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Public Deliberation: The Left Should Learn to Trust Americans

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Last Saturday, some 4,000 Americans participated in a national conversation about this country's growing deficit problem. In ten years, according to some estimates, our national debt is projected to grow to 90 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. Participants in Saturday's "Our Budget, Our Economy" event -- which took place in more than 19 cities across the country -- deliberated with one another to articulate the values and policies that should guide efforts to reduce the coming burden on our economy and our children. AmericaSpeaks, the group that organized the event, will present these findings to President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

It was distressing that many left intellectuals leveled withering scorn at this event because
they viewed it as a vast right-wing conspiracy to manufacture public consent to slash public
programs. In the Huffington Post, for example, my one-time co-author Dean Baker wrote that the meeting's organization -- its agenda and materials -- "virtually guarantees that most of the participants will opt for big cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The results of this song-and-dance will the be presented to President Obama's... commission which will use it as further ammunition... to gut these programs." Progressive commentator Richard Eskow explained, also in Huffington Post, that "AmericaSpeaks is part of a well-coordinated media campaign" aimed at "slashing government programs" that will benefit "anybody who makes a lot of money and doesn't want to pay taxes." In CounterPunch, a left newsletter edited by Alexander Cockburn, John Halle called for me, as a self-respecting progressive, to resign from AmericaSpeaks' advisory board rather than lend comfort to the "infernal propaganda machine" of which the "Our Budget, Our Economy" discussion is part.

If Saturday's event was part of some conservative scheme, it was more incompetent than Michael Brown's efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans. The event resulted in policy preferences that might not be that far from those of Dean Baker and Richard Eskow. By the end of their deliberations, it was clear that most participants wanted to reduce the deficit primarily by raising taxes and cutting defense, not by slashing Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare. The most popular single measure was to raise the cap on earnings that are taxable for social security (85% in favor). Currently, only the first $106,800 dollars of an individual's income is subject to Social Security taxation. Those with higher incomes obviously benefit from this policy. Many were willing to share the burden of deficit reduction -- 67% favored raising the payroll tax by 1 or 2 percentage points. 68% favored raising a 5% extra tax on millionaires and 59% favored raising the corporate income tax. When asked about new taxes, 64% favored a carbon tax (a strike in favor of environmental and intergenerational justice) and 61% favor a security transaction tax (a favorite proposal of left economists and much loathed by hedge fund managers). 69% favored cutting defense spending by 10% or 15%. 65% wanted to cut health care by 5% or not at all and 58% wanted a 5% or lower cut in the federal government's discretionary programs.

How do we explain this discrepancy? In high school science class, I learned that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Perhaps "Our Budget, Our Economy" was not a right wing conspiracy that went disastrously awry -- as Roger Hickey and Robert Kuttner (again, writing in the Huffington Post) think. Perhaps it really was what its organizers claimed it to be: an attempt to bring a representative cross-section of Americans together to discuss America's fiscal problems in an even-handed and reasonable way and then to transmit the results of their discussions to policy-makers.

Defensiveness and fearfulness led left observers to reject this simpler (and correct) explanation,
to read the evidence in a highly selective way, to lash out at those whom they should have
supported, and so to reinforce the combative character of a political discourse that now sickens
many Americans.

Here are some inconvenient facts. While it is true that the conservative Peter G. Peterson Foundation provided substantial support for "Our Budget, Our Economy," the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and W.K. Kellogg Foundations -- certainly not right-wing bankrolls -- also supplied major funding. Second, the event's National Advisory Committee -- which vetted the agenda and briefing materials -- included not just people from conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, but also left think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute, Center for American Progress, Urban Institute, and Brookings. The view that "Our Budget, Our Economy" was a right-wing machination is simply not based in reality.

Many progressives are much more concerned with substantive justice than with deepening democracy. Convening thousands to talk about the fiscal future seems at best a waste of money and energy (why not just lobby for your favored policy instead?). Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that democratic debate is pointless "if you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart."1 That certainty that led many intellectuals and interest groups of both the left and the right to condemn "Our Budget, Our Economy" in the weeks before the event.

If you hold strong policy commitments, democratic deliberations such as last Saturday's event
are risky. In all probability, those who deliberate will not arrive at conclusions that match your
own. What should make this risk tolerable for progressives -- and other Americans -- is that we
are not only committed to particular policies and values like social justice, but also to democracy itself as an independent value.

Those who doubt that value should have seen Americans from all walks of life working hard to
understand the nuances of the federal budget and striving to accommodate each other's views
last Saturday. It was moving to witness these conversations cross the usual boundaries of race,
class, age, and political orientation that segregate us from one another in our neighborhoods and workplaces. It was challenging for them because they discussed a vast amount of material in a small amount of time, and even then the options were more limited than many would have liked. Although the individuals who participated in Saturday's event were very diverse in ethnicity, income, and politics, they almost all (88%) said that they were either "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with the tone of political dialogue in the America. For no money, these Americans devoted an entire day to improving that dialogue by understanding and deliberating about the federal budget.

At the very minimum, progressives should seek to understand efforts to create public deliberation before trashing those efforts as worthless, dangerous, or impossible. More ambitiously, we should spend some portion of our political energy improving the quality of democracy -- perhaps by convening informed and reflective deliberations among ordinary citizens. When we do so, they will sometimes and in some measure -- but not always -- arrive at conclusions we favor.

Our democracy would benefit from the proliferation of spaces in which ordinary Americans deliberate with each other about important public issues in an informed, non-partisan way. These practices might bring insights about values and priorities that elude the grasp of the political class. If government responded to these popular judgments, citizens might feel less alienated about government and come to regard it as more legitimate. Shifting the balance of political discourse away from interest groups, partisan leaders and their contributors toward ordinary citizens might result in policies that are determined less by the priorities of money and more by the interests of people.

Indeed, despite expectations to the contrary, that is one way to understand what happened on
Saturday. If participants had arrived at dramatically different conclusions, I would have been
compelled to reflect upon my own commitments because I trust the wisdom and values of my
fellow Americans. Deliberation and democracy require no less.

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1. In his dissenting opinion, Abrams v. United States (1919), regarding an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917.

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