The America Speaks meetings held in 19 cities across the country today, funded to the tune of $1 billion dollars by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, were a study in how subtle messaging and deficit hyping can mold and shape opinions that move the public toward right-wing solutions about slashing social spending. Despite an insistence of neutrality, organizers of this series of town hall meetings allowed their agenda to show through, particularly in their presentation of options for how to deal with the nation’s fiscal future. But attendees in Los Angeles and around the country weren’t totally buying it in the first half of the meeting.

Prior to the event, which attracted about 100 people from the Los Angeles area to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals courthouse in Pasadena, around 40 people protested outside, demanding no cuts to Social Security. You can see a video I shot about that at right.

America Speaks has the support of a number of Washington-based organizations, and they claim to represent a broad spectrum of ideological interests. But the main funder is Pete Peterson, who has waged a decades-long effort to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And this emphasis was certainly reflected in the event today.

Attendees were divided up into discussion tables, and led along by a national simulcast from Philadelphia, one of the 19 cities involved. The very first speaker was David Walker, the former Comptroller General of the US and a longtime member of the hype machine about the federal budget deficit. Recently, on CNBC, Walker talked longingly about debtor’s prisons in the context of “personal responsibility.” Walker was booed by several people at the Los Angeles meeting. In his speech, he talked about the inescapability of structural deficits and being “very concerned for my country and my family’s future.”

The entire event was absolutely designed to create a panic about the deficit among the participants. Slickly produced scare videos talking about the dire straits of the budget were prevalent. Multiple charts and graphs without precise numbers or percentages were handed out. Speakers discussed how “most Americans are concerned about the deficits and debt,” and how we cannot grow our way out of the problem. The current state of the economy, which needs an increase in aggregate demand, mostly in the form of government spending, to avoid a relapse into recession, got a short mention at the beginning of the discussion, an inclusion which seemed forced and tacked-on. Overall, there was about 15 minutes of discussion of the current economic problems, and 5 hours on the deficit. Organizers stressed that their solutions are designed to kick in after the country hits recovery, but the compounded effect of stressing deficits over and over is undeniable. There was no slick video about the need for economic recovery, put it that way.

One of the monitors of the meeting, political scientist Kevin Esterling of UC-Riverside, acknowledged to me the crucial role that the presentation of the facts played in the meeting. Most Americans simply do not have a clear understanding of the federal budget, and so how the facts are presented and emphasized becomes of paramount importance. “The organization went to great lengths to create a considered view of the federal budget, with input of groups from the left and the right,” said Esterling, who is working with America Speaks to evaluate the event. Yet in the first video, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Federal Reserve Chair and former Bush Council of Economic Advisers chair Ben Bernanke were the speakers selected for soundbites. President Obama was also featured in the video, and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) spoke at the Philadelphia event. But the speakers, and the content, seemed skewed.

Prof. Esterling also said, and this was echoed by the leaders at the meeting, that the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission would be evaluating the event and receiving a report based on its recommendations. Alice Rivlin, a member of the commission, was sitting in the front row at the main Philadelphia conference. So America Speaks hypes the deficit, talks about a “balanced” solution and the need for shared sacrifice for hours and hours, nudging people who have malleable views on these issues (and changing minds was valued by the event) toward a solution with spending cuts foregrounded, and the deficit commission (whose staff is also funded by the Peterson Foundation) can accept the findings as reflective of the American people.

“Everything must be on the table,” said David Walker, and while everything certainly was at the meeting, it was tilted in a particular direction. The meeting was designed to provide an outline of the fiscal challenges of the nation, and offer solutions for how to meet it. But all the solutions were very prescribed and very narrow. An authoritative “Options Workbook” sets out potential budget solutions, on the spending and revenue side. 28 pages cover spending cuts, 15 pages cover revenue solutions. And the very first pages of the workbook talk about cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

While the workbook has pages and pages describing the health care system, the final menu of solutions simply list amounts of percentage cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, without mentioning how to achieve those cuts. The options to “achieve savings” in the program include means-testing, raising deductibles and co-pays, increasing the Medicare eligibility age, limiting Medicaid eligibility and voucher-izing Medicare. There are no progressive solutions nor is there anything close to the potential savings achieved in the Affordable Care Act, things like health IT and bundled payments and increased efficiency.

On Social Security, a more precise menu of options is offered, but so is a drastic description of the solvency of the program, without one mention of the trillions of dollars of surplus in the Social Security trust fund. The options in the workbook include raising the retirement age, cutting benefits through indexing or straight cuts, raising the payroll tax, raising the “limit of taxable earnings” (but not just eliminating the limit) and “creating personal savings accounts within the system,” the language of which has been taken completely from Republican Paul Ryan’s “roadmap” budget.

When the workbook finally gets around to tax increases, the language in the text constantly goes back to how taxing wealthier Americans would “reduce incentives for work and savings.” At one point it says that “Tax increases on upper-income Americans will discourage work and penalize success.” It talks about raising the corporate tax rate but not the effective tax rate, as in reality many corporations pay nothing in taxes. And writing about deductions, little in the workbook talks about the vast amount of subsidies for corporations and, for example, Big Agriculture. Only two specific corporate deductions, for depreciation for equipment and for producing goods in the US, get a mention. That a financial transactions tax makes it into the document (literally as the last option) is surprising, but predictably, the workbook says it could “move stock transactions to other markets.” Growing the economy and the effect of job creation on revenue appears nowhere in the document.

While the cumulative effect of all this tends towards social safety net cuts rather than tax fairness, the crowd in Los Angeles, at least, wasn’t biting at first. In surveying the discussion groups, most people seemed more concerned about the desperate need for more stimulus spending to move the economic recovery forward. They feared a double dip recession without job creation, and fretted about the lack of unemployment insurance extensions to help the less fortunate. “No one is talking about the long-term unemployed,” said one participant. In a nationwide poll, taken by participants through electronic devices at all 19 America Speaks sites, 61% said the government needed to do more to strengthen the recovery, with only 25% opposed. Even with a push poll question asking if participants supported government programs to increase growth “if it increases the deficit,” got a majority, 51%, of the group.

During the discussions about the long-term budget challenges, there was a greater tendency from the participants to place a greater burden for deficit reduction on those with the ability and capacity to do so. Among the anti-corporate sentiment, someone mentioned that Exxon paid $0 in federal taxes last year. During the scare film about the budget, a few people screamed “Wrong!” when it was suggested that defense makes up 20% of the total budget (that doesn’t include spending on wars). Lastly, people thought that the wealthy weren’t paying their fair share for the commons. Someone mentioned the carried interest loophole, allowing money managers to treat their income as capital gains instead of income, drastically lowering their tax rate. One of those money managers is Pete Peterson, the funder of America Speaks.

UPDATE: The propaganda may have wound up being too subtle. Via the America Speaks twitter feed, the top three options at the meetings selected by the participants were: raising the limit on taxable earnings in Social Security, a 5% tax increase on people making over $1 million dollars a year, a carbon tax, and a tax on financial transactions. Whoops!

David Dayen

David Dayen