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.
I’ll also try to tackle the Peterson phenomenon more directly. Does his foundation and all his money make certain issues bigger than they deserve to be? Does he “buy the debate” in some respects, as some think? Or do these issues get the weight they should, with or without a Pete Peterson? And do some people make him a bête noire to avoid the spending and deficit issues they’d rather not face?
And how should the press address such questions? I’ll provide the best press criticism I can on these broad and important areas of coverage, areas that just about everybody, on all sides of economic debates, agrees are real.
(*My earlier version had misread the BusinessWeek piece, which had actually said [with my addition]: “Peterson had disbursed $300 million of the $1 billion pledge [meaning, to the foundation, not to outside groups] by Mar. 31 of last year, according to tax records.”)