the second installment in the Stony Brook University School of Journalism’s “Your Future, Your Vote” series.
The evening of discussion and debate, titled “What Will Be in Your Wallet? Jobs, Trade and the Economy,” came just two days after the first presidential debate of the 2016 election season. Featuring a panel of distinguished faculty, a student debate and interactive polls, the ninety-minute session aimed to help an audience of potential voters filter the political hodgepodge concerning jobs, trade, taxes, income inequality, financing college and more.
Professor Steven Reiner of the School of Journalism was on the ball as the night’s host and moderator, asking pertinent, pointed questions and providing context when needed to ensure the audience stayed in step with a topic that can easily become a heady abstraction. Top professors from the College of Business and the Department of Economics shared their expertise to to shed light on many of the economic issues candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump volleyed on Monday night.
The four panelists tackled trade first, following a brief but informative overview video by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“There is always a trade-off with trade – what we lose, what we win,” said economics professor Yair Tauman. “It’s not a clear-cut decision.” But for many Americans, the notion that loss outweighs gain is glaringly obvious in their daily lives, with low wages, stagnation and unemployment straining their wallets.
Professor of Management Julia Bear raised this point, distinguishing the intellectual argument from the emotional strife. “I’m a psychologist by trade, not an economist. So I ask, how do you explain the fact that these arguments aren’t really being felt by citizens?” The anxiety of finding a job after graduation was the greatest concern for 49.4% of the audience – far ahead of the 13.9% worrying about how to pay off student loans.
Professor Tauman provided his take on jobs, as well as one of the most memorable moments of the night. “I feel we are in the biggest evolution ever,” he began. “You may be the monkeys of the new homo sapiens because computers and robots may takeover.” Some good-natured chuckles echoed through the audience as he continued talking about big-brained robots in the army. “How will we compete with them?” he asked. “The unskilled will not survive. Make every effort to acquire skill. That’s the only chance, in my opinion.”
His foreboding conclusion to the threat of robot-domination received more chuckles and applause, yet at the heart of his argument was a fear that goes back decades – that automation and technology will supplant any need for manpower. According the audience poll, 32.9% thought that America is losing many of its jobs due to technology (followed by 25.6% for both greedy corporations and outsourcing).
Professor of Economics Steven Stern looked at it differently. “From a big picture point of view, we don’t have a concrete sense of how the world will be affected by technology. In some ways that’s scary, but we’ve have lots of other periods of time with very big improvements in technology which had the risk of knocking lots of people out of their jobs, but new jobs appeared, so technology has not and will not replace humans.”
Another point of controversy was the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, opposed by both presidential candidates. Professor Stern made his opinions clear about the deal, which would create a free-trade zone among twelve nations around the Pacific. “It’s not economic, it’s political,” he said. “The Far East is really up for grabs right now, and TPP is going to make us more influential there. Without that, China’s going to win.” Hands shot up in the audience, but Professor Reiner apologized, “We’re not going to take questions just yet.”
When the conversation turned to taxes, Professor of Economics Juan Carlos Conesa was deeply critical of the American fiscal system, and said that Trump’s plan to lower taxes “does stimulate that economy – that’s true. But the level he’s hoping, that’s wishful thinking.” Professor Tauman elaborated, “Economics defined in one word: incentives. No tax creates incentive, but it is doubtful whether it will cover deficit.”
Others in the audience expressed doubts about Trump’s rhetoric. “I’m impressed that a candidate like Trump could get so far with no ideas,” said Maria Sanmartin, 29, an economics graduate student from Uruguay. “I think that’s very sad for Americans.”
Bob Longman, staffer of WUSB 90.1 FM who has a master in political science, scoffed when asked whether Trump’s title as a businessman gives him any greater credibility with economic matters. “Trump is not a businessman – he makes his money off other people’s money. That’s not business.”
The night’s grand finale came as Stony Brook students Manny Gomez and Thomas Vetere squared off in a debate over whether college tuition should be shouldered by the federal government. Well-prepared with a clear train of thought, Vetere argued that although free college may sound like every student’s dream, ultimately it will only add more burden to already crippling tax rates. He also called for preservation of states’ rights, and transparency and accountability in government spending. Gomez countered that the American dream doesn’t exist anymore, and that the only solution to skyrocketing tuition is eliminating it, which he wagers will restore purchasing power and stimulate the economy.
Professor Reiner followed up their thought-provoking exchanges with a question for the audience: “How many of you think it’s not appropriate for government to pay college tuition?” There was a pause. Hands went up. “Okay now how many of you do think it’s appropriate.” Another pause, more hands. “Okay, looks like the audience is pretty evenly divided.”
What any of this discussion means for voter turnout remains to be seen. Clinton has dispatched a Super PAC, the First Lady and former opponent Bernie Sanders to capture wary and undecided millennials. In that bracket were two of the “Your Future, Your Vote” attendees, a pair of bubbly freshman, Kelly Wong and Monica Feng. The girls giggled and chatted as they set up their laptops. When asked if they would be voting come November, Kelly consulted her friend. “I don’t know…do you think we should vote?” Monica looked back at her blankly. “Uh, yeah…”