It is our American habit to arrive at what we think by talking things out together…. These discussion centers are the actual birth places of public opinion — they are where the American mind, harnessed to the American will, goes constructively and critically to work. –Frances Perkins, People at Work
I spent a surprisingly entertaining day yesterday at the AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy daylong national town meeting. More than 3,500 people gathered in a number of cities around the country; Augusta, Maine, was my location. As Alice Rivlin, a much honored participant, said, “Who would believe that thousands of people spent 6 1/2 hours on a summer Saturday talking about the deficit, and had fun doing it!”
One of the things that made it fun for me was the realization that the entire group was not going to be co-opted by ultra-conservative deficit hawks. In fact, it turns out that moderate-to-liberal-leaning folks are more willing to spend a Saturday in June talking about the U.S. budget with strangers. I know this because we were all outfitted with keypads upon which we answered poll questions, and the results were instantaneously beamed to all the town meeting sites. So we immediately learned that as a group we were slightly more male than female, slightly more affluent than average, very slightly less diverse than the general population, and somewhat older than average.
While the discussion was tightly channeled and there were serious deficiencies in the way some topics were presented (particularly health care and Social Security), I think that the results are of great interest, particularly the fact that 64 percent of the participants favored creating a carbon tax and 61 percent favored a securities transaction tax. Considering the way these taxes have either been discounted or little discussed in the mainstream media, that’s impressive.
Another nifty feature provided by AmericaSpeaks was a printed Preliminary Report we could pick up on our way out the door that contained all the polling results from the work we had just completed. So, I don’t have to remember exactly how all 3500+ of us felt about cuts to Medicare or new taxes; it’s all collected in the Preliminary Report in black and white.
That’s why I feel well equipped to point out the ways in which the publicity released by AmericaSpeaks about the polling results from the national town meeting is misleading.
AmericaSpeaks received much of its funding for the Our Budget, Our Economy national town meeting from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which also has pushed hard for deficit reduction in the form of cuts to social programs like Social Security. The press release sent out after the town meetings sounds as if the results were spun by someone sharing the perspective of the Peterson Foundation. (It’s also interesting to note that all the experts interviewed or taped for the video presentations came from the “deficit hawk” side of the table.)
Here’s an excerpt from the press release:
Reforms that were preferred by participants at the National Town Meeting included options that:
• 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.
And here are my main arguments with that portrayal:
• Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%. While the majority of those supporting reductions in Medicare and Medicaid spending voted to reduce that spending by 5 percent (instead of 10 or 15 percent), a much larger percentage — 38 — voted for “no change” in health care spending, no doubt due in part to the very poor way in which this question was posed. Although people around me and some who spoke on the live transmission from other sites believed that healthcare spending needed to be cut, they were not happy with the options provided in this exercise.
When it comes to non-defense discretionary spending, again the highest votes went to “no change” — 32 percent. I suppose they are adding up all the people who voted for 5, 10, and 15 percent cuts and saying that all of those people would have supported a cut of “at least 5%” but that seems disingenuous.
• Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million. If they use the standard above, conflating categories, then they should report that 66 percent would raise the personal tax rate for everyone in the top two brackets by at least 10%. In fact, the vote was 18 percent for a 10% increase and 48 percent for a 20% increase. That’s newsworthy — especially as this group skewed toward a higher average income. This group would raise taxes considerably on those earning more than $209,250, not just millionaires.
• Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69. Of course, there’s no reason why Social Security should even be considered in this discussion, since it is a pay-as-you-go program by law and thus has no impact on the deficit. That said, once again, the press release fails to go by its earlier method of conflating categories. If you do follow that convention, then you can say that 67 percent were in favor of raising the payroll tax gradually to at least 13.4%. That’s worth pointing out.
Also, although mentioned in the first bullet on the list of findings, it was a huge majority (85 percent) that approved of raising the limit on taxable earnings to 90% of total earnings in America. At my table, the vote for raising the age of retirement lost steam as people thought about those jobs involving physical labor, the lack of jobs for 60+ workers, and the need to free up jobs for younger workers. Others reported the same thing at their tables. Perhaps with more time for discussion, this vote would have gone the other way. As it is, as one of the options for changing Social Security, with only 52 percent in favor it ranked behind raising the payroll tax (67 percent) and far behind expanding the limit on taxable earnings (85 percent). But you wouldn’t know that from the press release.
• Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%. This is an understatement. 51 percent approved cutting the defense budget by 15%, certainly another newsworthy fact. Another 18 percent approved a cut of 10%, and 16 percent approved a 5% cut. Here’s the staggering number — only 15 percent voted for no change in defense spending. (Compare this to 32 percent who voted for no change in non-defense spending, 23 percent who voted for no change in Social Security spending, and 38 percent who voted for no change in healthcare spending.
• Create a carbon and securities-transaction tax. Again, this is true but understated. As I mentioned earlier, the approval for each of these new taxes was more than 60 percent.
Finally, I would quibble with this statement from the press release:
Sixty-one percent of participants said that in the short-term they believe the government should be doing more to strengthen the economy. Participants expressed more mixed views about the recent stimulus bill that failed to pass the Senate last week. Fifty-one percent of participants supported the legislation, while thirty-eight percent of participants said they were not supportive of it.
Why is 51 percent “mixed”? It’s a majority. Can we now also say that the attitude toward raising the full retirement age to 69 was also “mixed”? (52 percent voted for that.) And to break down further the polling on the failed stimulus bill, 32 percent said they were “supportive” and 19 percent said they were “somewhat supportive.” Twelve percent were “somewhat unsupportive” and 26 percent were “unsupportive.”
What’s so bad about a press release skewing the results just enough to shift the emphasis and bury the big stories? This description of yesterday’s results is laying down the track for the story that will be spun, as we were repeatedly told, to the president’s deficit commission (the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform), and to House and Senate leaders.
Here’s the real story: More than 3500 people in cities across the United States came together to sit at tables with strangers for six and a half hours to work on reducing the 2025 deficit, and this was their overwhelming answer to the problems we face: “We do not shrink from raising taxes on those most able to pay. This means those in the top two tax brackets. This means Wall Street. We do not shrink from cutting the military budget. And we do not shrink from taxing the use of fossil fuels.” What a challenge to Congress, which dares not do any of these things. May it give our representatives courage.
There’s no question that the thousands of people who came together across the country yesterday to wrestle with difficult questions of the budget and the economy did so with all good intentions. What remains to be seen are the intentions of the organizers. Let the true message be heard!
[You can find the quoted press release here: http://usabudgetdiscussion.org/press/]