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Revolt of the Wonks: Former Obama Advisors Want To Know What’s Happening on His Deficit Commission

There's a very important an article in the Neiman Watchdog this morning (Harvard's Kennedy School journalism review, Deputy Editor Dan Froomkin). It's written by Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, entitled "Has Obama created a Social Security ‘death panel'?

Headlines like that are normally the reserve of DFH bloggers, so it's notable that the academic world is talking about Obama's Deficit Commission in that way. Even more notable are the article's authors: Altman and Kingson both served on the Obama Campaign's Retirement Security Advisory Committee, and then on the Advisory Committee to the Social Security Administration Transition Team.

Altman was on the faculty of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, has taught at the Harvard Law School, and was Alan Greenspan's assistant when he chaired the commission that developed the 1983 Social Security amendments. She also served as a legislative assistant on Social Security issues to John Danforth, whose Danforth-Kerrey Commission was the predecessor to Obama's commission. Kingson was also a staffer on the Greenspan Commission, and was Social Security Advisor to the Kerrey-Danfoth Commission.

Alex Lawson has been livestreaming the closed door of the Catfood Commission on FDL.  They have refused to conduct their deliberations in public, but the committee is stacked with enough votes to cut benefits.  It takes 14 out of 18 votes to pass any recommendation on the committee, and there appear to be a sufficient number of votes to do so based on the past positions of individual members.  So Altman and Kingson raise important questions, but to my mind, none more important than these:

Q. Why is the Commission apparently working so closely with billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who served in the Nixon administration and who has a clear ideological agenda?

Q. Mr. Peterson has been on a decades-long crusade against Social Security. The day after the first meeting of the commission, which focused heavily on the need to cut Social Security, the co-chairs and two other members of the commission participated in a Peterson event that reinforced the same message. A Peterson-funded foundation is supplying commission staff. And Peterson's foundation is funding America Speaks to develop a series of high-profile town halls across the country to host "a national discussion to find common ground on tough choices about our federal budget." (For more background about Mr. Peterson, see William Greider in the Nation on Looting Social Security - Part 2.)

Note the buried lede:  Pete Peterson is supplying commission staff.

One important lesson I learned from the health care fight:  the health care industry had been laying the groundwork for this for years, and that should have been an early focus.   It wasn't until the Gruber incident that I learned how the medical industrial complex had been working through foundations like Kaiser for over a decade to basically buy the academic underpinnings of their plan (and probably longer if you count the GOP/Heritage response to HillaryCare as its roots).  They ran a  nice back-and-forth between Congress, the White House, the CBO and Gruber to make it look he was supplying independent confirmation of the health care bill, when in fact it was all part of the same carefully orchestrated plan.  It bought them a lot of credibility that they otherwise would not have had in the academic world.

Pete Peterson has been serving the same function on Social Security that Kaiser and others did on health care. From the Concord Commission to the Peterson Foundation, cutting Social Security benefits and diverting as much money as possible into Wall Street's coffers has been Peterson's holy grail.  He himself was on the Danforth-Kerrey Commission, and was set to be the key note speaker at Obama's first fiscal responsibility summit shortly after the inauguration.  After we reported it, the White House canceled him then denied he had been scheduled to speak, but Robert Kuttner subsequently confirmed it in the Washington Post.

The current budget deficit will be used to justify cuts to Social Security benefits, just as the surplus was used to justify cuts during the Clinton era.  As Steven Gillon said the other day when he was here talking about his book on the secret Clinton-Gingrich deal negotiated by Bowles to cut Social Security in the 90s, Bowles is running the same play.

Peterson plays a huge role in the world that shapes the thinking that drives the commission. Bill Clinton simply gushed about him at Peterson's own recent fiscal summit.  As long as Peterson is allowed to hide in the shadows and pull the strings, the choices that the Commission will make will come from a very small menu.  Defense cuts will not be a factor.  They won't be talking about the trillion dollars they could save over the next decade simply by expanding Medicare to cover businesses. They're only going to ask the questions that drive them to the same answer:  cut Social Security.

It's going to be important to tell the tale of Peterson's inexorable march and diffuse the notion that the Commission is simply responding to temporal economic factors.  This is class war, pure and simple.  The rich against the poor. Hedge fund billionaires and defense contractors against senior citizens struggling to get by. Altman and Kingson have done us all a tremendous favor by opening up the discourse and asking important questions that need to be answered before the Commission makes its report on December.  That's just in time to jam it through a lame duck Congress before the Christmas break, something both John Conyers and John Boehner have warned about - a repeat of what Bowles planned to do in the 90s.

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