February 19, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Today Tom Friedman revealed his master plan. He has been hatching it for years, revisiting ad nauseum two of his favorite themes: a third-party presidential candidate (earliest known sighting: April 18, 2006) and a “grand bargain” to reduce our “unsustainable” federal deficit (first hint: December 25, 2010). Over the course of the last year, Friedman has hinted at bringing the two together, most explicitly in his July 23, 2011 column when he revealed his longing for “a party that would have offered a grand bargain on the deficit two years ago” and the news that he had found such a party: Americans Elect. Friedman wrote that Americans Elect had “swank offices … a stone’s throw from the White House” and “some serious hedge-fund money” backing. He wrote,
The goal of Americans Elect is to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open – guaranteeing that a credible third choice, nominated independently, will not only be on the ballot in every state but be able to take part in every presidential debate and challenge both parties from the middle with the best ideas on how deal with the debt, education and jobs.
Today in his New York Times column, Friedman has put a name and face to the merger of his two pet projects in the person of one David Walker. Friedman is not endorsing Walker for president just yet (perhaps because the Times won’t let its columnists endorse candidates), but he does want to see Walker participate in the presidential debates. Perhaps you never heard of David Walker. Let’s let Friedman introduce him:
Walker was the country’s chief auditor, serving from 1998 to 2008 as the U.S. comptroller general. He is currently the chief executive of the Comeback America Initiative…, a nonpartisan group dedicated to getting America’s fiscal house in order. Walker … came in second to Hillary Clinton in a reader poll that Politico conducted last October for favorite Third Party candidate….
A factoid Friedman omits from Walker’s biography: between 2008 and 2010, Walker was CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The Foundation, as I wrote in an earlier column, is
funded by the multi-billionaire hedge-fund operator Pete Peterson. The foundation is devoted to scaring Americans about the “gargantuan” national debt and pressing the need to end Social Security and other social safety net programs, the better to protect the wealthy – like Peterson. ‘Peterson money is everywhere,’ Eric Kingson, co-director of Social Security Works told Benjamin Sarlin of the Daily Beast. ‘They’ve managed to insinuate themselves as centrists when what we have in my mind is a really far-out anti-government conservative perspective.’ Sarlin documents how Peterson influenced the Simpson-Bowles Commission and how he has used his money to insinuate his views into media coverage of the budget deficit. Economist Dean Baker asked, ‘Do you have to work for Pete Peterson to be cited on budget issues in the Washington Post?’ The question is rhetorical. Post coverage, as Baker documents, suggests that the answer is ‘yes.’
While at the Foundation, Walker costarred in a documentary film titled “I.O.U.S.A.,” a horror movie featuring tales of the “fiscal cancer” a/k/a the federal deficit, that is eating America alive. Economist Dean Baker describes the film as “part of a larger effort to dismantle Social Security and Medicare, the country’s core safety net programs.” That’s what Friedman means when he writes that Walker’s organization is “dedicated to getting America’s fiscal house in order.”
Friedman asserts that despite Walker’s popularity with Politico readers, “he has no desire to run.” It is a bit disingenuous to imply Walker has no political ambitions. Walker told MSNBC last June that he was considering running for the Senate seat Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) will vacate next January. “Sources” told the Washington Post Walker would run as a Republican. Shortly after Walker won second place in Politico‘s presidential beauty pageant last October, Walker announced he would not run for the Senate seat. “Junior Senator from Connecticut” just does not have the same ring as “President Walker.”
Walker told Friedman that he was traveling the country – as he did for Pete Peterson in the “I.O.U.S.A.” film – warning Americans about the evil deficit monster. Walker said he was“trying to do what [Ross] Perot did.” By this, Walker does not mean “throwing crackpot tantrums” or “accusing the president of sabotaging my daughter’s wedding.” Walker claims Perot
woke up the American people to the truth about our fiscal situation in clear, concise and compelling terms. He made the presidential debates much more substantive, and he helped to set the next president’s agenda, and, as a result, we made great progress in reducing the deficit from 1993 to 2000. Now we have lost all of that and more.
Funny, that’s not how I remember it. Perot was an annoying distraction during the debates who had little or nothing to do with setting Clinton’s agenda. Perot – while his campaign was on a conspiracy-induced hiatus (he said President Bush and unnamed others had plotted to ruin his business and other stuff) – developed a drastic budget-balancing act, which Clinton rejected out of hand. Clinton did promise to balance the budget, but his plan was to rely, for the most part, on economic growth. In 1995, when the House, led by crackpot tantrum-tosser Newt Gingrich, shut down the government, it was because Clinton vetoed the balanced budget Speaker Gingrich presented him. Walker’s assertion that “as a result [of Perot's influence], we made great progress in reducing the deficit from 1993 to 2000” is highly misleading. Clinton’s first Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs CEO, urged Clinton to lower the deficit to reduce bond interest rates. Clinton’s first budget – FY 1994 – raised taxes on the wealthy and passed in the Democratic Congress by only one or two votes, with no Republican support. Ross Perot had nothing to do with it. Clinton’s ultimate success in eliminating the deficit was largely the result of a soaring economy – which brought in additional revenues – and the tax hikes on the rich.
Friedman not only lets Walker exaggerate Perot’s influence on policy, he buys into it: “Perot … was instrumental in making deficit reduction one of Bill Clinton’s top priorities,” Friedman writes.
