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Harvard Liberal Thinks "Left Should Learn to Trust Pete Peterson"

john.halle's picture

For those of you who saw Archon Fung's HuffPo response to Dean Baker and myself, here is my response to him.

Dean Baker's email is appended below.

Hi Archon,

I take issue with you on several basic points.

First, I don't think it is at all "unhealthy " to view the activities of Peterson-and those of billionaires generally- with considerable skepticism. If the left doesn't do this, who will? Furthermore, if we have learned anything from the Obama phenomena, it is that right wing ends can be very effectively pursued and marketed to the public using the superficially "left" rhetoric of democratic empowerment. If you are unfamiliar with Adolph Reed's work on this subject, perhaps you will acquaint yourself with it and the practical consequences which derive from it.

This brings up the question of whether America Speaks failed to advance Peterson's goals. In fact, while the recommendations for addressing the "crisis" which emerged from Saturday's conversation were more or less progressive, that the discussion was being had at all-and on a large scale- was itself an indication that what Dean calls the "phony crisis" has been successfully fomented by Peterson. That your response celebrates this conversation having taken place without once mentioning the entirely fallacious and fundamentally dishonest assumptions on which it is based is itself another indication of Peterson's success in framing the agenda and of liberalism's capitulation to it.

The promotion of heads I win-tails you lose binaries of this basic type has, of course, been a long-standing staple of elite driven discourse. The best known example we owe to Noam: the question as posed to the public was whether the costs imposed by waging war in Southeast Asia were acceptable, a framing which excludes from consideration whether the war was in any way morally defensible or in the broader public interest.

Similar externally constrained limitations on the range of possible debate with respect to trade agreements, tax policy, public education, health care reform, etc. were successfully manufactured and imposed a priori by elites and had a lot to do with the eventual outcomes in recent years.

The efforts waged by elites to reduce the discussion to a few narrowly defined "pragmatic" policy options is directly related to Dean's observation that big foundations have never been reliable allies of the left-the fantasies of the right notwithstanding. Indeed, they function largely to, in Noam's words, "police the boundaries of acceptable discourse".

The document which Dean links to is a good indication of this dynamic at work. Contrary to your claim, the presence of establishment think tanks on the AS National Advisory Committee did not insure the representation of a "left" perspective but rather resulted in what Dean correctly describes as a "stacked" agenda for the AS discussion-precisely what one would expect from the foundations' fulfilling their institutional function.

Dean mentions his experiences with McArthur and Kellogg as forming the basis for his skepticism in this respect. I would add to what Dean has to say by mentioning that I was rather taken aback by your referring to Brookings as a "left think tank" when it comes to the the so-called deficit crisis. As I'm sure you know, an entire wing of Brookings is devoted to advancing the goals of the Concord Coalition, the most prestigious and bipartisan, and therefore the most dangerous, of the numerous organizations pushing for fiscal austerity. Their advocacy for a kindler gentler version of Peterson's basic platform was entirely predictable. What is surprising and a bit disturbing is that you regarded their presence on the AS board as reassuring.

Indeed, Brookings has for years now provided a left veneer for objectively reactionary policies in many areas. To take a few examples, they provided a platform for the bombs-away rantings of Michael O'Hanlon during the run up to the Iraq war, a constant barrage of free trade apologetics during the Clinton years (which even Clinton himself-incidentally-has now in part repudiated) and have been a enthusiastic supporter of equally destructive policies on school choice.

Frankly, by this point, a case could be made that you should be cutting ties with them as well as with AS.

In the past, one might have reasonably expected that a former student of Noam's and Louis's would seriously consider such acts of conscience. While it is by no means an unfamiliar trajectory, that you and many others have long since moved on towards what might euphemistically be called a more pragmatic orientation is the essential, and rather depressing conclusion which can be drawn from your response to Dean's and my pieces.

But there's always hope for change!

