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Pete Peterson: Punking the People, Punking the Left

john.halle's picture

Suggestion for an activist follow up to the Fiscal Sustainability Summit.
Comments and/or discussion appreciated.

Pete Peterson has stepped up his mischief making.

The last week of April found the most odious of Wall Street billionaires having assembled a parade of A-list Washington power brokers-up to and including former President Clinton- all willing to serve as enablers for Peterson's pathological idee fixe: deficit reduction.

There was, as to be expected, much talk of "personal responsibility", "sustainability", and "fiscal discipline" though it should be understood that these and other self- help bromides were the sugar coating on a pill laced with arsenic.

For Peterson has slyly removed from the table the obvious targets for reducing deficits-significantly increased taxes on billionaire wealth and millionaire income and a cutting off of funding for useless wars and weapons systems. What deficit reduction means is "entitlement reform" a code word for cut backs in Social Security benefits.

And that means numerous senior citizens standing in long lines at food pantries, others dumpster-diving for food, many living out their "golden years" in homeless shelters, and others literally freezing to death in unheated apartments.

It also means high unemployment, particularly among younger workers who would otherwise have available to them entry level positions vacated by seniors who will be now be dropping dead on the job if Peterson gets his way.

For all these reasons, any street corner peddler would recognize the product as a tough sell and that's why Peterson has committed, by his own accounting, a full one billion dollars of his personal fortune to try to an attempt to apply a metallic shine on the turd he is hawking.

Peterson's marketing blitz will reach a crescendo with his sponsorship of America Speaks!, "a national town hall meeting", taking place in 20 cities on June 26, according to its tastefully designed website. These astro-turf fora will encourage us "to weigh-in on the difficult choices involved with putting our federal budget on a sustainable path." Those who don't regard the choices required to address the deficit as "difficult" at all-rather a simple matter of reducing spending on the military and increasing taxes on billionaires, have no place at America Speaks, evidently. Nor do those who, quite reasonably, do not regard deficits as at all "unsustainable."

America Speaks coincides with the deliberations of Obama's deficit reduction commission, most members of which have already, in whole or in part, signed off on Peterson's austerity program.

Peterson thinks now is the time for the coup de grace to be delivered to the last remnants of the New Deal safety net, the pea under the mattress troubling the sleep of economic royalists since FDR.

But he's wrong. For unlike banking reform, climate change, the war in Afghanistan, and EFCA, where the corporate, oligarchic right steamrolled all opposition, it's not just the fringe left who will be on the streets when Peterson institutes his final solution. Even the most addled tea partier wants to "keep the government's hands off of our Social Security." It is not for nothing that Social Security is called the third rail of american politics.

America Speaks should be mobbed: with high school and college students facing a comatose job market, families trying to survive on a single income following the death or injury of their spouses, and current retirees whose current benefits have reduced them to near destitution and who are seeing their children's future in the pages of Dickens novels. And it should even include relatively privileged middle aged men whose retirement crucially depends on at least one of the stools of the retirement triad (now more than ever with our 401 Ks in the toilet.

After a series of humiliating defeats, the left should relish the chance to take ownership of June 26th.

Rather than the bullet putting the left out of its misery, as Peterson intends it, June 26th should be the first step in turning the tide.

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basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

If you're going to make the charge that Clinton is willing to do in Social Security - which I don't believe for a second - then you need to come up with something more substantial than him simply agreeing to be on the board.

basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

Who knows what he's doing but I've read what he has to say about Medicare and Social Security in the past and I don't believe for a second that he is favor of cutting either. And until you have evidence that he is (which will be heartbreaking if it happens), then i think you should stop smearing him. He went to bat in a big way against the pro-corporate faction on behalf of Social Security. I find it hard to believe that his conviction has changed.

Submitted by lambert on

at Peterson's "Let Them Eat Cat Food!" Summit, but I've failed. Readers?

