God save us from sentences like this one: "Don't look now, but an adult conversation has begun on the federal budget deficit." If we've heard this cliché once, we've heard it a thousand times, so we hope we'll be forgiven for the blunt talk that follows.
Let's face it. Washington's "adult conversations" are to real conversations what "adult movies" are to real movies: The plots are simplistic, the characters are shallow, and before it's over a whole lot of people will get screwed.
The "adult conversation" sentence comes from a piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal by Janet Hook and Naftali BenDavid. The Journal article is only the latest entry in the ever-growing body of fanfic journalism for budget cutters -- let's call it "austerity porn" from now on, shall we? -- that fetishizes budget-cutting while ignoring other, more pressing social needs.
Memories, like the corners of my mind...
The template for austerity porn was created in the 1990's by the Pete Peterson crowd, and always includes several well-worn themes: It's "courageous" to cut deficits -- but it's "shrill" to fight for the elderly, the jobless, the middle class or the poor. Politicians who push for "deficit reduction," no matter how counterproductive or badly timed, are "bipartisan" heroes. Anything but immediate budget-slashing action is mere "political rhetoric." Republicans pushing tax hikes on lower and middle income Americans while protecting their wealthy corporate clients are "getting serious."
The script also calls for reporters to insist that the Peterson plan for the economy, embraced in toto in a personal proposal from Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, is a serious deficit reduction plan -- even though it fails to address the deficit drivers of the past (wars, financial meltdowns, and tax cuts for the rich) or the future (our broken health care system) -- and despite the fact that it would recklessly cut taxes even more for top earners and corporations.
Throw in a scene where the rich lady comes home while's the plumber working and you've got yourself a movie, baby!
Another job that can be automated
Needless to say, the Hook/BenDavid piece scores 100% on the austerity porn test. Reference to "adult" behavior (infantilizing anyone who advocates for the middle class or lower income Americans)? Check. "Political rhetoric" vs. truth-telling? Check. Use of the word "shrill"? Check. ("Away from the shrill noise of Congress's battle over spending...") Praise for "bipartisan" Senators? Check.
Here's an idea: Why not write a software program that generates these articles automatically? It would be easy: Just have users type in the particulars -- which politicians we're praising today, which set of predictable statements they made -- and the software can then generate a 900-word piece that includes liberal use of expressions like "bipartisan," "courageous," "serious," and "shrill."
In fact, why not make it an iPhone app? That way reporters can "phone it in" literally as well as metaphorically.
The Gang of Six Ways From Sunday
No deficit puff piece is complete without the "Gang of Six," those allegedly brave Senators who are crossing the aisle for some adult-on-adult deficit talk. Hook and BenDavid are refreshingly neutral in their description of Gang, in contrast to other reporters and commentators who continue to describe them as the "heroes of the story," a "bipartisan" group that's fighting against "dysfunctional" solons who are "shooting spitballs" and having "hissy fits" while engaging in "foolishness" -- leading the way" as the "only game in town" while their opponents "fritter" and "fail."
These pundits keep referring to something they describe as the "Deficit Commission plan." You'll find that phrase in straight news articles, too, like the one from Lori Montgomery at the Washington Post that says "Obama's fiscal commission recommended an ambitious plan to reduce the deficit." She's referring to the report issued personally by Bowles and Simpson after they failed to lead their commission to a successful conclusion. Ms. Montgomery's news piece makes five separate references to "the commission report," "the commission's recommendations," or what "the commission proposed" -- explaining that the "Gang of Six" is pushing to enact "the commission's recommendations."
That's five references in a piece that's only 556 words long. The reality? The Commission failed to recommend any plan at all. I don't know how many more times that needs to be said, but apparently it's at least five.
The Simpson/Bowles recommendations are virtually identical to those proposed by Pete Peterson in the 1990's: Deep and unnecessary cuts in Social Security, tax reductions for the wealthy and corporations (in a deficit document!), and tax increases on the middle class. (More here.) And the Gang's reportedly eying the mortgage deduction tax write-off, too. That might make sense in the right context, at the right time. But doing it now would amount to a huge mortgage payment increase for homeowners who have already seen the value of their homes (and therefore their own net worth) devastated. The result would be a flood of additional foreclosures, a plunge in consumer spending, and in all probability another recession.
Despite all the rhetoric about the Gang as "centrists," their ideas -- like Simpson's and Bowles' -- are far to the right of the general public. Most Republicans (and Tea Party supporters) are opposed to Social Security cuts as part of a deficit deal, most voters prefer to raise the payroll tax cap for Social Security, and most voters think the country's highest priority should be job creation and not deficit reduction. (More information here, here, and here.)
The motivation for these Senators is clear: A flow of campaign contributions, enormous visibility, and a future filled with cushy jobs like those given to fellow ex-politicians like Simpson, Bowles, Pete Domenici, and a host of others. The Senate's undemocratic structure encourages hostage-takers to pose as statesmen. Eighteen months ago a different "gang of six" was hard at work gutting health care legislation. Next year there'll be another one.
As long as money talks in politics, there will always be a Gang of Six.
For Adults Only
Here are the kinds of conversations people are having in the real world -- that is, outside the Beltway Bubble where PR lines are considered insight and think-tank-generated truisms are considered wisdom:
"My unemployment ran out, we can't sell the house, and the bank says we missed a payment but we didn't. Now they're going to foreclose."
"How could I have known I'd come down with multiple sclerosis? We've been waiting a year and a half for Social Security to process my disability application, and now they want to cut the budget so the wait could be even longer. I'm sorry, honey. I wish I could do more ..."
"My pension's only $800 a month and my rent's $500. There's no more 'give' in my budget."
"I know I'm a steelworker and the bridge needs repair, but the government won't pay to fix it so we're out of luck."
"I voted for the Democrats because they said they wouldn't cut Social Security and the Republicans would. The company got rid of its pension plan ten years ago. How will we make ends meet when we're old?"
"I know you want to go to college, honey. But we lost everything when we had to close the restaurant after the oil spill. And now they say it costs too much to regulate companies like BP ..."
Any truly "adult conversation" about the Federal budget would begin with words like these:
"Despite the ongoing pain that unemployment is still inflicting on individuals and families, despite the slow growth in demand that is hurting small business, despite the wrenching budget crisis hitting most state governments ... the debate in Washington is now dominated by conservative cries for immediate reduction of the federal deficit." ~ Campaign for America's Future: Citizens' Commission on Jobs, Deficits, and America's Economic Future
And it would include observations like this:
"Long-term actuarial balance for Social Security can be accomplished with minor adjustments. Increasing payroll tax to cover 100 percent of wages would eliminate 95 percent of the projected longterm shortfall. Proposals to provided additional funds by restoring estate taxes, taxing stock transfers (as Great Britain does), dedicating a bank speculation tax to Social Security, or giving the Trust Fund more investment flexibility could even permit increasing Social Security benefits." ~ also CAF - emphasis mine.
The American people aren't afraid of tough choices and difficult conversations, but they know the difference between play-acting and the real thing. And they're still waiting for somebody to talk to them like one adult to another.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates