Economic War on the "Lesser People"

Were the objective of Pete Peterson’s $1 billion campaign to gut Social Security any less odious, it would easy to admire it as a marvel of public opinion engineering, a true masterpiece in the manufacture of consent.

A bird’s eye view of Peterson’s infernal propaganda machine shows two complementary marketing strategies-one directed at political elites, the other at the “lesser people” as Obama deficit commission co-chair former Senator Alan Simpson recently described them

The former was most prominently on display in an April deficit summit which brought together a bipartisan assortment of power brokers, extending up to and including former President Clinton. Perhaps most predictive of what appears to be in the cards, members of the commission were in attendance and joined in the amen chorus as chunks from the hide of hard won New Deal entitlement programs were sliced off and made offerings to the Gods of fiscal austerity.

Indeed, one of these, the Democratic co-chair Erskine Bowles had already sang from the Peterson hymnbook a month previously: “We’re going to mess with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security” the former Clinton chief-of-staff trumpeted, “because if you take those off the table, you can’t get there.”

On a parallel track is the hard sell directed at the rest of the population-those of us who will be victims of the cuts. Here Peterson is careful to cover his plutocratic tracks by outsourcing these functions to America Speaks, a paradigmatic astroturf operation serving to martial “authentic” popular support for pulling the plug on Grandma’s paltry monthly check.

The shell game will be on lurid display at next Saturday’s Town Hall fora to take place in nineteen cities across the country. Public participation in these events is enthusiastically welcomed, provided that speakers focus on the central issue: how best to address our “looming” budget crisis?

And so, in classic “are you still beating your wife” fashion, the question is framed such that any answer serves to reinforce Peterson’s phony crisis, for which a combination of tax increases and cuts in entitlements are the only solutions on the table.


One oddity of this affair involves the inclusion on the America Speaks advisory board of a Harvard Professor of Government named Archon Fung who has the reputation as left/liberal, attested to by his having coauthored books with figures such as Joel Rogers, Medea Benjamin, and Amory Lovins, among others.

I myself once had a short email exchange with Prof. Fung one which was facilitated by Noam Chomsky who referred me to the then junior professor on the basis of his interest in popular movements. Fung responded favorably to an article which i sent him remarking that “Progressive(s) have always succeeded by mobilizing people, but the ground has shifted so much in favor of money and thin message as the currency of politics that I do fear for the progress of the left.”

Perhaps the lesson here is that one can never be too cynical when it comes to Ivy League technocrats. Far from becoming the next Francis Fox Piven, as Chomsky may have hoped, Fung’s name is now associated with one of the more egregious displays of money functioning “as the currency of politics.”

Or perhaps Peterson has usurped the more benign function for which America Speaks had been intended. If so, Fung should do the right thing and resign his position from the America Speaks board under protest and encourage other members to do likewise.

Fung’s coauthors and colleagues should be requesting that he do just that.

Given our failure to organize the public expressions of popular outrage which would force Peterson into full retreat, it would seem to be the least we can do.

JOHN HALLE is Director of Studies in Music Theory and Practice at Bard College. He can be reached at:




John Halle blogs at Outrages and Interludes. He tweets at: jghalle.