After much hype and buildup, the AmericaSpeaks "national town meeting" on cutting the deficit was held on Saturday. I watched the proceedings via webcast for much of the morning, knowing that Digby was liveblogging it and David Dayen was on the scene here in Southern California, so that I could take part in a radio interview before heading out to experience the event in person. What I found in sunny Pasadena was a cross between a corporate "team-building" and "motivational" exercise and one of Stanley Milgram's sinister "obedience to authority" experiments.
The good news for America seems to be that, as Roger Hickey points out, the experiment went horribly wrong ... for its organizers. The bad news is that they'll probably try to spin it the way they wanted to anyway.
The experiment as it seems to have been conceived was part 1984, part Twilight Zone (remember all those episodes where "ordinary townsfolk" do terrible things?), and part Truman Show: Get a group of people that "looks like America" into rooms across the country, manipulate them into regurgitating some pre-packaged responses, and then use those responses - call them, oh, "America speaks" - to push for a preconceived political agenda. Pretty smart, actually. The did pretty well on the "looks like America" part, too. I'll admit to a swell of patriotic pride at the diverse group of people I saw when I walked in the door: Retired working people of all races. Fresh-faced young people. Men in flannel shirts, women in pantsuits, and all manner of ethnic clothing.
The organizers' problem is that, as Hickey and Dayen and conference attendee Barbara Burt both explained, the crowd voted like America too. Not that the organizers didn't try: The CEPR exposed the distortions in their material, as did I, and their attempt to portray themselves as non-ideological was easily refuted. Still, those materials framed the backbone of their strongly skewed presentation, which was reinforced time and time again during their live presentation.
That's where the corporate team-building comparison comes in. The event, at least while I was there, included constant cheerleading for the budget-slashing goals, exhortations about how wonderful "we" are to be doing this, and one false choice after another. Having lived through too many of these corporate events, what came to mind was an event where we were asked to decide which "out of the box" idea was smarter: Gillette's idea to sell cheap razors but overcharge for the blades, or a phone company's idea (pre-cell phones) to fill pay phone receivers with lead so they were too heavy to hold and people would have to cut their calls short.
Of 75 attendees at that corporate training, only two of us considered both choices unethical. Yet, as Dayen/Burt et al. have emphasized, those were the sorts of choices presented to attendees at this event and they fought the premise strenuously. (At least they didn't ask attendees to come up with new expressions that mean "think outside the box," an exercise that drove so nearly mad that I offered "sorry, I lost the box" and "think outside the unemployment office.") Participants were forced to meet an arbitrary goal of $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts, they weren't told that Social Security is separately funded, were given limits on how much they could cut defense, were told that the health care system was broken but weren't allowed to consider options like single-payer coverage.
That's where the Milgram "Obedience to Authority" experiment comes in. In that exercise, participants were told they were inflicting pain on other human beings - but that they were being instructed to do so by authority figures. A disturbingly high number of people agreed to do so, and kept inflicting what they believed was "pain" on other people. But here's where the experiment broke down: Participants in Saturday's event wouldn't conduct themselves as the organizers expected. They overwhelmingly preferred more progressive options, even when confronted with the artificially imposed goal of $1.2 trillion in cuts.
A last note on the mind-control aspect of the event: Digby noted the use of carefully-chosen songs to influence attendees, and organizers clearly wanted to create an anti-imcumbent, anti-Washington, "we're the voice of the people" mood. So they presented five or six statements which they claimed "reflected the overall tone" of the comments they received (I'd like to see a random sample before accepting that) and asked the crowd to vote on which ones should be handed in with the group's findings. All of the chosen statements implied that to reject these budget cuts would mean that politicians are giving in to special interests, leaving participants will no real choice of message at all.
The song that played as they voted? "Wrapped Around Your Finger." One of the statements chosen was something like "Treat us as if we're a powerful lobby - because we are." That gets us to the last aspect of this experiment: Put several thousand people in rooms (organizers say 3,500 participated, manipulate them into giving certain answers, and then pretend this tiny group is speaking for the entire American people. As we said earlier, a very smart idea - but what do you do when it doesn't work out as planned?
Answer: You pretend it did. Barbara Burt has the details on how their press release spun gold into straw, but here are some highlights of what their statement said and how participants really voted:
• "Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%." The largest group of attendees voted for no change at all to health expenditures, despite the skewed premise and group pressure to do so.
• "Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million." As Barbara Burt writes, "If they use the standard above, conflating categories, then they should report that 66 percent would raise the personal tax rate for everyone in the top two brackets by at least 10%."
• "Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69." After great pressure to do so, the group did so, but as Ms. Burt points out: "... there's no reason why Social Security should even be considered in this discussion, since it is a pay-as-you-go program by law and thus has no impact on the deficit. That said, once again, the press release fails to go by its earlier method of conflating categories. If you do follow that convention, then you can say that 67 percent were in favor of raising the payroll tax gradually to at least 13.4%."
• "Reduce defense spending by 10% - 15%." Ms Burt again: "This is an understatement. 51 percent approved cutting the defense budget by 15%, certainly another newsworthy fact. Another 18 percent approved a cut of 10%, and 16 percent approved a 5% cut. Here's the staggering number -- only 15 percent voted for no change in defense spending."
In other words, as Ms. Burt summarizes, the group consensus was: "We do not shrink from raising taxes on those most able to pay. This means those in the top two tax brackets. This means Wall Street. We do not shrink from cutting the military budget. And we do not shrink from taxing the use of fossil fuels."
The event's organizers announced that they were already scheduled to appear before the Deficit Commission as well as member of Congress to present their findings. Based on their summary of Saturday's events, they're likely to try skewing those presentations to their own agenda. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with that: Participants want us to address the economy with a stimulus, then enact a progressive range of ideas to address longer-term problems. Any other message would be misleading.
Organizers might be disappointed with Saturday's results, but I have a feeling that Stanley Milgram would be pleased.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
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