The Procrustean Democracy of AmericaSpeaks: Part Seven (Conclusion)
[Welcome, Crooks and Liars readers! --lambert]
In my last post, I continued my analysis of the June 26th AmericaSpeaks Community Conversation event I attended in Falls Church, VA, focusing on Step Five in the decision process used in the meeting. In that post I presented the specific option choice frameworks AmericaSpeaks presented to participants in the categories of Non-Defense and Defense spending, and revenue raising, and also analyzed the biases inherent in the way they were structured. In this post, I'll wind up this analysis of the AmericaSpeaks event, the materials provided to participants, and the biases in their process as I saw them.
Remaining Step 5 Process
For the deficit reduction workbook options exercise, the community conversation group split into two groups. One much smaller group of perhaps 25% of the attendees, listened to the web-streamed introduction to the exercise. They then, filled out their worksheets selecting options and left perhaps 15 minutes to a half hour before the rest of us. Since they weren't included in the larger discussion, I cannot report on the views of the individuals in this group at all. Most of the other participants, including my daughter and I, gathered around a very large table with one of the two facilitators, and without much introduction, got right to the task of making our choices of options for reducing expenditures and raising revenues. After we made our choices, the facilitator asked us to report them, and moved around the table receiving reports form everyone. Once again, I tried to introduce the option of ceasing to issue debt and saving nearly all of the projected interest costs by 2025. This option wasn't recorded in any notes, nor was it presented to the group for serious discussion. One woman talked about wanting to cut defense spending by much more than the 15% allowed in the worksheet and also talked about much more progressive taxation than represented in the options work sheet. She claimed she could save much more than the target amount of $1.2 Trillion, but as far as I could see her proposals were not noted for reporting to AmericaSpeaks either.
Two people in the group were very aggressive in both their spending cuts and their revenue raising. They believed that deficits must be stopped and that the Government's budget, like any household budget, must be balanced. The lack of discussion prevented them from hearing any criticisms of the idea that the Government is like a household. Most people in the group however, seemed to concentrate their savings on having FICA extended to 90% of earnings. Four or five people favored raising the age for full Social Security eligibility to 69, and some favored raising FICA rates to 14.4% by 2025. A majority were for cutting Defense Spending by 10%, and also for cutting Medicare and Medicaid by 5% by 2025. Two or three were for tax reform and saving as much as $642 Billion that way, a small minority of the group. New taxes were somewhat popular, but not the Value-Added Tax (VAT) which had only one or two supporters. In contrast, a securities transaction tax had majority support, and a carbon tax had appreciable table support, but seemed short of 50% of the people at the table. In all, the majority of people around the table favored a broad combination of cuts and taxes to raise revenues, but the average view seemed quite a bit short of the 1.2 Trillion target and clustered at around $900 Billion. This number has to be viewed as a loose estimate, because I was not in as good a position as the facilitators to get a clear figure of total savings from everyone in the panel. I did have the impression however, that there was not a lot of enthusiasm for Social Security and Medicare cuts, but that people would grudgingly select these options if they believed in the idea that there really was a deficit crisis.
The process leading to the many judgments made by participants about options and the above results was, in my community conversation, remarkably devoid of discussion. Once our facilitator, very briefly, introduced the exercise, we made our judgments and then reported on them to the group. There was hardly any discussion of what people reported. Everyone gave reasons for some of their judgments, but there wasn't time to discuss them, since the big table had about 18 -19 people, and there was only about an hour for the whole options workbook activity, and everyone had to report on their choices and reasons during that time.
When the reporting period was over, the facilitator provided a narrative of what the participants, taken as a whole, thought about spending cuts and revenue measures. But there was no time for discussion of this narrative either.
This part of the process brought us to 3 PM and it was nearly time to adjourn the meeting. The facilitators then ended the meeting with step 6, which, once again, is:
Conduct End of Day Survey and close the meeting.
