By this point, many people have come across the name Hugh Jidette, the moniker of the fictional presidential candidate created by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to advance its agenda of cutting Social Security and Medicare. In the more realistic version of this story we would have Hugh Janus, the Wall Street lobbyist who is constantly plotting ways to take away the benefits that tens of millions of retired workers depend upon.
Apologies for the descent into fourth-grade humor, but that is now the level of the public debate on budget and economic issues in Washington. Every chapter of this debate seems more corrupt and further removed from reality than the last one.
To start, we have President Obama's deficit commission, led by two self-described clowns, former senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Simpson established his notoriety by sending out late-night emails that were both insulting to the recipients and revealing of his stunning ignorance of Social Security's finances. (Full disclosure: I was one of the recipients.)
One email implied that the director of a major national women's organization could not read a simple graph. It also expressed his alarm over Social Security projections that had been known to the policy community for almost two decades.
Mr. Bowles may have been more polite, but somehow the fact that he draws $335,000 a year from Morgan Stanley, one of the bailed-out Wall Street banks, was never supposed to enter the discussion. It is difficult to believe that this money had nothing to do with the fact that the deficit commission apparently never seriously considered a tax on financial speculation. Such a tax could raise close to $1.8 trillion over the course of a decade, which would come almost exclusively out of the pockets of the Wall Street banks and speculators.
We also have a longtime columnist with the Washington Post, David Broder, suggesting that President Obama go to war with Iran to bring down the unemployment rate. Imagine having your son or daughter or father or mother die in Iran, along with hundreds of thousands of Iranians, because President Obama's economic team couldn't think of any other way to create jobs. In polite Washington circles, this is a sensible position.
Getting back to Mr. Jidette, this manufactured character is just one part of Peter Peterson's billion-dollar campaign to undermine Social Security and Medicare; Jidette is the culmination of a three-decade-long effort by the wealthy Wall Street investment banker.
Other components of Peterson's crusade include paying his son to set up a fake news service, The Fiscal Times, to try to get more positive news coverage for his deficit scare stories into major news outlets. He even succeeded in getting The Washington Post to use Fiscal Times articles in the same way it uses news stories from real news services like the Associated Press.
Peterson also funded a series of forums by the organization America Speaks that was designed as a multimillion dollar propaganda effort to show that people really want to see big cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The participants were given an overly pessimistic deficit situation and then denied obvious options, such as reforming the US health care system or imposing a serious tax on Wall Street speculation. Even when given these false constraints, the participants refused to go along with the Peterson agenda for cutting Social Security, although the organization originally reported that a majority had supported an increase in the Social Security retirement age.
It would be great if those touting concerns about the deficit were actually interested in having an informed national debate on the budget and the economy, but their agenda is cutting Social Security and Medicare, not informing the public. Their priorities are most evident in the outcome of the America Speaks sessions.
A poll of people leaving the meetings showed that even after sitting through more than six hours of discussion of the budget, the vast majority of participants failed to realize that the large deficits of recent years were the result of the economic downturn and did not precede the downturn. They also did not recognize that all official projections show that workers will be on average much wealthier in the future than they are today. Of course, these figures refer to averages. If the trend of the last three decades continues, most of the gains will end up on Wall Street instead of in the paychecks of ordinary workers.
If the intention was to inform its participants, America Speaks was a disastrous failure. Schoolteachers who did as poorly in educating their students would be fired in a second. But that is not what America Speaks is about, just as Hugh Jidette and the Bowles-Simpson commission are not about promoting a serious dialogue on the budget and the economy.
This disingenuous campaign is an effort to scare tens of millions of voters into giving up the Social Security and Medicare benefits that they have worked for and depend upon, so that the wealthy can have even more money. And since the wealthy are the ones financing the debate and the politicians' campaigns, the smart money is betting on them right now.