The austerity mania that plagued our political system for four years is finally subsiding. The latest sign is President Barack Obama’s decision to nix the Social Security cuts he had previously included in his budget proposal.
This was a body blow to the most powerful pro-austerity force in Washington — the Fix the Debt campaign. Starting in 2012, this fake grassroots — or “astroturf” — organization had deployed more than 100 CEOs to try to persuade the nation that our economic survival depended on expanding tax breaks for big corporations and slashing earned benefit programs.
Fix the Debt once boasted a budget of $40 million. Today, it’s shedding staff and going into hibernation, having failed to win any of their top priorities.
Their demise proves that deep pockets don’t always prevail in Washington. Through creative jujitsu, non-moneyed interests can turn extreme wealth and privilege into an extreme liability.
For the past two years, my organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, has exposed the absurd hypocrisy of the CEOs at the helm of Fix the Debt. First we pointed out that many of them lead companies that have used tax havens to avoid paying their fair share to Uncle Sam. That’s a blatantly counterproductive maneuver for anyone on a mission to “fix the debt.”
Then we documented that Fix the Debt members stood to gain as much as $173 billion from corporate tax breaks they were advocating. All that money, of course, would be redirected away from public coffers — thereby causing the debt to grow. We even showed how taxpayers actually subsidize the pay of these pro-austerity CEOs.
And finally, we calculated that the corporate titans fighting to cut grandma’s Social Security had personal pensions 1,200 times larger than what typical U.S. workers can count on. Honeywell CEO David Cote, for example, had the gall to lecture Americans about tightening their belts while he was sitting on a $134 million retirement nest egg.
This research fed into creative actions by authentic grassroots groups, such as National People’s Action, the Center for Community Change, and Social Security Works. They took the battle against austerity to the streets and into the district offices of congressional representatives. The Center for Media and Democracy and other savvy bloggers blasted the phony deficit crisis in social media.
Our message overpowered Fix the Debt’s mega-million PR campaign. Particularly as the economy started a slight uptick, polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed any Social Security cuts.
Fix the Debt and their allies won’t be laying low forever. But we now have a huge opportunity to shift the national focus from austerity to investment in jobs, infrastructure, and other programs that matter to all of us.
In the richest country in the world, we have the resources to make our economy work for everyone. We just need the political will to reallocate some of our abundant resources. Let’s get started by cutting wasteful Pentagon spending and subsidies for oil, gas, and coal.
And by making our tax system more fair.
It won’t be easy. But remember, big money doesn’t always win in Washington.