In our case, this survey was very truncated compared to the exercises outlined in the worksheets, another casualty of the abbreviated process. It became a request for the participants to record the most important message they wanted to send to AmericaSpeaks. There were diverse messages expressed. To the extent there was a common message, a number of people expressed the view that they thought it was important that those who were most responsible for creating the economic disaster resulting in our economic mess, should be the ones to pay for it, and there was support for taxes that would recoup money lost to bailing out the banks and the financial industry. Finally, the facilitators thanked everyone for participating and called the end of the meeting. Then people took another 15 minutes to discuss the activities among themselves, to socialize a bit and to help the primary facilitator clean up the room we were using, and carry her materials outside the building.
The List of Biases
In my analysis of the various steps in the AmericaSpeaks process, along with the materials they used to direct and guide participants through the process, I focused on the various places where bias could be found and on identifying these biases. Altogether, I found 32 instances of bias distributed across every major step in the event process. I think it's important that all of the biases I found be available in one place. So I've listed and summarized them below. For a full description of the biases see the previous posts in this series.
1. The very selection of the problem, along with the characterization that we face a deficit crisis, indicates a bias. The US is in the midst of its most severe recession since the Great Depression, and a recession that we were far from out of on the date of the meeting. It's clear that “the deficit problem” has been imposed by AmericaSpeaks, and was not selected as the problem that most merited examination based on a national poll.
2. The group attending the meeting was biased demographically, and also was characterized by disproportionate representation of professionals and highly educated participants. In addition, the meeting was truncated to 3.5 hours, leaving no time to question the problem frame of the meeting and reduce its bias toward deficit reduction.
3. An opening discussion questioning the problem frame of the meeting and the facilitator's reaction to it, showed that the facilitator intended to drive the group according to the pre-planned agenda and orientation to provide information that would be structured in the way that AmericaSpeaks wanted. Not only was the topic pre-selected to fit the preferences of AmericaSpeaks, but participants in the event would not be allowed to revise it in any serious way to fit their needs, and they would also be run through an agenda of exercises, designed to produce results within a certain range, and in a compressed time.
4. A biased event narrative was created focused on the deficit crisis as a very serious problem demanding action to avoid fiscal disaster in the long term, along with a failure to consider alternative views that there is no crisis at all, or that deficits don't matter at all in nations having non-convertible currencies owing no debts in foreign currencies, because they have no solvency risk. This bias was reinforced by a slick Federal Budget 101 booklet and web streamed introductions and speeches.
5. AmericaSpeaks used an extension of CBO projections of the fiscal and economic future without questioning, or developing, alternatives to these that better reflect historical growth rates in the United States, and without considering that economic projections like CBO's even a few years out, and certainly 15 – 35 years out, are frequently subject to massive errors. The bias towards CBO-based projections is a big factor in supporting the case that there is a deficit problem. Alternative projections, depending on assumed growth rates might well project surpluses, rather than severe deficits, debts, and debt-to-GDP ratios. In focusing on CBO-based projections alone, AmericaSpeaks is telling people only one fairy tale, the one, among a very large number, that will scare the pants off them.
6. AmericaSpeaks commits to the view that growth in the national debt, if not controlled, risks that one day ”lenders” (the bond market) will be unwilling to lend US Dollars to the United States, or failing that would require higher interest rates from the Government. This ignores the alternative view that 1) the US doesn't have to borrow money in the bond market and 2) the US can structure its debt issuance so that interest rates can be driven down to zero. The bias is not a matter of its accepting the bond market risk view and presenting it to participants, but its failure to present the alternative suggesting that there's no solvency or sustainability problem, and also that there's no interest problem, since interest costs could be going down to near zero very soon, if the Government chooses not to issue debt after spending.
7. There's also bias in making the assumption that the national debt is the sum of deficits and surpluses since the founding of the country. This equates debts and total deficits, and conflates Government spending with Government debt issuance. They're not the same, so total deficits may not equal total debts. If the Government stops issuing debt, but keeps on deficit spending, total debts and total deficits will vary greatly. Neglecting to inform participants of this possibility biased the decision process since participants were led to accept the AmericaSpeaks view that spending must be accompanied by debt, which, of course, probably led them to suggest cuts in Government spending, they otherwise would have not have suggested.
