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Before The Debate, Brush Up On Buzzwords

The General Motors headquarters in Detroit. The U.S. government bailout of GM and Chrysler has been a key economic issue in the presidential campaign.
Carlos Osorio
The General Motors headquarters in Detroit. The U.S. government bailout of GM and Chrysler has been a key economic issue in the presidential campaign.

In their first debate Wednesday night, the two presidential candidates will explain their plans for fixing the U.S. economy.

Good luck.

The problems are complicated and long-standing, so the solutions may not be easy to spell out in the two minutes allowed for each answer under the debate rules.

But President Obama, the Democratic incumbent, and former Gov. Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, will try, and about 60 million people are expected to tune in. This first debate will focus on domestic issues, with the economy topping the list of homefront problems.


For five years, Americans have been struggling with waves of home foreclosures, high unemployment rates, stunted wages, crushing student-loan burdens and losses in retirement accounts. The economy has been recovering for more than three years now, but immense challenges remain.

Neither candidate has been clear about specifics. Romney, for example, has called for a 20 percent, across-the-board cut in income-tax rates, along with the elimination of many tax deductions and exemptions. But he has not spelled out which tax breaks he would end.

Obama, likewise, has said he would reduce the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent. But he too has been vague on exactly which deductions he would eliminate to make up for lost revenue.

But the level of taxation won't be the only issue. Americans will hear lots of buzzwords whose meanings may not be entirely clear. Here are three terms likely to come up in the debate:

small business \ smol biz-nəs \

Candidates often pledge to help small businesses, but there is no one definition for "small." The U.S. Small Business Administration says that to qualify for federal support, businesses can vary in size, depending upon the industry. For example, a steel mill with as many as 1,000 employees is still "small." In contrast, a computer-equipment wholesaler can have only up to 100 employees to qualify. But in general, when politicians talk about small businesses, they mean those with 500 or fewer workers, and less than $7 million in annual sales. Many people who regard themselves as small-business owners are operating franchises of larger enterprises, such as chain restaurants and cleaning services.

marginal tax rate \ mar-jə-nəltaksrait \

This is the amount of taxes paid on an additional dollar earned. Here's an example: The government might impose a 10 percent tax on annual income of $25,000. But then, after meeting that income threshold, there could be a 20 percent marginal tax rate on each dollar above $25,000. The person making $25,001 a year wouldn't owe 20 percent taxes — just 10 percent on $25,000 and then 20 percent on the one additional dollar. Politicians typically are arguing about that marginal rate, not the basic tax rate.

bailout \ bail-aut\

A bailout is the catchall term for any help the government offers to prop up a failing business. The form of aid can vary — so it might be a loan or a cash infusion. Or the government might buy stock, which it can later sell, as it has done with the General Motors bailout. Sometimes, the government gets fully reimbursed, but not always. For example, Chrysler has repaid its loans in full. But the Treasury still owns GM shares that are worth about half the amount needed to fully repay the government. Congress usually offers a bailout to rescue lots of jobs, or to shore up a key sector, such as banks. For example, under the Bush administration, the government provided about $700 billion to bail out the financial institutions that were crumbling in 2008.

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Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
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