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The Procrustean Democracy of AmericaSpeaks: Part One

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[Welcome, Naked Capitalism readers! -- lambert]

On June 26th, AmericaSpeaks, an organization claiming unbiased neutrality on deficit issues, but funded by the Peter G. Peterson and other Foundations who share the Peterson view that US deficits and the National Debt are something to worry about, convened some 19 Town Meetings, and more than 40 smaller “community conversations,” all tied together through web streaming, to elicit citizen views on “this problem.” Here are some claims by AmericaSpeaks about their neutrality and lack of bias.

”AmericaSpeaks takes pride in its reputation as an honest and neutral advocate for public participation. We play a unique role in the policy making process by serving as a non-partisan convener of forums that provide the public with an opportunity to make decisions about important issues without fear of manipulation or bias. Our ability to help citizens and elected officials come together around tough public issues is dependent on our commitment to maintaining this neutral role. . . .

”AmericaSpeaks does not take positions on policy issues. AmericaSpeaks strives to ensure that only balanced and neutral facts are used to inform discussions on policy issues. We stand by these basic principles that protect the integrity of our process and the faith that participants and decision-makers place in our work.”

I attended one of the community conversations, held in the library of the Congressional School in Falls Church, VA, in a neighborhood called Lake Barcroft, along with my daughter, an aspiring actor and professional web accessibility consultant. Upwards of 20 people participated in the conversation including two moderators, both doing unpaid volunteer work for AmericaSpeaks. There were very few younger people in this group, and by that I mean people under 40. I don't believe there were any under 30. About 1/3 of the group appeared to be in their 60s or older. The rest were in the 40-50 range. There were no Hispanics, or African-American in the group, and only one person of Asian extraction. Many of the attendees appeared to be professionals or retired professionals. So demographically and educationally the group I was not representative of America.

I want to spend most of this post talking about the group process, because I think you can't really properly understand how individuals respond to the group environment and also the content of their responses without understanding the process. Here are the steps in the community conversation process I attended

1. Welcome and Introductions

2. The Primary Facilitator states the purpose of the meeting, reviews the agenda, and hands out materials, including a pre-survey, a short survey on basic values, a Federal Budget 101 booklet, and a deficit reduction Options Workbook. I'll discuss these materials in conjunction with the steps in the process associated with them. Participants watch the web-streamed Philadelphia event, including various notables speaking about the deficit problem, and also The Federal Budget 101 video, giving the AmericaSpeaks narrative about the “fiscal crisis,” and the basis for deficit reduction activities including the event itself.

3. Participants are given a pre-survey to fill out while the meeting is going on, and watch results of the same survey given at those events.

4. Discussion of everyone's vision for America in the Future and rating of agreement/disagreement on 7-point rating scales with 3 primary “value” statements, and watching results from the meetings in various cities,

5. Working through the Options Workbook and arriving at decisions about what cuts in Federal Expenditures or tax increase to make in order to cut the projected Federal Budget. Reporting to the group about the choices made by each participants and something of the reasoning behind these choices. Summing up by facilitator highlighting the most popular choices of options for reducing the deficit.

6. Conduct End of Day Survey and close the meeting.

Now I'll report on and analyze each stage with special attention to the question of bias/lack of objectivity.

Pre-Conference

The very selection of the problem along with the characterization that we face a deficit crisis, indicates a bias. After all, by their own admission, and based on their own projections, the percentage of Federal Outlays devoted to net interest costs won't reach 20.6% until 2025. This is a large percentage of the Budget. However, the percentage devoted to net interest costs had been quite high under Reagan and Bush 41, pushing 15%, in 1989, and only slightly less under Reagan. The interest burden didn't cripple the Republic then, so why get excited enough about this projection now to invest in this nationwide meeting? In fact, the percentage devoted to net interest costs won't even reach the 15% almost reached under Bush 41 until 2018, according to CBO, which gives us 8 years to prevent even that outcome.

On the other hand, we have the most serious recession on our hands since the depression of the '30s, unprecedented levels of under and unemployment, since the Great Depression, two wars, an urgent need to re-orient and re-build the energy foundations of our economy, a health care reform, that will not materially reduce the 45,000 fatalities per year we are experiencing now, a crisis in our public education system, very serious environmental problems, a crisis in our infrastructure which needs $2.5 Trillion to repair, a world economy full of nations cutting back on public sending, and each of these problems are things we need to target now. So why no AmericaSpeaks meetings on those problems before we even begin to worry about a “crisis” that is still a number of years away. Clearly, the very selection of the problem shouts bias. Especially, since they could have polled interested people first, and asked them which of a list of problems facing America ought to be discussed in a national meeting, and then decided how to organize their meeting. Does anyone doubt that a democratic selection made by a majority of people polled would have been about the economy and the jobs crisis we are facing?

