It was truly amazing how America Speaks worked to force us into giving us the answers they wanted: cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They presented us with a 25-page doomsday 2025 budget scenario, where Obama’s defense budget and Bush’s tax cuts to the rich had been continued indefinitely. Even after our policy wizards ended mass unemployment and the Iraq-Afghanistan war, they said, rapidly-growing health costs and senior population would drag the nation down to a second-rate power status unless we came up with $1.2 trillion in cuts or revenue increases. Then they whooped us up, to get us dancing in front of the cameras waving over-sized dollar bills, while the giant screen flashed to other Town Halls in city after city, where people were also dancing with dollar bills, all of us in a simultaneous paroxysm of debt-smashing enthusiasm. Then they smothered us in smarmy togetherness, and inclusiveness, and earnestness, about making “our” nation a better place for our children and grandchildren. It was like all of us were extras in Jim Carrey’s “The Truman Show.”
Given all this, I was amazed at how much pushback there was. Our group started out talking about how loaded the war budget and tax break assumptions were that led to the $1.2 trillion figure. Most people felt and said it was kind of outrageous to have a eight minute perfunctory conversations about 30 million unemployed or under-employed with no solution being proposed, and then have us dust off our hands and imagine in 2025 we’d gained full employment and put the wars behind us. The person next to me said this was about class war.
When the discussion of health care cuts came up, people were so disgusted with having to choose 5%, 10% or 15% cuts without being able to specify how the cuts would be made, that they refused to make any cuts at all. Even the table moderator had to admit it was a stupid way to do it. At least half the people said they’d be glad to cut health expenses if we had single payer or negotiated drug prices.
When the subject of military spending came up, there a big discussion about whether the military and the wars were making us safer, whose interest the wars were being fought in, and whether the cuts would hurt ordinary soldiers. We ended up agreeing on the highest possible cut (15%) with some wanting much higher.
In the revenue portion, everyone was emphatic that rich people should be hit heavily, and the arguments that this might discourage saving, or investment, or it might slow the growth of jobs got no traction. Everybody agreed on raising the cap on payroll taxes to the original 90% of earned income, and some said the cap should be eliminated, though this was not an option, of course. There was some debate over whether to raise the rate of payroll tax.
What amazed me was that much of the same feelings seemed to be expressed nationally. They had to admit on the national simulcast that there was a huge sentiment for single payer, and that people didn’t like the options of cutting categories of services like healthcare without saying how it was done. It made a complete mockery of their blather about our “empowerment,” and “taking control.” I felt like when they brought out Commission member Alice Rivlin, she didn’t know how to respond to the pushback, and just blathered herself.
About 2/3 of the way through, we had reached about $800 billion, and it was getting difficult because people didn’t want to make additional cuts, but the table moderator kept saying we needed to make our target of $1.2 trillion. By this time, we had all gotten comfortable with each other and beginning to feel bonded, so I ventured to say that we were like a jury faced with a judge’s instruction we didn’t feel was fair because it was based on continued war spending and tax cuts to the rich. But juries do disobey judges, and we had the option of disobeying our instructions, too. This made some impression on people, but there was a strong impulse to meet our goal, and more cuts were made up to $1 trillion.
When we were asked what we would commit to do to continue working on these issues, I said I was in the California Alliance for Retired Americans and the SF Gray Panthers and we had already had a town hall to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Another person said she was from Democracy for America and would continue to work to stop the war. Another said he was from the Coffee Party, and I think he said he said he wanted to work against economic inequality.
Our table did vote to raise the Social Security retirement age, which I was really disappointed about. I talked about my 35 year old son who’s done landscape work and shines shoes, and whose shoulders and back are already beginning to fall apart. He’s got a kid, and he’ll never earn enough to go to school for a career change, and he’s unlikely to get a job with a pension, and I don’t see how he’ll last to 65, let alone 69. It didn’t make a difference; they still voted for the age increase. I think off all the issues in the afternoon, this was the question that demanded the most identification with workers.
I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk afterward very much, but in the little talking I did with other California Alliance for Retired Americans and Move-On people, it seemed like they had the same kind of experience at their tables, and as I said, the pushback seemed to be reflected even in the simulcast. Of course, the America Speaks organizers are going to massage their message to the Obama Commission next Wednesday; they actually started doing it during the Town Hall, forming phrases like “legislators, do your duty,” “make the hard decisions,” “remember the people are powerful,” all of which which encourage the Commission to carry out the Peterson agenda. Still, I think our resistance to being stampeded was a well-deserved slap in the face to Peterson (and Obama.) Now begins the work of talking to as many people as possible about the threats of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and to plan actions for when the Obama Commission submits its recommendations to Congress in early December.
Here’s a link to a Huffington Post article, “In Deficit “Town Meetings,” People Reject America Speaks Stacked Deck”
Or Suburban Guerrilla’s “America Speaks, Will the Politicians Listen?”
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