8. The constant emphasis on the desirability of balancing the budget, if possible, and achieving surpluses is another instance of bias. In the absence of inflation, surpluses are bad, not good, for the American Economy. The historical record shows that they always precede serious recessions or even depressions. By not considering the view that surpluses may be bad for the economy, and not educating the participants about this view, and by also constantly driving home the message that surpluses are good and deficits, while they may be necessary during recessions, are somehow negative and less than moral, AmericaSpeaks introduced still more bias into the the Town Meetings and Community Conversations. The ratings made by people in the various meetings might have been very different, if they had been informed about the historical correlation between surpluses and recessions or depressions.
9. Presenting rising health care costs as just due to the aging of the American population, with the implication being that we ought to control these costs by cutting Medicare and Medicaid is another instance of biasing the process. What about considering other factors in rising health care costs over time? How much are rising costs due to health insurance company behavior and provider behavior? Both insurance costs and provider costs are far lower in other wealthy nations than they are in the United States. So why didn't AmericaSpeaks discuss these factors and their role in rising costs? Is it because they're trying to suggest solutions that ask working Americans to sacrifice, but not insurance companies or providers?
10. AmericaSpeaks tells us that the corporate bailouts were one-time events and will have no impact on future deficits. But clearly this view neglects the cumulative political effects of the bailouts. The bailouts have created a moral hazard and an expectation that the Government will bail out companies that are “too big to fail.” Why isn't this recognized as a cumulative effect? Was this an attempt by AmericaSpeaks to persuade people that corporate bailouts aren't so bad because, according to AmericaSpeaks, they have little to do with long-term fiscal problems, and, consequently, participants should not select workbook options that increased corporate taxes too much?
11. The assumption that we can't grow our way out of the deficit crisis, assuming also that there is a crisis, is an indicator of bias because it wasn't accompanied by presenting the possibility of a return to growth patterns of earlier decades, which would produce much more tax revenue and either end high deficits, or cut into them deeply enough that “the problem” could be solved with savings in interest costs produced from new debt issuance policies. Did AmericaSpeaks push the “we can't grow our way out of it” view on participants because of its bias against the possibility than restoring very active Government intervention in the economy could raise growth rates enough to eliminate or partly eliminate the perceived deficit problem?
12. There's more bias in the framing of a pre-survey suggesting that deficits could only be cut by raising taxes or cutting spending. Neither increasing economic growth and reaching full employment, nor ceasing to issue debt after Government spending, were included among the six propositions provided in the pre-survey.
13. In a question about sources of deficits, failing to mention continuing to issue debt instruments following Government spending, continuing foreign wars, and recurring recessions or depressions, is another instance of bias. And, in asking that question the way they did, implying that corporate bailouts don't create a moral hazard that can increase deficits in the future, is yet another.
14. Asking people to “share your greatest hope for the future of the country that your children, grandchildren and future generations will inherit,” without making clear that the idea that our children will have to pay down the national debt is a highly controversial statement which many economists think is not true.
15. Asking a question to get people to think about projecting the future in the context of their feelings about the present, without asking them to exchange views about why they felt one way or another about the recovery and its importance relative to deficit spending, and whether there is a deficit spending problem or not, is another instance of clear bias in framing the decision process.
16. Asking the question: ”What are the core values that should guide decisions about our country’s fiscal future?” and then structuring the reply by imposing three value dichotomies imposing a conservative values framing in order to maintain the bias in the proceedings toward deficit reduction and self-sacrifice, is another very obvious way of directing the process to create the desired outcome.
17. The failure of AmericaSpeaks to include growth-oriented policies in the options workbook, such as a full employment-oriented Federal Job Guarantee (FJG) policy option, due to denial of the possibility that the US could possibly grow its way out of its deficits, reinforces the framing that deficit reduction is necessary.
18. AmericaSpeaks's selection of the year 2025 as the target year for deficit reductions realizing $1.2 Trillion in Federal budgetary savings when projections of conditions 15 years out are known to be entirely unreliable suggest bias in design of the process. And failure to provide several equally likely alternative projections embodying other than the pessimistic growth scenario based on extension of CBO projections through 2020, confirms that bias.
