But that sort of conflict is only part of what’s going on in my tangled bit of the universe, and only part of what makes this tricky and hard to dispatch with mere disclosure.
Peterson’s billion-dollar push has, quite reasonably, prompted charges that he is stacking the deck, buying the debate, and making the deficit the big issue it’s become—all to serve his hawkish ways.
Here’s the WSJ’s Thomas Frank, warning recently that “deficit reduction is often a proxy for something else,” usually “entitlement reform,” the wonky way to talk about changing—cutting! —Social Security and Medicare:
Consider, in this connection, the endless war on “entitlements” waged by the legendary deficit hawk Pete Peterson, a former commerce secretary, former investment banker, and current billionaire. Mr. Peterson has attacked these entitlements for decades now, often describing them as a betrayal of our capitalist moral fiber.
Dean Baker of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research recently pointed to a poll that found a decline in the percentage of people who expect to receive their Social Security benefits, and cautioned about blaming the shift on the rough economy:
While the recession could explain the loss of confidence in Social Security, it is also possible that the huge public relations campaign by Peter Peterson and others has played a role. Peterson, a Wall Street investment banker, has pledged $1 billion to a foundation that has cutting Social Security and Medicare as its major goals. He has spoken widely around the country telling people that Social Security is going broke and that it has no trust fund. He has enlisted prominent political figures, including former President Bill Clinton in this effort.
L. Randall Wray, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, noted at New Deal 2.0 that, “In recent months, a form of mass hysteria has swept the country as fear of ‘unsustainable’ budget deficits replaced the earlier concern about the financial crisis, job loss, and collapsing home prices.” While acknowledging that even some “deficit doves” are worried about structural deficits in the future, Wray wrote:
To be sure, at least some of the hysteria has been manufactured by Pete Peterson’s well-funded public relations campaign, fronted by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — a group that supposedly draws members from across the political spectrum, yet are all committed to the belief that the current fiscal stance puts the nation on a path to ruinous indebtedness.
And on and on.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened absent the Peterson money, and too soon to say whether it will influence any actual changes in government policy. But, while impossible to measure, there’s no doubt it’s having some kind of impact on the public discourse—and press coverage.
Peterson himself appears ready to declare at least partial victory. Here’s how Businessweek put it in early July:
Peterson’s $1 Billion Bet Shows Return as Deficit Concerns Rise
Wall Street financier Peter G. Peterson got a decent return on his investment last week when Senate Republicans ended the Democrats’ third attempt to push though an extension of unemployment benefits and President Barack Obama failed to persuade his European counterparts at the Group of 20 meeting in Toronto to maintain economic stimulus programs.
“I haven’t seen anything like this kind of concern in the 30 years I’ve been talking and writing about this,” says the 84-year-old fiscal hawk.
Again, back to me. I’ve been writing about what’s missing in coverage of unemployment, what’s smart about stimulus stories, and what’s confusing when it comes to tax cuts. And I’m critiquing press coverage of the big structural issues in which my funder is working hard to reshape the playing field, and, at a minimum, thinks he’s having some success.
My wise editor wondered if this feels like that scene in Being John Malkovich, in which Malkovich goes to a restaurant; all the customers and waiters are John Malkovich, the menu is full of Malcovich salad, fried Malcovich, etc. It’s not quite that enveloping. I’ve had no contact with the Peterson gang. I didn’t even get invited to the fancy Fiscal Times launch party (though I heard the desserts were very good).
But this isn’t something that can be handled with a neat disclosures saying that someone mentioned in a post is also CJR funder. This is about big-picture changes in the national conversation.
That’s what I’ve been wrestling with in my CJR writing—how to reckon with the Peterson role in it all, even if I can’t draw a straight line from the Peterson checkbook to those changes in the conversation.