On Saturday, the group known as America Speaks (funded by Wall Street mogul Peter G. Peterson and two other foundations) brought together several thousand people in meetings in 18 cities. They gave participants misleading background information about the federal deficit and economic options to achieve fiscal "balance" and future prosperity.
Peterson cannot be pleased with the participants' mainly progressive policy choices, which will be presented on June 30 to the Deficit Commission that Peterson encouraged President Obama to create.
According to America Speaks' own press release, when a scientifically selected group of participants picked up their electronic voting devices, they overwhelmingly supported proposals to
- Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million.
- Reduce military spending by 10 to 15 percent,
- Create a carbon tax and a securities-transaction tax.
This pretty progressive set of solutions emerged from the process many feared would be skewed to the solutions of conservative deficit hawks.
America Speaks was certainly not pushing the discussion in a progressive direction. The background materials -- and policy options -- provided to participants were anything but fair and balanced, as analysis by economist Dean Baker demonstrated. Most egregious were the following:
Social Security. America Speaks gave participants no explanation of the fact that Social Security has its own source of funding, and thus does not contribute a dime to the deficit. Americans actually have been paying extra payroll taxes to create a trust fund that will make sure full benefits can be paid for decades into the future -- and thus there is no rational reason to cut Social Security benefits (or raise the retirement age) in order to reduce the Federal deficit. But you wouldn't know that from the America Speaks materials or explanations. The Social Security program is simply presented as another big spending program and participants were presented with various ways to cut benefits. Given all this, a majority endorsed raising the retirement age for full benefits to 69 -- a benefit cut for future retirees. But they also chose the progressive plan to raise the cap on taxable earnings subject to Social Security taxes, thus producing income for the system from greater portion of higher income peoples' wages.
Medicare and Medicaid. The America Speaks background materials actually did acknowledge that the rising budgetary costs of Medicare and Medicaid are driven by the fact that our whole health care system is broken -- and costing both the private sector and government programs much more per person than in countries that have much better health outcomes. They even acknowledged that thoroughgoing reform -- like single-payer health care system -- is the only way to control those rising costs.
However, when it came to options the participants were allowed to vote on, they were all variations on how much people wanted to cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits. At this point in the proceedings, the America Speaks founder and President, Carolyn Lukensmeyer had to acknowledge a rebellion in the ranks. People were demanding to have the option of voting for "single-payer" reform instead of cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and when she announced a complicated process of writing in that alternative, a roar of approval went up from the crowd in several locations. Their press release doesn't report how many people chose this difficult to select option, but the organization clearly had had to scramble to quell a revolt by participants. (Note: their press release states that people chose to "cut health care spending by at least five percent," but the choice was really to cut government health programs five percent -- and my reading of the charts online was that only 21 percent of participants chose that option, with 71 percent choosing "no change.")
Austerity vs Growth. Finally, the organizers had heard enough protests from the Economic Policy Institute and the AFL-CIO that they felt they had to assure the audience that they were not prioritizing deficit reduction over the need for economic stimulus to get the economy to start producing jobs. But after that ritual disclaimer, they went on to devote the vast majority of the day to deficits as our defining economic program.
David Dyen, an LA participant, wrote in a post on firedoglake,
"While the cumulative effect of all this tends towards social safety net cuts rather than tax fairness, the crowd in Los Angeles, at least, wasn't biting at first. In surveying the discussion groups, most people seemed more concerned about the desperate need for more stimulus spending to move the economic recovery forward... In the nationwide instant survey, taken by participants through electronic devices at all 19 America Speaks sites, 61% said the government needed to do more to strengthen the recovery, with only 25% opposed. Even with a push poll question asking if participants supported government programs to increase growth "if it increases the deficit," got a majority, 51%, of the nation-wide group of participants.
My next-day posting here -- claiming participants mostly rejected conservative nostrums -- is based on watching the process online, from reports from people who attended events around the country -- and on a fairly sketchy press release put out by America Speaks on Thursday, just after the town meetings. But America Speaks billed these events as a nation-wide scientific experiment in finding out what the "American people" think about the economic way forward. They are thus duty bound to publish a full report on the details of every single question -- and voting results -- that participants were asked to make decisions about. It is especially important that they put out this comprehensive report because they are also scheduled to summarize their findings before a special public meeting of the White House Deficit Commission on June 30. Only then can the people who participated in the process judge whether their surprisingly progressive decisions are being accurately presented to the Commission.
Note: Click here for a blog post on the Augusta, Maine America Speaks event by participant Barbara Burt, director of the Frances Perkins Center.