19. Perhaps the most important aspect of bias in the AmericaSpeaks options workbook and ensuing discussion, and in the whole design of the decision process, was excluding the topic of whether an activity aimed at choosing revenue raising or spending cut options for the purpose of reducing the deficit is a legitimate exercise at all. In not asking this question, AmericaSpeaks implicitly takes a policy position. It is saying that an important aspect of Government activity must always be to manage the deficit, the national debt, and the debt-to-GDP ratio and that this is the meaning of fiscal sustainability and fiscal responsibility.
There is a counter to that policy position. It is that for a government that is sovereign in its own non-convertible fiat currency, in the sense that it has the constitutional authority to issue an unlimited amount of it without the need for any commodity backing and also that it has no external debt in foreign currencies, there is no solvency risk from the simple fact of Government expenditures. And also no Governmental Budgetary Constraints (GBCs) that are not self-imposed -- beyond constraints that arise from the effects of Government Spending such as employment levels, economic growth, price stability, environmental and climatological outcomes, national security outcomes, education outcomes, etc. The deficit, national debt, and debt-to-GDP ratio are not important in themselves, and should not viewed as policy concerns or policy targets. They are not indicators of anything that ought to be managed, or constrained, or otherwise influenced. They are a distraction from the real issues, the real outcomes of Government spending such as those listed above.
This policy position was not considered in the supposedly neutral, non-partisan, and unbiased decision process run by AmericaSpeaks. Had it been, the option conversation wouldn't have been about options for reducing the deficit in 2025. Instead it would have been about options for creating a new economy by 2025, and options for creating greater equality of opportunity in American society, or options about creating a new energy foundation for our economy. In other words, it would have been an entirely different conversation.
20. Participants are constrained by the options workbook from considering options relating to either premium support or single-payer approaches to health care reform. In particular, the single payer approach is the most important one, since there is much survey evidence suggesting that 2/3 of the population prefers Medicare for All to any other approach. The excuse given for this is that America doesn't seem ready to support fundamental reform including single-payer. However, the exercise asks the participants to suggest options that would save $1.2 Trillion by 2025. So what is politically feasible right now in 2010 isn't really relevant to this task. The mood of the nation could easily change by 2011, 2012, or by 2014, and certainly by 2020, in ample time to save substantial Federal expenditures on Health Care through single-payer. By constraining participants from considering single-payer options, AmericaSpeaks hews to the orientation of the President's Fiscal Commission and their narrow and false notion of fiscal responsibility.
21. Due to very limited information provided about the impact of health spending cut options, participants are largely flying blind in selecting options, and when they are further constrained by the workbook about selecting other options whose consequences they may understand much better, the exercise in selecting options departs even farther from either objectivity or reasonableness.
22. A major assumption underlying the workbook structure is the view that Government can only pay its Social Security obligations by bringing in more revenue, reducing benefits, or borrowing more, and adding to the debt, and these are the only ways for Social Security to avoid insolvency, so that's why hard choices have to be made by the participants in the workbook exercise and by the US Government itself. The only problem with this argument is that Government doesn't have to either raise more revenue, or reduce benefits, or borrow to pay its Social Security obligations. It can just spend, and even though this will increase the deficit, it won't increase the national debt, unless it insists on continuing its practice of issuing debt after it spends money. However, this alternative view of how Government can spend was never presented to the participants in the community conversations or the meetings in 19 cities. So no one had an alternative view of how to meet Social Security obligations other than by raising revenue through taxation, cutting spending, or borrowing. As a result they entered the process of selecting options relevant to the future of Social Security with a limited and biased perspective.
23. The option, “create personal savings accounts within the system,” was included among the revenue options relating to Social Security. According to the scorecard distributed at all the meetings, the potential deficit reduction attached to this proposal by 2025 is negative $61 Billion. That is, it adds to the deficit, a very clear indication of bias in the decision process. Peter G. Peterson whose foundation is a major supporter of AmericaSpeaks has advocated privatization of Social Security for many years. What can this option be except a concession to a funder's pet notions, and a concession that is totally inconsistent with the avowed purpose of cutting deficits in this exercise?