Welcome and Introductions

This a very normal thing to do in any meeting of this type. What it revealed in that most people attending were professional people with a high level of education. There were no laborers in the group, and a fair number of people were active in interest group circles in the Washington, DC area. Also, we were told by the facilitator at this point that the event would not last from 11:30 AM – 6:00 PM as planned, but would be over by 3:00 PM. I don't know if this was restricted to our community conversation alone, and was a function of our facilitator's commitments, or whether it was part of the nationwide program. However, as time wore on, it became clear that the loss of 3 hours of time did much more damage to the opportunity for detailed expression of their views by participants like myself and a number of others skeptical about the orientation of the event, than it did to the need of AmericaSpeaks to get the ratings it required from participants. So, the compressed time period further heightened the bias in the situation towards the frame that AmericaSpeaks had set for the meeting, and also, therefore, biased the outcomes the meeting produced.

Primary Facilitator states the purpose of the meeting, reviews the agenda, and hands out materials for the event, including a pre-survey, short survey on basic values, Federal Budget 101, and the Options Workbook. Participants watch the web-streamed Philadelphia event, including various notables speaking about the deficit problem, and also The Federal Budget 101 video giving the AmericaSpeaks narrative about the “fiscal crisis.”

When the primary facilitator stated the agenda and explained its purpose, a number of people immediately called for a discussion of the purpose of the event and questioned whether there really was a fiscal crisis. I pointed to the Government's option to deficit spend without issuing debt and pointed out that doing this would save nearly $1.4 Trillion in interest costs in 2025, alone, and that, the cumulative effect of a no debt issuance policy would be to eliminate a good part of the deficits projected between now and then. Another participant, active, in the DC non-profit world, mentioned the continuing recession and high levels of unemployment. She pointed out that SS had no immediate fiscal problems, and that the “crisis” was caused by people in the financial industry, who are not the ones being asked to sacrifice, but who are now asking others to do so. Yet another, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, talked about most of the difficulties being due to health care cost increases and the current recession. He denied that there was any long-term fiscal problem. Still others also questioned whether the topic of the meeting was appropriate.

The meeting facilitator met these objections with apparent openness. She gave everyone a chance to state their views, but then mentioned the need to table the discussion until later, if time allowed, because of the need to keep up with the agenda of the national program being web-streamed to us.

At this point, it was apparent to me, and probably to everyone, that there really wasn't an opportunity to question the agenda and revise it within the AmericaSpeaks process. But only an opportunity to let off some steam, while the group was being driven by the pre-planned agenda and orientation to provide information that would be structured in the way that AmericaSpeaks wanted. This was another dimension of bias. Not only was the topic pre-selected to fit the prejudices of AmericaSpeaks, but participants in the event would not be allowed to revise the topic in any serious way to fit their needs, and they would also be run through an agenda of exercises designed to produce results within a certain range, and in a compressed time.

I think that's enough for now. I'll continue with my analysis of the AmericaSpeaks Community Conversation Meeting in my next post.

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).

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letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

The Participants themselves were asked to contribute snacks, and several very generous souls did contributed what looked like good wholesome food in the main. I, however, made do with a couple of zone bars, which, I have been assured, contain no Soylent Green.

I can understand, though, why you're creeped out. Americans, in the main, want to be helpful and strangely, they are incredibly trusting and incredibly cynical all at the same time. tell them something comes from the Government, or from the political parties or from Big Labor, or, these days, even from Big Business, and they'll become deaf to what you have to say.

But go at them with a non-profit group spouting democratic ideology and swearing that they are non-partisan, and saying "Houston, we have a problem," and middle-class Americans are ready to step up to help in solving that problem, without making the people seeking their help demonstrate that there really is a problem. It's like they never learn any lessons.

Take Sarah Palin. She's a new kid on the block, spouting the prejudices of a lot of people, and evidently she sounds good to them for reasons I cannot fathom. But, hell, they just got through being burned by Bush and then Obama, and they'll swear to you that all politicians are outrageous liars. And yet, it seems to have escaped them that Palin may be a big liar too, and different from other politicians only in that she lies more outrageously than most of them.