* * *

I don't see any possible way that Clinton lending his name to anything Peterson is seeking to do can be good news. If that be a "smear," then so be it.

basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

posted by Firedog Lake where he talks about the fact that he nearly had a deal nailed down while he was president that would have slowed the cost of living increases for wealthy Americans, while allowing ordinary citizens to build savings accounts on top of their own ss account. He talks about Medicare going broke in X number of years (I don't remember the number he gives) and SS having problems several years out.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

which is 1) that Social Security is in trouble and 2) that deficits are a problem that we need to address.

I understand why Clinton did this. His legacy is, in part, based on his "surplus" budgets. But after reading more about MMT, I'm convinced that Clinton and other Democrats/Progressives who agree with the premise that the deficit is a crisis that has to be fixed are a large part of the problem.* There are smart and dumb ways to run deficits, but the entire Peterson movement is based on creating the appearance of a crisis around deficits as well as the need to "save" Social Security and Medicare. To the extent Clinton participates in Peterson's summit or otherwise give credence to these talking points, he is part of the problem. The right pushback is the MMT one - that deficits, per se, aren't the problem. Social Security and Medicare are not in "crisis" so long as the Government is willing to pay for them. When you participate in the massive propaganda push aimed at convincing the unterbussen that deficits are a crisis that must be solved, then you're not helping regular folks. Participatinig in a jobs summit where the focus is on what the government can spend to help people is helping the unterbussen. Lending your prestige to an effort aimed at cutting the government in these difficult times is only helping the people who want to hurt regular folks.

Remember whenever a politician says "deficit reduction" what he's really saying is class warfare. That goes as much for Clinton as it does for anyone else.

* Actually, I have a long list of grievances against Clinton on economic issues (thanks, Bill, for Larry Summers), as well as "progressives", but I don't want to get into them here because John's underlying post - the need to counter Peterson - should be the focus of the discussion.

Submitted by Anne on

he’s written a book entitled, The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation.

From the post:

By 1997, Bill Clinton felt he had the upper hand with Congress and it was time for him to make historic moves. He had replaced Leon Panetta as Chief of Staff with investment banker Erskine Bowles late in his first term, and as author Steven Gillon tells the tale, Bowles brought a sense of order to the White House. Bowles planned to return to the private sector as Clinton’s second term began, but Bill and Hillary implored him to stay on for one final task: “fixing” Social Security.

President Obama has likewise entrusted Erskine Bowles with the task of chairing his own Deficit Commission, which is currently meeting in secret to address Social Security and other entitlement issues. Since little is known about the deliberations of that commission, I thought it would be instructive to have Dr. Gillon on to talk about Bowles’s history of shuttle diplomacy in 1997 to negotiate a deal between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton to cut Social Security. He based his book The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation on interviews he conducted with Clinton, Gingrich, Bowles and others involved in the negotiations. And according to Bowles, the deal would have gone through save for one factor: the Monica Lewinsky episode.

Bowles was uniquely suited to the task of negotiating a deal on Social Security. He had the trust of Newt Gingrich and the Republicans that Clinton would need to carry out his vision of Social Security reform:

Bowles became the liaison between Clinton and Gingrich, shuttling back and forth brokering deals between Capitol Hill and the White House. Neither man trusted the other, but both trusted Bowles, and he became the key figure in their evolving relationship. “You cannot underestimate the role that Erskine played,” recalled Joe Gaylord. “He and Gingrich liked each other. They trusted each other.” Bill Archer, the powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee, also felt comfortable with Bowles. “He was not ideological. He was not pushing the big left agenda. He was there to make things happen between the White House and a Republican Congress.” Later, Gingrich would call his appointment “decisive,” and a turning point in his relationship with the White House. “It is the one brief period when you have a significant adult whose experience transcends Washington, who understands making deals and getting business done, and who has a center-right bias in fiscal policy,” he said. “He had the ability to bridge the White House and my party in Congress.”