24. Together the Social Security options in the workbook add up to a projected total of $92 Billion in savings by 2025. Considering that the projection of GDP for that year is $27.3 Trillion, the savings are less than 0.3 of one percent of GDP, and only 1.3% of the projected Federal Budget for that year. The question is: why bother? Why get people angry for such a small saving, especially since the Government has no solvency risk in continuing to pay all benefits at the present level forever? Surely, including Social Security in this scorecard is nothing but an ideological bias of right-wing funders who have always been against that program.
25. A conservative bias is also visible in the option calling for raising the limit on taxable earnings to 90% of all such earnings. On its face that seems like a concession to progressivism, but there are two glaring questions about this. First, why are any taxable earnings exempt from FICA taxes? If the deficit problems are so serious, then why have any exemptions? And secondly, why not make FICA contributions progressive? If we're really so much in need of revenue because Social Security is becoming insolvent then why shouldn't everyone pay their fair share according to their income as in progressive taxation? I'm not so much advocating these options as asking why they're not among those considered. They're obvious options, and the decision to exclude them suggests ideological bias in the process.
26. The option to increase spending across all Non-Defense categories, and to do so on a detailed scorecard was not provided to participants. It was assumed that the task was to cut spending in Other Non-Defense areas. The counter assumption that much heavier spending is needed in these areas was not represented. Why not? Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats have been starving non-defense Federal programs since the days of Jimmy Carter to pay for tax cuts and, more recently, expensive wars, so these programs have been short-changed in every category, and there is also a need for new programs, not even conceived here.
27. There's a not so subtle bias against the sub-categories within the Non-Defense category, relative to the other major categories, because it's assumed for example that Health Care, Social Security, and Defense, are important enough to get their own category, while, for example, Energy, the Administration of Justice, and Education are not.
28. The options workbook presents a choice framework that is far too narrow to accommodate the possibilities inherent in reality. It has the kind of conservative bias we saw in economic projections prior to 2008 which could not envision the existence of a housing bubble and the possibility of a crash of the global economy. The thinking underlying the AmericaSpeaks options framework, which it imposed on participants is completely devoid of Black Swan considerations, and hedges to guard against Black Swans. To take account of these in Defense Spending, their framework had to be much broader and participants had to be allowed a much greater range of choices with respect to the defense budget and both increases and deeper cuts had to be allowed.
29. The way AmericaSpeaks channels its bias into the options decision process is through its selection, or lack of selection of options for decision, and also through its wording of options. Here, the most obvious bias is in the exclusion of options for decreasing taxes. This would not necessarily lead to declining revenue, because in the past it has often led to the opposite result. In addition, however, the assumption being made is clearly that the Government needs to collect revenue from citizens in order to fund its spending, and that the more revenue it collects the more it will reduce both the size of the deficit and the growth in the national debt. I've already pointed out that deficit increases are not the same as debt increases, and that they need not be accompanied by debt issuance. Also, however, the US Government has no need to collect revenue from its citizens to fund its spending, since the Government can just spend and in the process create money. So, participants in the AmericaSpeaks process should not have had their choices framed as either raising taxes or making no changes. They also should have been given options about how they might have cut taxes if they preferred to do that.
30. Why aren't there options for creating new tax brackets? Setting the top two brackets at $209,250 and $373,650, is a vast concession to wealthy people, which is way, way, outdated given the recent size of incomes we've seen produced in various industries. Specifically, why aren't $500K, $1,000,00, $2,500,000, $5,000,000, and $10,000,000 and over tax brackets, with marginal tax rates set at 45%, 50%, 55%, 60%, and 65% respectively, specified as options for people to select? Also, why were the options for raising personal income taxes phrased as percent increases from present levels? Was it because a 20% increase over present taxes sounds like a much larger increase than an increase from 35% to 42% in marginal tax rate? Earlier when talking about increases in the payroll tax rate, the increase was expressed as 12.4% to 14.4% and not as 16% increase. Was AmericaSpeaks trying to make the proposed income tax rate rise seem large and the Social Security tax rise seem small?