Best Regards,

John Halle

Here is Baker's response:

Hi Archon,

thanks for your note. I based my assessment of America Speaks both on prior and current dealings with the main organizers and also on the materials that were prepared for the meeting itself. I know that there were some liberals/progressives on their advisory committee. They will have to answer for themselves as to
how they let the material pass through in the form it did .

I have been around DC long enough to know that I cannot count on groups like the Kellogg Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation to defend progressive positions. Excuse me for being crass, but no one at these foundations will lose their high-paying jobs if people getting SS and Medicare take a big hit.

I think the events did turn out reasonably well from a progressive standpoint. I think this was in large part because groups like Move-on publicized the meeting and encouraged people to go. And, we also prepared material that showed why the staff that was being circulated by the organizers was stacked. So, at the end of the day, I think we got Pete Peterson to blow a lot of his money (and some of Kellogg's and MacArthur's) on something that went against him. But, if we had just left it to the inside crew, the outcome would have been very different.



Archon Fung wrote:
Dear Dean and John,

I appreciate your engagement with the deliberation this weekend that AmericaSpeaks organized. However, I think you guys are 180 degrees wrong, and here's why...

I hope that you'll reconsider your take before doubling down. I think there is a kind of progressive echo chamber effect going on on this one little event. I don't understand the dynamic exactly, but I don't think its healthy.

all best,

-- archon

Archon Fung
Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University |

? Please consider the environment before printing this email.

Dean Baker
Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research
1611 Connecticut Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20009
202-293-5380 (ext 114)

No votes yet


letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I think Archon's piece was outrageous, because it was devoid of analysis of the process and the materials that AmericaSpeaks used to envelope the participants in their frame. It was also apparent that Archon agreed with that frame and his commitment to democracy isn't strong enough for him to insist on alternative frames in collective decision processes like the one we saw last weekend.

It's very well-known that bias can be built into those processes, and anyone who had worked with them knows just how to do it. AmericaSpeaks designed in the bias, It created a procrustean bed for the participants to fit into.

Submitted by Randall Kohn on

While it is by no means an unfamiliar trajectory, that you and many others have long since moved on towards what might euphemistically be called a more pragmatic orientation is the essential, and rather depressing conclusion which can be drawn from your response to Dean's and my pieces.

That's SO unfair, John. A guy's gotta eat! ;)

john.halle's picture
Submitted by john.halle on


Hi John,

I'm obviously not going to change your mind about this.

By way of background, my main agenda is to figure out ways in which lot of people can have more say in politics and policy. That's a democracy - understood as process - agenda. I do think that more democracy would lead to more social justice, but I'm more interested in the constructive agenda of thinking up ways to get citizens involved in governing themselves rather than in figuring out the policies that I think would be best for people.

I'm drawn to AmericaSpeaks because they - among other organizations - are very concerned with inventing new methods of citizen participation and engagement. For an attempt to canvass many such efforts, see:

You should know that AmericaSpeaks is engaged with other organizations such as Demos - which you may regard more positively in a coalition building effort to deepen American democracy:

For some of my current commentary on the state of these efforts in the context of the Obama presidency, see:

I suspect that you will like the first part, but very much dislike the second. I see the two as working together.

all best,


Baker (This dovetails nicely with Lets' very useful on the ground accounts):

Hi Archon,

I am a big proponent of open meetings and public discussion. the question who controls the agenda, who decides what information is presented.

I can design a wonderful program for the deficit, health care reform,
and dozens of other issues. But the America Speaks people will not sign
off on it because it will not point to the conclusions that they, or more importantly, their funders want.

The issue here is not public debate and open forums. The issue here is a debate that was completely rigged in its objective (frankly, getting people to spend 6.5 hours designing a 2025 budget when we are sitting here with near double-digit unemployment that is projected to persist long into the future, is a bit loopy) and framed in a way that was intended to push toward right-wing objectives.

I hope Demos does better in getting a reasonable agenda for its program.