This Saturday tens of thousands of Americans, from all walks of life, men and women of all races, immigrants and citizens, young and old, from all regions of the country, will gather in hundreds of town hall meetings. There they will “weigh in on strategies for a sustainable fiscal future.” This series of coordinated gatherings is called America Speaks, and its goals are to “educate the American public about the challenges facing our nation, provide Americans with a neutral space to explore the issues and weigh the trade offs, and deliver to political leaders in Washington a clear message about the shared priorities of a large, demographically representative group of Americans.”
At least this is how the foundation funders and political operatives organizing America Speaks describe their well-funded exercise in hegemony. A more honest appraisal it deserves though. Following up a highly exclusive budget summit in Washington D.C. last month that featured the likes of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, America Speaks is more for those of us who BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg recently identified as the “small people.” The town hall meetings being organized by America Speaks are in fact the latest and one of the largest and most sophisticated operations in securing consent to rule that the U.S. elite has ever attempted. Like the D.C. budget summit organized by Peter G. Peterson, the town hall meetings are intended to make an impression on President Obama’s official commission which has been tasked with putting all options on the table in order to reduce the federal deficit.
Bankrolled by a strange cast of institutional and individual characters, the guiding force behind America Speaks’ town hall meetings on the national budget is Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire founder of the Blackstone Group. In the 1970s Peterson left his post as CEO of Bell and Howell Corporation to begin his forays into public policy through official appointments and foundation initiatives. He served as President Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce in 1972, and then naturally was appointed Chairman of Lehmen Brothers. It was at Lehmen where Peterson spent the majority of his business career making fistfuls of cash. In 1985 he set out with other captains of the financial industry to create the Blackstone Group which became the world’s largest private equity firm.
Two years later Gordon Gekko, the fictive embodiment of Peterson’s cohort, would tell America;
“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons, and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market.”
On Wall Street Peterson became known for his fiscal conservatism and free market faith which initially translated into strong support for the Republican Party. But Peterson has been more than a partisan. Democrats have also solicited his energies to rationalize cuts in welfare spending alongside federal policies to grease the wheels of wealth accumulation to the benefit of the elite. Throughout his career as a philanthropist Peterson has seemed equally displeased with both Republican and Democratic Party failures to structurally adjust the U.S. economy by balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. His lament is shared by many financial elites.
While one function of the U.S. government (perhaps the main function in recent decades) is to facilitate capitalist accumulation on ever-greater scales, another function, more a necessity growing out of the pain and dislocation that wealth accumulation creates, is to legitimate rule, oftentimes by stabilizing an otherwise brutal socioeconomic structure. This means placating the working poor with minimum wages, food stamps, and public housing, while rewarding the more politically powerful, if complacent, middle class with huge social welfare programs like Social Security or federally backed mortgages. Congress and the White House have essentially lost all sense of balance in this act, due in no small part to the nation’s imperial overstretch as well as the power of corporations and the wealthy to insulate their fortunes from the grasp of the tax man.
During George H.W. Bush’s term in office Peterson was moved to found the Concord Coalition which sounded alarms over the U.S. deficit, focusing a lot of attention on health care spending, social security, and other entitlements that stood in the way of greater sums of speculative profit and private wealth accumulation. A close observer and panderer to the needs of the financial elite, President Clinton appointed Peterson to the Bi-Partisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform which built support for the “end to welfare as we know it.” Clinton and the Republican controlled Congress brought some of the Commission’s findings down like a bludgeon on tens of millions of low-income Americans with the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
With Peterson as its prime backer you can see where the America Speaks budget town halls are likely to be steered. Up for discussion: cutting welfare spending, health care, education. Not up for discussion? The backers of America Speaks have so far kept military spending off the table. They’ve also been conspicuously silent about one of the simplest solutions to the fiscal crisis, taxing corporate wealth and private equity.
Peterson is by no means alone in funding the America Speaks budget town hall meetings. Other powerful financial elites are bankrolling this exercise in legitimation. There’s South Carolinian Roger Milliken, heir to an enormous private textile fortune. Milliken’s contempt for social welfare programs is well-known, as is his support for ever greater levels of militarism. Milliken helped bankroll the Peace Through Strength PAC, and Freedom’s Defense Fund. The former helped Cold War era politicians win elections and funnel the national treasury into pie-in-the-sky weapons systems. The latter has carried on this work while condemning welfare in most forms. According to their web site, Freedom’s Defense Fund is “dedicated to the principles of limited government, as the Founders understood them,” and works to liberate America from “the shackles of the nanny state.”