31. The option selection seems arbitrary and biased toward reducing marginal tax rates, something more well-off people would dearly love to do. Also, what is the basis for selecting VAT, Carbon, and Securities Transaction taxes for the new tax category? Why not other taxes? Why a 0.5% tax on securities transactions? Why not a 1.0% tax, or even a 1.5% tax? Is it because larger tax rates would place too much of a burden on well-off traders like Peter G. Peterson?
32. Since the treatment of options in my community conversation was limited to an hour and roughly 18 people were involved, there was no time for any meaningful discussion of the views of participants. Since any criticisms of the structure or introduction of new options was dependent on this discussion, its brief duration biased the process against introducing new options, or even making people think very deeply about their own choices of options. This bias in the process is certainly reflected in a bias in the results, which were constrained by the choices in the workbook and scorecard-like worksheet
Let's recall what AmericaSpeaks claims about itself and its orientation to its processes and events.
”AmericaSpeaks takes pride in its reputation as an honest and neutral advocate for public participation. We play a unique role in the policymaking process by serving as a non-partisan convener of forums that provide the public with an opportunity to make decisions about important issues without fear of manipulation or bias. Our ability to help citizens and elected officials come together around tough public issues is dependent on our commitment to maintaining this neutral role. . . .
”AmericaSpeaks does not take positions on policy issues. AmericaSpeaks strives to ensure that only balanced and neutral facts are used to inform discussions on policy issues. We stand by these basic principles that protect the integrity of our process and the faith that participants and decision-makers place in our work.”
AmericaSpeaks raises the issues of its honesty and neutrality in advocacy, its use of “balanced and neutral facts,” and “the integrity of our process.” My attempt to analyze its biases in this series is an attempt to evaluate these claims.
I think the list of biases shows that AmericaSpeaks was neither neutral nor honest in the design of its process for its “Our Budget, Our Economy” event. With one exception, which itself reflected ideological bias, it seems that whenever AmericaSpeaks had a choice about how to introduce a segment of the event, to create a video, to structure a set of options, to construct an instrument, or to facilitate a discussion, it chose to do so in such a way that the process would be constrained and and the participants directed toward making choices to either cut Government spending, or raise taxes. In addition, a very important area for possible deficit cutting, namely interest costs, was completely left out of account by AmericaSpeaks, and within each area, options for choice that would have been uncomfortable for certain interests including one of its prominent funders, simply never appeared. The list of biases covers nearly every part of the AmericaSpeaks process; there was no part of the process that was free of bias. There was no part of the process that was neutral and honest.
In addition, AmericaSpeaks, rather than using “balanced and neutral” facts, in fact used very few facts, and instead relied on projections about a future it developed from CBO projections that are both, based on past performance, subject to the likelihood of severe errors, and also very biased in a pessimistic direction when it comes to projecting economic growth and tax revenues, and therefore likely deficits or surpluses. AmericaSpeaks's projections are little better than a gloomy fairy tale, that will never have any chance of coming true unless the United States makes the mistake of implementing the austerity programs that the funders and allies of AmericaSpeaks favor.
AmericaSpeaks and its allies are bent on creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of slow growth, austerity, and unmanageable deficits of their own making, and they're not using “balanced and neutral facts” as their way of making that happen. We've been seeing over the past decade that organizations claiming to be “fair and balanced” in the stories they tell, are often exactly the opposite. And like Fox News, AmericaSpeaks, is doing exactly the opposite of what it claims to be doing.
It doesn't have a neutral and honest process, and opinion generating instruments, and it doesn't provide “balanced and neutral facts” to its participants. Instead, it designed and implemented the “Our Budget, Our Economy” event to do all it could to elicit results that would support the case for deficit reduction. The event was not a process of free democratic interaction, but a procrustean bed that tried to compress participants into a deficit terrorist mold and manipulate them into regurgitating deficit terrorist talking points.