I’ve complained before about the press’s bad habit of equating what politicians say is their growing concern over the deficit with broad public worry about the issue. Should I have pointed out in that post that the same Peterson Foundation that funds my CJR position has given money to groups that hope to boost public concern about the issue? Maybe.
What makes my challenge especially nettlesome, I think, is that so much of the deficit conversation just wouldn’t be happening without the Peterson infusion.
The Fiscal Times tries to flood the zone with its coverage, but I haven’t seen much evidence that the site has become a big player in our crowded media world. But despite their early misstep, The Fiscal Times and The Washington Post still have an association. Back in June, the Post ran a story from TFT about the improbable team of Andy Stern, the former labor leader, and David Cote, CEO of Honeywell International. Both sit on the president’s deficit commission and, if the panel is to reach the bipartisan consensus it needs to have any impact, it may well come down to their budding relationship.
The Post cleaned up its disclosure act, and I didn’t have any major complaints about the story. Yeah, it had a bit of a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, with passages like this:
Both men wore blue, pin-striped suits and bantered about their common experience running big organizations. Stern, with his coifed white hair and his pink silk tie, could have passed for a business mogul and often sounded like one as he talked of the need for “targets” and “reaching the numbers.” Cote was if anything the more rumpled of the two and spoke in plain terms about the sheer magnitude of a trillion-dollar deficit.
But, despite that, more coverage of the commission and its important work is a good thing. If these two change something from improbable to possible, it’s got to be smart to write about them.
And yet, it’s still problematic. The story got a lot of space in the Sunday paper, and, plain and simple, it wouldn’t have been there if The Fiscal Times hadn’t provided it.
Which gets to the next question in this muddle. Just how easy is it to shape public debate in a serious policy area like this?
The latest evidence comes from what was billed as “the largest ever national discussion on the country’s fiscal future,” drawing 3,500 people in nineteen cities. The meetings were organized by AmericaSpeaks, a nonpartisan group that, you guessed it, gets money from the Peterson Foundation. AmericaSpeaks specializes in helping ordinary folk engage in decision-making on important, and complicated, policy topics and, based on what I saw at a 2002 weekend meeting in New York about plans for redeveloping the World Trade Center, they know what they’re doing.
The results of their fiscal town hall were presented to the deficit commission, and, even before the meetings, Peterson skeptics complained that their participants weren’t a good sample of American opinion and their briefing materials put too much emphasis on reducing budget deficits.
But when it was all done, there was less room for complaint. Here’s how Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, and Benjamin Page, who teaches decision making at Northwestern, put it:
Remarkably, however, AmericaSpeaks got lucky (or perhaps, from Peterson’s point of view, unlucky.) Despite all the biases, on several issues town hall participants came up with opinions not very different from those that have been expressed by majorities of Americans in dozens of well-designed national surveys. Participants opposed cuts in Social Security benefits, insisting that benefits must be preserved when balancing the budget. They wanted to strengthen the economy, favoring the current stimulus bill (stalled in the Senate) by a margin of 51% to 38%. In order to reduce budget deficits, most favored cutting defense spending and enacting progressive tax measures: raising the payroll tax “cap” so that incomes over $106,800 are subject to the tax (85% in favor); raising high-end corporate and personal income taxes; and imposing new taxes on carbon and on securities transactions. Only on the Social Security retirement age did the results conspicuously stray from actual public opinion.
That’s pretty interesting. But it doesn’t really solve my dilemma.
What I can say is that I hope you’ll keep reading as I try to take on these thorny questions. As campaign season heats up and the fiscal commission steps up its work, I’m going to keep writing about coverage of deficits and stimulus and taxes.