Our Budget, Our Economy National Town Meeting

The main event of AmericaSPEAKS: OurBudget, Our Economy took place on Saturday. In video-linked meetings across the United States, some 3,500 diverse people deliberated about the federal budget and selected these recommendations:

  • Raise the limit on taxable earnings so it covers 90% of total earnings.
  • Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%.
  • Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million.
  • Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69.
  • Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%.
  • Create a carbon and securities-transaction tax.

They also said:

  • Please find the political will to use this input as if it were coming from a powerful lobbying group–because we are.
  • Abandon the failed politics of partisanship. You can’t demonize each other and expect us to trust you.

This process has been attacked from the left. Richard (RJ) Eskow blogged in the Huffington Post that the process was biased to “manipulate attendees into ‘spontaneously’ deciding that the social safety net must be cut (with some limited tax increases possibly thrown in for camouflage).” Escow says, “It’s no coincidence that the self-described centrist group Third Way sponsored an event this week in Washington, just before this ‘town meeting,’ which also emphasized ‘defeating the deficit.'” Third Way is not listed as a supporter or partner of the Town Meetings, but the Center for American Progress is. So if I wanted to play Escow’s game in reverse, I could just as well write, “It is no coincidence that the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, held an event entitled ‘The Case for Big Government‘ just days before the ‘Town Meeting’ that resulted in calls for tax increases.” Sometimes a coincidence really is a coincidence.

Also in the Huffington Post, Dean Baker decried a process “rigged” to produce cuts in Social Security and Medicare–“no surprise [since] America Speaks is largely funded by Peter G. Peterson, the investment banker billionaire who has been on a decades long crusade to gut these programs.”

That assertion happens to be flatly false. I serve on AmericaSPEAKS’ board and can testify that Peterson provided less money for this particular initiative than several foundations generally depicted as liberal. Peterson certainly covers a very small portion of AmericaSPEAKS’ overall budget. So I am inclined to counter Baker’s accusation with another ad hominem: someone who makes up false statements about other people’s budgets is not a reliable guide to budgetary issues.

But I think Dean Baker is a pretty reliable guide to federal priorities. In a different context,I would be prone to agree with him about budgetary issues. He and Eskow are entitled to critically review the briefing materials provided to the attendees. I doubt anyone on either side of the aisle loved every aspect of them, but I am confident that the intent was to give the participants maximum scope to come up with the results they preferred. If you read the materials and scan the supporters suspiciously, looking for bias, you will probably find some. If you are convinced that the hidden purpose of the effort is to cut Social Security, then you will read with a gimlet eye. The actual examples of biased statements cited by Baker and Escow strike me as pretty innocuous–or, indeed, as true–but that’s because I have some overall trust in the process. I would also note the support of John Rother, AARP; Neera Tanden, Center for American Progress; Robert Greenstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; and Margaret Simms, Urban Institute, among other progressives.

The question is which process best serves democracy. Baker and Escow want to persuade opinion-leaders and the mass public of their position. They use strong rhetoric and attribute wicked motives to their opponents. They see danger in a process that involves recruiting representative Americans for a discussion that is out of their control.

I think the regular process of advocacy, debate, and charge-and-counter-charge has served us miserably. We do not get the policies that citizens proposed on Saturday, but rather utterly indefensible priorities that (by the way) lie far to the right of the Town Meetings’ results. We also get a process that Americans despise as demonizing and manipulative.

Apparently, MoveOn urged its members to try to attend the Town Meetings, and if not admitted, to protest outside them. If they were successful in getting their people inside, they would turn the Town Meetings from a representative sample of Americans into a contest to see who could mobilize the most hard-core supporters. That is politics as we already know it. “Our Budget, Our Economy” is an experiment in a better way. Outsiders are entitled to criticize its materials and results. However, I find the desire to discredit it deeply discouraging. It illustrates an unnecessary and unhealthy gap between professional liberal policy advocacy and democratic or popular self-government.