Our public debate is too often focused on the wrong questions. In an age of sophisticated public persuasion, it is more important than ever that we be vigilant consumers of information, advertising, propaganda and political rhetoric.
For example, last week, the House of Representatives voted to keep interest charges on student debt at three percent rather than allowing it to increase to six percent. In my opinion, that is an example of focusing on the wrong issue. Rather than asking whether student debt should accrue interest at three or six percent, we should be asking -- Why are university costs so high that our country has amassed one trillion dollars of student deb?.
I realized how contorted some political discussions have become when I came across a $375 receipt for an entire semester’s tuition at the private university I attended in the 1960’s. $375 was a significant sum in those days. It represented more than three weeks of pay for the average worker.
Today, with median family income pegged at close to $50,000 a year, a semester of private tuition in the U.S. averages $16,500 with many universities charging much more. So the semester of private university tuition that cost my family three week’s income would now cost more than 17 weeks of the average worker’s salary. Public universities are still a bargain at a cost of close to four weeks of salary for the average worker. But, even at an average of $2,900 per semester, many people attending public universities need financial assistance to pay those charges, hence the debt keeps accruing.
Of course, the cost of a university is greater than the cost of tuition. Housing, food, books, transportation, pocket money and other costs also accrue, leaving graduates saddled with significant debt before they can find a job.
Here is the question I believe we should be asking. If an educated workforce is the key to national success in an increasingly technological world, why is the cost being borne by individuals rather than the society as a whole? And -- With our young people saddled by a trillion dollars of debt, how are they going to accumulate the down payment necessary to buy a house, a car or furniture, all of which are the consumer purchases that fuel our economy? In the Nineteenth Century, a high school degree was a signficant educational achievement. Why haven't we increased the goal of public education to include a university degree in keeping with other advances in our society?
Here are some other wrong questions that I see dominating public debate. Many politicians are asking -- Why should public employees receive defined-benefit pension and health benefits while private sector employees do not? Instead, I think we should be asking – Why is it that private sector employees no longer receive health benefits and defined pension plans?
Another wrong question centers around the Affordable Healthcare Act, commonly known as Obamacare. The Supreme Court is now considering the constitutionality of the act. The question being asked is – Can the federal government compel individuals to purchase healthcare insurance? I believe this is a ridiculous question. Government forces me to buy insurance in order to drive a car, forces me to pay sewer taxes when I might prefer to use a septic tank, forces me to pay for public sidewalks on my property and forces me to incur many other expenses. I believe we should be asking a myriad of questions about U.S. healthcare, foremost among them -- Why was the quality of U.S. rated 37th in the world with per-capita cost first in the world in the last World Health Organization ranking?
Another question that perplexes me is frequently asked by many politicians -- What has government done to reduce unemployment in the U.S.? A much harder and more pertinent question would be what have YOU done to reduce unemployment in the U.S.? Have you insisted on buying "made in USA" products? Have you refused to participate in non-paying internships, which lower the cost of doing business by eliminating paid-for employees? Are you resisting working 50- and 60-hour weeks so that employers will hire additional people to get the work done? Are you protesting the disparity between highest-paid employees and lowest-paid employees within large companies?
Too often the people framing political dialog have a vested interest in the outcome, and it often is not yours. To achieve their objective they frame a question with a predetermined answer. I have picked a few of what I consider the most egregious examples of distraction through asking the wrong public questions. You may not agree that wrong questions are asked or with the substitute questions I suggested should be asked. I hope that going forward, you will consider the questions being asked in public debate and determine for yourself whether they are the wrong questions or the right ones. By challenging our public figures to direct the public debate in meaningful directions, we all will benefit.
Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years and has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
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