News Analysis: Why Seniors Workers and Activists Told Bowles to Stop the Baloney
BOSTON/Symphony Hall—Processed meat, Symphony Hall and self-proclaimed “budget hawk” Erskine Bowles.
Not exactly peas in a pod.
Nonetheless, these three diverse elements combined on Wednesday as upwards of 150 local seniors, unemployed workers and activists braved near-freezing temperatures and descended upon the venerable hall at the corner of Massachusetts and Huntington Avenues, many clad in colorful bologna costumes, to tell “Fix-the-Debt” co-founder Bowles to “Stop the Baloney”—a reference to the latest plan from Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, that critics say is another thinly-veiled attempt to pillage Social Security, Medicare and other critical programs in favor of new tax breaks for corporations.
Bowles was the featured speaker at Symphony Hall—as part of Lesley University’s “Boston Speakers Series.”
The demonstration, part of a national day of action related to Simpson-Bowles 2.0, was organized by MassUniting and coincided with approximately 100 other protests nationwide.
“We’ve paid our whole lives,” said Barbara Mann, President of the North Shore chapter of Mass. Senior Action, and a member of the state board. “We’ve worked our whole lives and paid into these things, and we feel it should be there for everybody who needs it. Social Security never caused any of the debt and it shouldn’t be part of that debt relief.”
Assembling around 7 p.m., protesters handed out “Stop the Baloney” bologna sandwiches, sang a reconstituted version of the iconic Oscar Mayer advertising jingle and handed out, or, on more than one occasion, attempted to hand out, informational flyers to patrons attending Bowles’ speech. One thing is for certain: no one attending Symphony Hall that night did so without becoming aware of the protesters. The demonstrators lined both sides of the pavement in front of the hall, forcing to patrons to run a chanting, sign-toting, bologna-slinging gauntlet to enter. Some appeared to be amused, others intrigued, while a few became openly hostile when confronted with lunchmeat and information. One person was overheard telling a protester to “grow up,” a remark that drew some sardonic retorts from the senior-heavy crowd.
Several speakers addressed the gathering, including an eight-year-old girl, and talked about how the cuts proposed in Simpson-Bowles 2.0 would effect them.
“Everything (Simpson-Bowles) have right now, that they are talking about, they say it won’t hurt the seniors,” said Mann. “But it is going to hurt the seniors. It is going to hurt everybody that is coming up and is paying and working now.”
The first Simpson-Bowles plan achieved exactly nothing. So, the question remains, why put forth a new one? The answer lies with a Nixon-era official turned billionaire and his very rich and powerful friends.
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Simpson-Bowles for short, was created by President Obama in 2010 to help stabilize the federal budget and reduce the national debt, and released its first report in December of that year. The plan was initially met with mixed reactions; garnering immediate support among fiscal conservatives, while causing some more liberal-minded pundits, like Economist Paul Krugman, to cry foul. But as time has passed, more and more lawmakers are singing the praises of Simpson-Bowles, to the point where, as the National Journal's John Aloysius Farrell and Nancy Cook write: “Hardly a day goes by in Congress or on the hustings without some lawmaker extolling Simpson-Bowles as the kind of potent fiscal medicine Americans must swallow if the country is to fix its debt and deficit problems, reform government and revive the economy. It’s becoming all things to all women and men.”
Not heartening words, especially given who is really behind Simpson-Bowles and “Fix-the-Debt.”
An extremely disconcerting facet of both plans is the clear link between Simpson-Bowles and the “Fix-the-Debt” campaign, a billionaire-funded project that employs fear to convince Americans that the national debt will destroy the country unless the poor, tired and hungry are all flogged without mercy—in the form of massive cuts to critical services. But as many argued at the time, including Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) Global Economy Project Director Sarah Anderson, the plan was little more than a “Trojan Horse,” which would have earned as much as $134 billion in potential windfalls for the companies involved in “Fix the Debt.” But Wall Street mogul Pete Peterson, who has long exhibited a perverse hatred of Social Security and Medicare, along with others, pumped fistfuls of cash into selling the first Simpson-Bowles plan, and much of the deficit duo's near-mythological status in Washington these days can undoubtedly be traced to that effort.
Now Pete Peterson’s horsemen are at it again. They even have a brand new website, called Debt Deniers.
Peterson, former US Secretary of Commerce and founder of the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms—which, ironically, owes a great deal of its profitability to the “carried interest” tax-loophole, which allows private investment managers to pay a dramatically lower rate than the general public—has been called the “most influential billionaire in America” by the LA Times and is funding much of the “deficit hysteria” taking place these days. “Fix-the-Debt” is no different. Fueled by Peterson’s half-billion dollar cash infusion, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, with son Michael serving as President and Chief Operating Officer, has been behind a plethora of deficit groups and campaigns, and has given at least $5 million to “Fix-the-Debt.”
The latest offering backed by this former Nixon man, Simpson-Bowles 2.0, isn’t even incognito enough to merit the “Trojan Horse” moniker. The original plan at least proffered some measure of balance between spending cuts and revenue. Not so with the sequel.
This is where, normally, one would find a detailed rundown of precisely what the new plan contains, complete with surreal-sized numbers and explanatory quotes. But the new Simpson-Bowles plan isn’t actually much of plan at all. It isn’t even really a rough draft. If anything, it is an outline at best. We get the overall size of the proposed cuts, but details such as what will be cut and by how much, remain elusive. Simpson and Bowles have said the details will be released in the coming weeks.
While easily the vaguest deficit plan to date, demonstrators at Symphony Hall had no doubts where the weight of the proposed cuts would fall the hardest.
“The way not to balance the debt is on the backs of the American people,” said Mary Black, an unemployed construction worker who addresses the gathering. “It doesn’t make any sense that they want to take from the American people, the Simpson-Bowles commission, and use it, basically for their own good.”
Though particulars of the plan are few, here is what we know, courtesy of the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein:
The plan intends to save over $2.4 trillion—which would replace and double the savings of the sequester—past the $2.7 trillion in deficit reduction already on the books, for a grand total of $5.1 trillion in deficit reduction.
Included is about $600 billion in revenue through tax reform, making total new revenue about $1.2 trillion after factoring in the “fiscal cliff” deal, with that number jumping to $1.3 trillion after including “chained-CPI,” which increases revenue while cutting Social Security benefits. This is less than half of the revenue asked for in Simpson-Bowles 1.0.
While the plan doesn’t include more tax increases than what President Obama asked for during “fiscal cliff” negotiations, it does include significantly more spending cuts than the $1 trillion House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for: $500 to $700 billion more, according to Klein.
“You can’t afford to have this type of thing happening,” said Mann, of the feared cuts to social spending. “So that people feel as though everything they’ve worked for their entire lives is just gone.”
If the last Simpson-Bowles plan was a “Trojan Horse,” this one may be a full frontal assault.