Before You “Fix The Debt,” Unfix The Debt Debate

Isaiah J. Poole

If any conference was in need of a disruption, it was the “Fix the Debt” roundtable held this morning in the bowels of the Grand Hyatt hotel in downtown Washington.

It took a group of protestors—among them a couple of African-American senior women, a male college student, a young women who said “my great grandfather died fighting for Social Security”—to keep this Peter G. Peterson-driven effort to shape the national economic policy debate from being totally monopolized by a well-heeled, mostly male, virtually all-white cabal of people who would never be touched by the austerity they would oppose on those of us who are not in their ranks.

This Fix the Debt group, as we have repeatedly said, is spending millions upon millions of dollars on getting people to focus on the wrong debate—namely, “the debt”—when the debate needs to be first and foremost about fixing the working-class economy, putting people back to work and restoring economic security. Today’s program focused on “reforming the tax code and federal health spending,” with panels laden largely with establishment voices recycling the usual inside-the-Beltway talking points familiar to those who watch cable news or Sunday morning talk shows.

The needed correction came within the first couple of minutes of the program, as Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, stepped to the podium with a speech that was to start out warning that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs are on an “unsustainable” path but would somehow segue into a defense of cutting corporate tax rates.

An older African American woman, one of only a handful of people of color in the audience, stood up to say that it would be “immoral” to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for seniors. Several others made brief one- or two-sentence comments calling for protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. After about the third brief statement, some in the business-suit-dressed audience began to boo the protestors and demand they be silenced. After a couple of minutes, about two dozen people stood up and chanted, “We need to grow, not slow, the economy” and walked out of the room.

Portman afterward said he agreed that we need to “grow, not slow” the economy, but that was not the discussion that the Peterson-funded roundtable was well equipped to have. Neither the morning health care panel nor the tax code panel panel that followed included representatives from labor or other grassroots organizations. None of the 350 economists and policy experts who signed our “Jobs and Growth, Not Austerity” statement were invited to participate, even though that list includes people with deep knowledge about how to address our health care problems and reform the tax code. But business was well represented, as were conservatives through such panelists as former Sen. Judd Gregg and the Heritage Foundation’s Edmund Haislmaier. Neera Tanden and John Podesta of the Center for American Progress were added to the panels to give the session the veneer of ideological balance.

Some voices that should have been at the table were instead outside the hotel picketing. They said they cannot afford to have a budget debt “fix” that puts them in an even deeper economic fix.

“My father who is a veteran got really sick last July,” said Valerie Bachlor, one of the demonstrators outside the hotel. “Within a month he went from nine-to-five working to being on an oxygen tank. If it hadn’t been for Medicare paying, it would have bankrupted my family.”

“My dad was a miner in southern Arizona. He died when I was two, my sister was three months old.  I was raised on Social Security,” said Elizabeth Marum, another protester.

A 26-year-old college student who identified himself as Curtis was fretting about his college loan debts. “I am going to spend a lot of my life paying them off.  I am going to pay them off, but I want a decent life,” he said. “I don’t want to have to work until I’m 80.  I want my retirement.”

Meanwhile, at the panel discussion there were moments of sanity, hints of real discussions that the nation needs to have. Alice Rivlin, who has more often than not been a disappointment in her willingness to lend credibility to the blame-the-seniors-and-poor-for-living caucus that wants to roll back Social Security and health care spending, correctly noted that “the villain” in this debate is the inefficient   health care system itself, not the people who depend on it.

But the recent track record of conservatives shows that they would rather demagogue the issue of systemic health care reform than address it. As Tanden of the Center for American Progress pointed out, the Obama administration successfully incorporated a review board into the Affordable Care Act that would use statistics and best practices to encourage better and more efficient utilization of care. But it was that very effort to set standards of cost-effectiveness that was twisted into the “death panels” attack line the Republicans used in their campaign to regain control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Gregg, an outspoken fiscal conservative who today was all for using “statistics and best practices” to reduce health care costs was among those who did not lift a finger in defense of the administration’s effort to do that very thing when it was under attack from his fellow conservatives.

Gene Sperling, President Obama’s economic policy adviser, also gave brief opening remarks at the session, saying that the “ultimate metric” for judging how the country addresses the so-called “fiscal cliff” and the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is whether we are “creating an economy where those who work hard and take responsibility can raise their children with dignity, work with dignity, retire with dignity.”

And yet even Sperling’s speech dealt more with increasing taxes and spending cuts than it did with growing the economy. It didn’t mention at all the fact that the president’s most recent offer to avert the automatic imposition of tax increases and spending cuts at the end of the year included $50 billion in job-creating infrastructure spending—a drop in the bucket when measured against the need, but far better than the House Republicans’ cackling dismissal. And in that omission lies what’s wrong with the debate we’re having: The most important thing we could do to lower the federal deficit in the long run and make Social Security and Medicare more sustainable is put people back to work. And, in a discussion in which we are told that “all things must be on the table,” that is the very thing that seems to be off the table. That is what really has to be fixed.

Ben Johnson contributed to this post.

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