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The Bowles-Simpson Medicine Show Is Back in Town

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When millions of dollars are being pumped into Washington by anti-government and anti-tax ideologues, you're bound to find Democrats willing to play along. And when your Washington press corps can't be bothered to get even the smallest details right -- well, that must mean the Bowles-Simpson Medicine Show is back in town.

It's here, folks. Journalists are still cooing over a failed proposal they're calling "moderate" and "centrist," based on the radical and unpopular plan put forward by two individuals named Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.

Another budget, one that's both economically sound and more politically popular, was summarily dismissed by the same media as "partisan" and extreme.

All the News That Fits

Republican Steve LaTourette and Democrat Jim Cooper introduced a proposal based on the Bowles-Simpson assault on the middle class. It was promptly celebrated by the press as the "responsible" deficit-cutting alternative to the radical right-wing Ryan budget -- even though it's not responsible and doesn't cut the deficit (not that deficits should be our national obsessions during this time of crisis).

By contrast, the budget proposed by the Congressional Budget Caucus did reduce the deficit, and in a way that suited the preferences of most voters -- Republican as well as Democratic, Tea Party as well as Occupiers.

It was promptly dismissed by both journalists and the Washington elite.

Accuracy Optional

Your press corps can't even get the most basic details right: The Deficit Commission headed by Simpson and Bowles failed to agree on a set of recommendations. So Simpson and Bowles put out their own personal plan, based on ideas developed at the behest of anti-government ideologues like billionaire Pete Peterson.

Their ideas were rejected by members of the Deficit Commission, but a lot of journalists covering the budget don't seem to know that. Take a look:

Associated Press, March 28: "The bipartisan measure, patterned on a plan by President Barack Obama's 2010 deficit commission ... "

Alan Fram, Businessweek, March 29: "The measure was modeled roughly on a package produced by Obama's deficit-reduction commission."

Erik Wasson, The Hill, March 29: " a bipartisan budget plan based on the approach of President Obama's fiscal commission ..."

Andrew Taylor, Associated Press, March : "The bipartisan measure rejected Wednesday was patterned on a plan by President Barack Obama's 2010 deficit commission ..."

Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post, March 27: "... the House could vote this week for the first time on a bipartisan deficit-cutting plan, modeled on the suggestions of a presidential commission ... "

There's more, but you get the idea.

Why does this matter? Because it tells you whether what you're reading was written by a journalist who cares about the facts and gets them right. And it matters because the myth-makers and propagandists pushing the anti-government austerity agenda want Americans to believe that this controversial and radical proposal represents the consensus view of a bipartisan commission -- and mainstream political opinion.

It does neither.

A Radical Plan

Bloomberg's Mr. Fram compounds his errors in the typical fashion by saying that the LaTourette/Cooper bill, based on Bowles-Simpson, was a "compromise, bipartisan deficit-cutting plan by moderates of both parties that mingled tax increases with spending cuts."

Like Mr. Fram, a great many journalists have been trained or programmed into calling the Bowles-Simpson policy package "bipartisan" and "moderate." The Post's pre-vote headline even read "bipartisan bill appears headed for defeat" -- a defeat that, as Ezra Klein satisfyingly points out, was truly bipartisan.

Moderate? Make no mistake: This is a radical plan that sharply cuts financial security for the elderly, guts other vital government programs, and -- perhaps most radically of all -- lowers taxes on the wealthy while raising them for everyone else. It's even more radical than the Bowles-Simpson proposal. As Michael Linden and James Horney both noted, it takes Bowles-Simpson's already-unacceptable 2:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases and hikes it to 7:1.

Those two self-promoting reprobates, Bowles and Simpson, were nevertheless happy to endorse anything with their names on it -- even if that meant omitting the fact that this proposal was even more right-wing.

(Daniel Marans has more on the radicalism of the Bowles-Simpson plan here.)

Outside the Political Mainstream

The Bowles-Simpson plan is enormously unpopular among voters across the political spectrum. Members of all political parties and people across the political spectrum -- including 76 percent of Tea Partiers -- oppose cutting Medicare or Social Security to balance the budget. That hasn't changed in the two years since Simpson and Bowles introduced their own plan and only six percent of the electorate shared their priorities.

Voters also strongly prefer the exact opposite to the tax policy proposed here. They want tax hikes for millionaires to cover shortfalls in entitlements and other government programs that benefit the middle class.

Tax Hikes for the 99%, Tax Cuts for the 1%

Instead the LaTourette/Cooper proposal, like Bowles-Simpson, eliminates "tax breaks." One of the biggest "breaks" is the home mortgage deduction. Without it millions of additional homeowners would go into foreclosure, and the already-struggled middle class would be devastated once again. LaTourette and Cooper also explicitly planned to tax employer health insurance, leaving millions of working Americans even harder-hit over medical costs.

At the same time the wealthiest among us would have enjoyed a tax cut -- of somewhere between 23 and 29 percent. That means somewhere between 17 to 34 percent less than they're paying with their Bush tax cuts! Sure, those deductions might be eliminated for them, too -- but most of these deductions affect a much smaller percentage of their income.

The LaTourette/Cooper proposal compounded this tax assault on the middle class by linking tax bracket changes to the so-called "chained CPI," meaning that people who aren't already in the top bracket will find themselves moving up -- and being taxed at a higher rate -- much more quickly.

The Pitchman's Secret

The plan radically restructures Social Security and cuts benefits for middle-class varieties in a number of ways (including the "chained CPI" trick). It also raises the retirement age even more than the currently scheduled increases would do.

It's not surprising that the radical far-right Concord Coalition endorsed the bill, since it is as extremist as the Coalition itself -- and as far out of the political mainstream. And it's equally unsurprising that the nonpartisan Americans for Tax Reform rejected it, noting that it represents a radical blend of tax increass and benefit cuts for the middle class in order to bestow further privilege on the wealthiest among us.

Meanwhile the House Progressive Caucus budget, which includes all the provisions that most voters want -- and which most savvy economists agree would be wise. Predictably, it wasn't described by a single media outlet as "moderate," "sensible," "politically popular" or "pragmatic."

Nothing ever changes down at the Medicine Show. As soon as one pitch ends, another begins. So this ain't over, folks, because every good medicine-show pitchman knows: You gotta keep on offering the crowd that "grand bargain" until you wear 'em down and they buy it.

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Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future and the host of The Breakdown, broadcast Saturdays nights from 7-9 p.m. on WeAct Radio, AM 1480 in Washington, D.C.