Friday, November 12, 2010

Conflict and conservatism on the deficit commission

It's good to know that many of the staffers working for President Obama's much-ballyhooed deficit commission -- known more pretentiously as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- are being paid by "outside entities," as The Washington Post is reporting:

For example, the salaries of two senior staffers, Marc Goldwein and Ed Lorenzen, are paid by private groups that have previously advocated cuts to entitlement programs. Lorenzen is paid by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, while Goldwein is paid by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is also partly funded by the Peterson group.

The outsourcing has come under sharp criticism from seniors' organizations and liberal activists, who say the strategy is part of a broader conservative bias favoring painful entitlement cuts over other solutions. The fears of some liberal groups appeared to come true on Wednesday, when the commission's two leaders recommended significant reductions for Social Security and other social-welfare programs.

Bruce Reed, the panel's executive director, defended the staffing arrangement as fiscally responsible and said the staff includes a broad range of views. Other staffers paid by outside entities include an analyst from the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute and a Clinton administration official who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, he said.

"We've got wonks from across the spectrum who have been working on this issue for years," Reed said. "Every possible voice from left, right or center has a voice on the commission." 

Maybe so, but still. It's pretty clear which way the commission is leaning. Are we just to assume that the involvement of these "outside entities" has nothing to do with it at all? Are we just to trust that everything is on the up-and-up? Please. There are obviously many conflicts of interest here -- but even if there aren't, the perception of such conflicts is enough to destroy the commission's credibility.

Here are some reactions to where the commission appears to be headed:

Mike Lux, Open Left -- "The co-chairs [Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles] and staff found every conceivable way to screw the middle class in ways big (very big) and small, but barely nicked the bankers who caused the meltdown of the economy, or the wealthy whose massive tax cuts ended the big budget surpluses as far as the eye could see coming out of the Clinton years.

Kevin Drum, Mother Jones -- "Bottom line: this document [the Simpson-Bowles plan] isn't really aimed at deficit reduction. It's aimed at keeping government small. There's nothing wrong with that if you're a conservative think tank and that's what you're dedicated to selling. But it should be called by its right name. This document is a paean to cutting the federal government, not cutting the federal deficit.

John Nichols, The Nation -- "The debate about the future of Social Security has opened, and how progressives respond will decide whether the United States is a civil society or a pirate state where the government's primary role is to take from the poor and give to the rich."

Paul Krugman, The New York Times -- "OK, let's say goodbye to the deficit commission. If you're sincerely worried about the US fiscal future -- and there's good reason to be -- you don't propose a plan that involves large cuts in income taxes. Even if those cuts are offset by supposed elimination of tax breaks elsewhere, balancing the budget is hard enough without giving out a lot of goodies -- goodies that fairly obviously, even without having the details, would go largely to the very affluent.

Jonathan Chait, The New Republic (assuming a much less critical posture) : "[T]he deficit commission's blueprint does have aspects liberals can get behind. It ends all manner of regressive tax subsidies, including the tax preference for capital gains and dividends. That's a huge policy triumph. It protects retirement benefits for low-income workers. It slashes agriculture subsidies. This may not be the best way to reduce the deficit, but it’s far from the worst.

Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic (enthusiastically in support): "All of which leads to an obvious and compelling political and policy win-win for the president. He needs to embrace this opportunity to end the long-term debt and pivot to the center and call the right's bluff at the same time. There is nothing that would restore Obama's cred with Independents more than tackling his own party's ideologues on the deficit and the debt... Such a breakthrough, I believe, would also galvanize a recovery, restoring long-term confidence in the US economy, and prompting businesses to spend, invest and hire again."

I'm with Mike, Kevin, John, and Paul. This is yet another case of liberals being told that liberalism is wrong and that the solution to America's various ills lies in some Republican-friendly "center," with all the benefits going to the rich and the rest of the country, as usual, getting screwed.

And, in case you weren't aware:

-- Alan Simpson, while relatively moderate for his party, is a former Republican senator; and
-- Erskine Bowles, chief of staff to President Clinton, is on Morgan Stanley's board of directors.

There's your "bipartisanship" -- which, as usual, means "conservative" and "somewhat less conservative."

Where's the progressivism here? Also as usual, it's nowhere to be found, certainly not on the "Democratic" side of things.

I'm hardly a big fan of high taxes (most liberals aren't, even if they acknowledge their necessity), but the best way to cut the deficit is to put in place a progressive tax scale that requires the wealthy to pay their fair share and to focus on rationalizing and reducing military spending. It is certainly not to slash Social Security, which is actually working well to keep millions of Americans out of poverty. But of course the poor, or the needy generally, do not have nearly the political voice the wealthy have -- indeed, the wealthy have an entire political party dedicated to making them even more wealthy (as well as, it would seem, a presidential commission). And, yes, the trickle-down myth is alive and well despite its history of failure: make the rich richer and everything will be fine! Right.

Thank you, Mr. President, for using the cover of bipartisanship to give conservatives so much of what they want. Who won the '08 election again?

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