This potential for institutional conflict should be easy to deal with. Disclose it and move on. That’s what CJR’s Ryan Chittum does every time he mentions Goldman Sachs, “an Audit funder” (though we’ll soon switch to “a former Audit funder,” since it has been quite a while).
The Fiscal Times has gotten better at this (and so has the Post). Here’s how the site recently handled the intertwining Peterson interests:
(The Peterson Foundation provides funding to several budget and deficit awareness groups, including America Speaks and the Concord Coalition. Separately, Peterson, a New York businessman and philanthropist, funds The Fiscal Times, an independent news service.)
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.