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Democracy for Billionaires


Down through the millennia, specific individuals have changed the course of history. Some made their indelible mark through their intellect, some through their courage, and still others through the depth and breadth of their vision.

But you don’t need smarts, courage, or vision to change history. You just need a ton of money, the sort of fortune that 86-year-old Peter Peterson has amassed over his years wheeling and dealing on Wall Street.

Peterson, one of the co-founders of the Blackstone private equity firm, has been obsessing for years over federal budget deficits. Now his obsession is shoving the nation toward a “fiscal cliff” that might well end up chopping billions out of Social Security and all sorts of programs near and dear to the hearts of America’s working families.

These cutbacks make no sense. The current federal budget deficit directly reflects the bursting of the housing bubble five years ago and the resulting Great Recession, as well as the price tag of our unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put people back to work, rebuild the economy, and end the wars, as progressive economists note, and that deficit would wither.

These progressive economists, unfortunately, don’t have hundreds of millions of spare dollars to make their case to the American public. Pete Peterson does.

Five years ago, Peterson sold the bulk of his stake in Blackstone. That sale added $1.8 billion to Peterson’s already ample personal fortune.

A year later, with a $1 billion outlay from that fortune, Peterson established the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to target “undeniable, unsustainable, and untouchable” threats to America’s fiscal future.

Peterson’s foundation almost immediately began dispensing millions from its imposing stash of cash, funding everything from a high school curriculum to a “fiscal wake-up tour.” Other millions, a National Journal analysispoints out, went to think tanks across the political spectrum.

Three years ago, Peterson dollars helped fund the high-profile panel known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. This theoretically “bipartisan” maneuver pitched social spending cuts as an essential ingredient in any “responsible” approach to deficit reduction.

That commission proved unable to reach a budget-fixing consensus. No problem. Peterson dollars were soon funding a new public relations campaign that sent the commission co-chairs, former GOP senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, barnstorming around the nation.

This campaign, in turn, eventually morphed into “Fix the Debt,” a more tightly organized effort to resurrect the “core principles” Peterson holds near and dear. Among them: the need for “pro-growth tax reform” that “broadens the base, lowers rates, raises revenues, and reduces the deficit.”

Translation: Let’s shift tax burdens off the rich and onto average Americans.

Fix the Debt has overshadowed the various other Peterson-funded lobbying efforts, mainly because the new group’s “fiscal leadership council” includes a who’s who of America’s corporate and banking superstars — everyone from Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein to Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer.

These Fix the Debt CEOs are jetting in and out of Washington, pushing their case with lawmakers and White House officials. They’re hoping for better luck with officialdom than they’ve had so far with the American people.

Average Americans have largely tuned out Fix the Debt. One sign: The campaign’s online petition backing the nostrums of Simpson-Bowles “as a starting point for a plan to reduce the federal debt” had just 300,000 signatures as of last week. The original Fix the Debt petition goal: 10 million signatures.

No matter. Even without generating anything close to a public groundswell, Peterson’s agenda remains alive and well on Capitol Hill. Peterson, of course, doesn’t personally deserve all the credit. His basic budget agenda — curb federal spending — has always resonated powerfully with America’s most affluent.

The likely main reason: The less the federal government is investing in programs that help working families, the lower the pressure for raising taxes on America’s rich to help finance that investing.

Sam Pizzigati is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, editor of the journal Too Much and author of The Rich Don’t Always Win, Seven Stories Press, New York.

This column is distributed by OtherWords.

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press). 

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