Clinton had been trying to deal with Social Security for some time. In 1994, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala had appointed the 13-member Danforth Commission to advise on Social Security. She appointed three members from labor (including Richard Trumka), Republican Alan Simpson (appointed by Obama to co-chair his Deficit Commission with Bowles) and Pete Peterson (the hedge-fund billionaire funding much of the current economic work being used to justify dismantling Social Security). The Danforth Commission was always deeply divided and was never able to reach a consensus, largely due to the fact that the appointees had different perspectives, but Obama apparently learned that lesson: His 18-member commission already is packed with 14 members who support cutting benefits, and many who support some form of privatization. It takes 14 votes to pass any recommendation.

The deal between Gingrich and Clinton left many of the details to be worked out, but with the stock market doing well, there was some indication that there would be more public support for privatization than there had been in the past. Writes Gillon:

There was a growing consensus on both sides of the aisle in favor of having Social Security tap into the stock market to increase the rate of return on retirement funds. However, difficult questions remained unanswered: Who would manage the money: individuals or the government? Would private accounts replace checks guaranteed by the government, or would they simply be an add-on to the existing system? Politics, not economics, presented the biggest obstacle. Any long-term solution to solving Social Security required increasing the age of eligibility and changing the formula used to calculate the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) — two steps guaranteed to arouse powerful opposition across the political spectrum.

Clinton was willing to take the hit with liberals if Bowles could bring on board a contentious GOP, which didn’t want to give Clinton a legislative victory. That meant negotiating with Gingrich.

I have to admit that I had not remembered this, sandwiched as it was between the debacle that Hillary’s health care reform effort became, and the circus of Monica and the impeachment – among other things.

Admittedly, there’s a huge difference between cutting and gutting, which it doesn’t look like Clinton’s efforts were about, and some form of privatization – which it appears Clinton was in favor of, and which Obama is undoubtedly toying with, no doubt in the belief that he, and he alone, can somehow make magic that neither Clinton nor Bush were able to do; for whatever reason, Obama is trapped in a hellish version of “anything you (Clinton) can do, I can do better,” but we are the ones who get the “hellish” end of the stick, while Obama takes victory laps.

It’s bad enough that much of the work of the Commission is being done in secret, and that the recommendations will not be issued until after the November mid-terms – wouldn’t want people voting on the basis of too much information, you know – but if insurance reform was the template for all the other “reforms” being undertaken, I’m ready for déjà vu all over again.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

We do need to keep building efforts to counter Peterson.

How "open" are the America speaks events? Are they going to be "open" like so much of our political theatre is these days - which is to say closed except to pre-screened individuals? Or are they going to really be open? And even if they are faux open, perhaps demonstrations outside would be the next option?

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

Perhaps reasonable people can differ on the extent of Clinton's commitment to SS. But he's not the issue; Peterson, and the bipartisan agenda he is manufacturing for cutting SS is.

So what are we going to do about it?

Frankly, I can't afford getting my SS benefits cut and I'd be very pissed off about it-not abstractly, but in reality. And I imagine there are lots of others in this category.

The point of the piece is that we should look at this as both a challenge and an opportunity.

It's too bad that this seems to have gotten buried to some degree.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

because you can bet Peterson has one. And I don't trust the "progressive" leadership to do much more than argue over how much to cut SS after they've accepted the Peterson framing about deficits. Also who knows how many will defect when Obama announces some deal as being the "best" we can hope to get due to "political reality".

I think the best plan would be to organize locally around each America Speaks event. I have no experience in doing such a thing (and probably no time to do it, since my RL sucks right now), but that to me is the best plan. I think you're dead right about the ability to use these to oppose the cat food commission. And then get local press to cover it and send copies of the press to the relevant Congress Critters representing the area.

dr sardonicus's picture
Submitted by dr sardonicus on

In Washington-speak, privatizing Social Security is saving Social Security; this may account for some of the confusion.

Submitted by Randall Kohn on

(Once again my DU roots show through.)