Then it’s on to dismantling the social safety net. Walker tells Friedman, “The Democrats are still in denial about the need to renegotiate our social insurance contract…. Obama … is not talking about the fundamental reforms in Medicare and Medicaid that we need, and he is not ready to touch Social Security.” From there, Walker gets into making up scary numbers, which is a specialty of his:
Walker says the president’s budget cuts discretionary spending programs by 1 percent over 10 years, but mandatory spending programs – like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and interest on debt – will be left to grow by more than 96 percent over the same decade. As a result, in the year 2022, more than 77 percent of total government outlays will be on auto-pilot, ‘which is irresponsible and unsustainable.’ There will be little left for defense or infrastructure, education and research that build our future.
I’m not sure where Walker gets his figures, and I won’t try to find out. I suspect he starts with CBO projections, of which Tyler Durden writes, “… none of what is predicted will actually happen. But at 165 pages it makes a good paperweight.” As Prof. Jeffrey Sachs wrote last week in the Huffington Post:
One of the unshakable myths of the punditariat is that the federal government is going bankrupt because of entitlements spending, especially spending on Medicare and Medicaid…. The most frequently quoted forecast is that of the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO’s long-term forecast assumes that health care costs will continue to rise steeply during the next 70 years, though at a diminishing rate…. [But] healthcare costs are already vastly over-priced now compared with what other countries pay for the same services…. New information technologies … lower the costs of health-care delivery and administration…. Let’s therefore fight the right-wing hysteria demanding immediate and harsh cuts in Medicaid and other health outlays.
Even J. D. Kleinke of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute agrees. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he wrote, “… the growth rate of national health expenditures … has been moderating since 2002.”
If the CBO figures are unreliably high, Walker seems to raise them further, as do his friends in the deficit-busting Concord Coalition, to make the CBO figures more “plausible,” they say.
Let me add one note to the Walker Horror Picture Show: SO WHAT?
It is on the far side of stupid to think of programs like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid as costs we can eliminate by cutting their benefits. People like Friedman and Walker hope you will think that cutting government spending is a fiscally-responsible cost-saver. Guess what? When people get old, they still need to eat and pay the rent. When they get sick, they still need medical care. So somebody has to pay these expenses, whether it’s the federal government, states, communities, charities or individuals. The costs don’t go into the ether because Paul Ryan or David Walker or Tom Friedman says “eliminate entitlement programs.” These are not magic words. In fact, if the government left it up to individuals to fend for themselves – as these safety-net butchers prefer – overall costs would likely go up, not down. For instance, the CBO projects that the Affordable Care Act will greatly reduce per-beneficiary costs. The whole idea of these programs is to provide insurance against catastrophes, insurance you would otherwise have to purchase for yourself in the form of pensions (Social Security) or health insurance policies (Medicare and Medicaid) or savings for a rainy day (unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc.). Yeah, “bureaucratic” “socialists” “redistribute the wealth.” That’s the way insurance works. You don’t buy health insurance in the hopes you’ll get deathly ill and “get your money’s worth” out of your policy. You buy insurance in case you get deathly ill and can’t afford to pay your medical bills out of pocket. If you’re fortunate and stay healthy, somebody else – who does get deathly ill – will derive benefits from the premiums you paid. Federal programs are just huge insurance policies from which most of us benefit at some time in our lives.
Walker tells Friedman that the American people are “starved for three things: truth, leadership and solutions.” You can decide if Walker’s scaremongering on the deficit is truthful or not. I am not sure how good he is at leadership. According to his Wiki entry, “Labor-management relations became fractious during [his] 9-year tenure.” Several months before Walker left the GAO, departmental “analysts voted by a margin of two to one (897–445), in a 75% turnout, to establish the first union in GAO’s 86-year history.” As for solutions, he poses a problem that isn’t there and “solves” it by cutting programs that serve most Americans.
“After months of nutty, gravity-free Republican primary debates, how great would it be,” Friedman asks, “to have presidential debates in which a smart independent like Walker was in the middle to challenge both sides and offer sensible solutions?” I expect Walker is smart, but he cannot be described as independent if he planned to run for election as a Republican. On the matter of the deficit, he is highly partisan. Contrast his budgetary proposals, for instance, with the budget proposed last year by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Both proposals balance the federal budget down the road, but in substantially different ways – the Progressive Caucus budget cuts the deficit, but it increases social safety programs rather than cut them. Both proposals reflect partisan priorities and perspectives, Walker’s no less than the Progressive Caucus’s. Walker’s “solutions” may add up on paper, but they would be, in my opinion, one big minus for the American people.
So, how great would it be?
Finally, do we really want, as Friedman suggests, a fake candidate horning in on the presidential debates? If so, I have a better suggestion.
Friedman began his latest third-party dream scenario by touting Americans Elect, the hedge-fund-backed group that plans to put a third-party candidate on the ballot. Jonathan Tilove of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that comedian
Stephen Colbert passed Buddy Roemer, the former congressman, governor of Louisiana and bona fide presidential candidate, as the sixth most popular ‘draft candidate’ of Americans Elect. But Colbert’s rise, and the anemic participation to date in drafting a candidate, raise the question of just how seriously to take Americans Elect.
(Update: as of this morning, Colbert also passed Gary Johnson, another bona fide presidential candidate.) If we have to have a fake presidential candidate interrupting the real presidential candidates, shouldn’t it be a fake candidate who is actually on the fake Americans Elect ballot? Given a choice between David Walker, the runner-up on the Politico reader poll, and Stephen Colbert, a runner-up on the Americans Elect ballot, I would choose Colbert. How great would that be?
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com