Peter G. Peterson Goes to School

A laurel to Remapping Debate

Remapping Debate, the young website that is analyzing public affairs and bringing fresh approaches into the national conversation, deserves a laurel for its well-reported piece “Raising young deficit hawks,” which tells the tale of how Columbia University’s Teachers College took $2.4 million from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to create a questionable curriculum for high school teachers. The set of twenty-four lessons on fiscal responsibility, says reporter James Lardner, is “heavily weighted toward the themes and arguments of Peterson and other deficit hawks,” and “the trial lessons could be seen as part of an effort by one of the country’s wealthiest men, now 82, to spread his gospel to coming generations.” Lardner argues that it also suggests another danger—“an academic institution inadvertently lending its weight for a big funder’s cause.”

It’s nothing new these days for universities to take gobs of money from foundations, corporations, or anyone with a cause to promote, and the Peterson gift to Columbia is not novel for his enterprise. In recent years, the Peterson Foundation has given money to other groups, including media enterprises like CNN, ProPublica, and the Fiscal Times. (CJR has also received a grant.) And as Campaign Desk reported, Peterson has worked hard to move the issue of the federal deficit to the very top of the Washington agenda, and has encouraged policymakers and the media to make Social Security and Medicare into the public’s bogeymen. The lessons, Lardner writes, repeatedly point to two main ideas of Peterson’s crusade: America’s future is threatened by deficit spending, and Social Security and Medicare have helped put our economy on an “unsustainable course.”

While money flows freely to all kinds of academic institutions, it’s rare for a news outlet to dissect in detail what a donor’s grant is all about. That’s what Remapping Debate has done. It asked several economists to review parts of the 409-page curriculum and presents their critiques in clear, simple terms. One advised that the starting point for any discussion should be a vision for the country and its future, and, within that, a conviction about the role of government. Instead, the curriculum jumps right in with a discussion of taxes, spending, and fiscal balance, treating them as separate issues. “It’s all about the public goods you want to provide for the nation, and how you pay for them,” he said. Another economist objected to the way the curriculum discusses Social Security. No effort was made to discuss whether and to what extent there is a crisis facing Social Security. “It is presumed or taken as an unimpeachable fact,” he told Lardner.

Remapping Debate’s piece points out that while the curriculum does sometimes cite materials from liberal sources as well as conservative ones, “the effort to provide balance is often brief or oblique.” For instance, New School economist Teresa Ghilarducci is quoted as saying that if the cap on the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes were lifted, the Social Security deficit problem would be solved for seventy-five years. But the curriculum doesn’t say that the reason the cap on the amount of income subject to the payroll tax is so low relates to the rising income inequality in America. Social Security taxes now cover only 84 percent of payroll income, down from a 90 percent target set in the early 1980s.

The curriculum omits other crucial information. In Lesson Six, students learn that the current budget deficit is ten percent, or $1.4 trillion of the country’s $14.5 trillion GDP. Apparently, though, there is no link to factors that help explain the reasons for the deficit: the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and revenue declines and spending increases resulting from the severe recession. In much of the reportage on Social Security, the press gives short shrift to these factors, too, tending to place most of the blame on Social Security and Medicare, the Peterson mantra.

What makes this piece super interesting is the defense of the curriculum by one Anand Marri, an assistant professor of social studies and education in charge of the project. He rejected the idea that Peterson and his foundation might be using Teachers College to promote an agenda, saying that the point is to get kids to think about multiple perspectives. Marri said the curriculum was a work in progress and acknowledged that that some of the lessons that appeared skewed or lacking important context would be addressed later. When Lardner asked him how that would be done, he replied by adding a fact, changing the sequence of material, or adding a qualifying phrase such as “some economists say.” He would add that phrase to the following passage appearing in the curriculum’s introductory material:

Our existing tax structure and government spending patterns, the rapidly rising cost of the way we deliver health care, and our mandated commitment to provide Medicare for a ‘booming’ population of retirees age 65 and older have put our economy on an unsustainable course.

It’s worth calling out a few of the other “errors of commission and omission,” as Remapping Debate describes them in a separate box accompanying the story. On health care costs, the curriculum often refers to the sharp growth of Medicare and Medicaid spending, but says very little about the same cost inflation in the private health care market. Marri told Lardner that health care policy was too much to take on. That also seems to be the case for a discussion of progressive taxation. The curriculum fails to discuss the historical context for progressive taxation, “nor do the lessons discuss the changes that have made the U.S. tax code significantly less progressive in recent decades.”

Remapping Debate did not note whether the curriculum discussed the effects on families under various proposed solutions. What would cutting Social Security and Medicare mean for the families of students schooled in the curriculum? What happens when Medicare benefits don’t cover their parents’ health care needs? Will those students have to get a job to help cover those costs? What happens when their parents need nursing home care—a lot of it now paid for by Medicaid, which is on the chopping block? If those students will have to assist their parents, then what does that mean for their own finances? If Social Security benefits are to be cut, which is what raising the retirement age would do, that means less income in old age. How does the need to save more to compensate for this shortfall square with rising college costs for their kids and the help their elderly parents will need?

Remapping Debate reported that Teachers College initially asked for $50,000 for a project on personal finance, but the Peterson crew had a bigger project in mind focusing on public finance, and upped the grant to $2.4 million. It seems like Teachers College still might want to consider the personal finance implications of all this. As I learned at Columbia University—the business school, that is—everything in economics is connected to each other.

Click here for more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,