Other anti-“nanny state” parties behind America Speaks include a cluster of Wyoming-based groups with roots in the oil, gas, and coal industries. This is due no doubt to Alan Simpson’s influence. The former Senator from Wyoming is co-chair of President Obama’s budget commission. The Wyoming Business Alliance, Casper Area Economic Development Alliance, Casper Community Foundation, Casper Events Center, City of Casper, Casper Rotary Foundation, along with two oil and gas businesses, Goolsby-Finley and Associates, and Gene George and Associates, are providing funding and in-kind support for the budget town halls.
Rounding out America Speaks are a few of the Democratic Party’s Daddy Warbucks, including real estate investor Robert Monks, Rockefeller Brothers Fund trustee Richard G. Rockefeller, and hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman.
What this seemingly bi-partisan caste holds in common is their fear over the U.S. deficit, but also their fear that the budget will be balanced to the detriment of the top 5 percent’s ability to further accumulate wealth. And so on Saturday these AstroTurf town hall meetings, occurring in 19 major cities and dozens of other locations, will provide cover for what is otherwise a foregone set of conclusions that include recommendations that the Congress and White House cut and privatize many social programs.
There is an illustrative precedent to this exercise in fiscal hegemony. After Hurricane Katrina the Rockefeller Foundation financed an initiative called the Unified New Orleans Plan, or UNOP. UNOP’s supposed function was to create a democratic process for the planning of the disaster-stricken city’s future. In practice UNOP was an exercise in legitimating plans already in the works. UNOP town hall meetings, called “charrettes,” a buzzword in planning and architecture circles, were filled with middle class white residents of the city. Displaced citizens had no voice, but still the campaign’s organizers, ever-sensitive to creating the appearance of sensitivity and democracy, claimed to hold planning sessions in distant cities where black and working class residents were struggling to survive.
UNOP was mostly a failure. Multiple and competing plans were hatched by the Mayor, City Council, and foundations like Rockefeller, and disorganization consumed most everyone. Even so, parts of the foundation funded plan have purportedly been used as a base for the new city master plan (still in the works). Furthermore, the main goal from the start wasn’t to actually plan the city’s future. It was instead to create the appearance of inclusion and participation, and to give New Orleanians a sense that the future of their city, economy, and public sector was being democratically determined. All the while it was not.
Decisions to demolish tens of thousands of housing units were made behind closed doors, in concert with developers seeking to privatize them. Health care facilities like Charity Hospital were shuttered in the name of building newer and more profitable facilities, and also to create a base for the newest economic development scheme of the city’s elite: a biomedical district. Public schools were closed down and replaced with a virtually all charter system. Public transport was drastically scaled back. All of these cuts were made possible by foundations and NGOs which provided a mask of pluralism and inclusion. Resistance to austerity measures was undermined with faux democracy and inclusion.
While “greed is good” may be the most quoted line from Wall Street, it’s a different Gekkoism that provides deep insight into the dynamics of capitalism and the strategic thinking of its agents whose base of operations is the world of large foundations. At one point Gekko explains, “it’s a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one person to another. Like magic.” Transferred. Money is transferred.
In some respects the national budget question is a zero sum game. It’s a pie that can split various ways. Military spending is currently the biggest “discretionary” slice. Welfare programs and tax rebates that aid the poorest citizens of the United States —such as TANF or EITC— are but a mere fraction of what is spent every year supplying the Pentagon and waging its wars. Who will win and who will lose if the pie shrinks? As it shrinks, and it has been shrinking, how will it be redistributed? So far it has been redistributed increasingly into the hands of the upper 5 percent of wealth holders. And how will the loss and sacrifice imposed upon the nation’s most vulnerable be legitimated and explained? America Speaks is one answer to that question.
In another respect the federal budget isn’t a zero sum game. The budget can grow if the vast deposits of wealth held by the top 5 percent are taxed more progressively. But America Speaks is being set up to keep this off the table too.
DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org