I'm feeling pretty guilty. I hadn't known I was causing billionaires so much suffering. The former co-chair of President Obama's deficit (aka catfood) commission just asked me during a public event to stop going after rich people. Then he came up to me after the event to make sure I'd gotten the point. He seemed truly worried about it.
This was a panel discussion at the University of Virginia. The panelists were Simpson, David Walker (former US comptroller, former partner and global managing director of Arthur Andersen, and longtime deficit hysteric), moderator Larry Sabato, and odd-man-out Dean Baker (co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research). I say odd-man-out about Baker because Sabato introduced the panelists as all agreeing about things that only Sabato, Simpson, and Walker seemed to agree on (and I'm including the audience when I say that). Sabato declared the national debt the biggest crisis of our lifetimes and claimed that “no foreign country can ever do to us what we're doing to ourselves” by going into debt.
“I love him dearly,” said Sabato of Alan Simpson during an elaborate and very personal introduction. Walker and Baker got dry readings of written bios. The first four questions went to Simpson. And Simpson went straight after Social Security and Medicare. He said the word “defense” twice in passing, but literally just said the word as part of a list of areas to be addressed. Sabato then went to Baker for a couple of questions, then to Walker. And then Sabato asked Simpson to address what Walker had said. And this sequence was repeated, through which each of Baker's very persuasive refutations of what the other panelists had said was never replied to by the other panelists.
Here's a video clip of Dean Baker's first comments, in which he explains (in 4 minutes 22 seconds) why we should not be worried about Social Security, why an actual health coverage system would eliminate the deficit, why fixing the deficit won't fix the economy, but why devaluing the dollar might help.
Here's another clip of Baker, in which (in under 7 minutes) he explains that the collapse of the economy is a big cause of the deficit, a healthy economy could eliminate the deficit, we could save $270 billion per year by making prescription drugs generic, and free-market health vouchers that allowed people the choice of buying into the health coverage of Canada, Germany, Costa Rica, or anywhere else would increase our life spans and put $15,000 savings per year in each person's pocket. The voice at the end pretending Baker had talked about a completely different topic is Larry Sabato's.
When it was time for audience participation, I complimented Baker on the healthcare solution and proposed we try to buy into Vermont's plan if Washington lets it get away with creating one. Then I asked basically this:
“We could cut three-quarters of our military and still have the biggest one in the world. We have a war that two-thirds of the country wants ended. Up through the Korean War we used to increase taxes on rich people and corporations, not cut them, to pay for wars. Why is it inconceivable that anything be done about this, and why is it not even talked about?”
Baker responded, basically agreeing with me. Walker, too, agreed with me, said he favored cutting “defense” and also objected to the unconstitutionality of undeclared wars launched by presidents. Simpson too said he agreed and wanted the military cut. And it's true that cutting it was part of his proposal to the president. But then Simpson stressed a particular part of the military that he would like to cut, namely . . . wait for it . . . healthcare for soldiers. Here's that bit. Listen at the end for Sabato's punditry and refusal to ever be mistaken.
There were more questions from the audience, but Simpson addressed himself to me when he explained what was wrong with taxing wealthy people. We have to get away from talking about the rich versus the poor, he said. For one thing, when you talk about who's responsible for something, the commission you're working on can't come to any agreement. The Iraq Study Group, for example, had to set aside who was to blame in order to propose what should be done. (Of course, most of us don't spend our lives serving on bipartisan commissions, and taxing the rich is as forward looking a concept as any other; blaming the rich was a straw man Simpson created.)
Simpson had a second argument for leaving the poor suffering rich alone. We could confiscate all the wealth of everyone with over one million dollars, he claimed, and only pay for running the government for a single year. Now, first of all, that's an outrageous lie, but it's also another straw man. Taxing the rich progressively and heavily year after year, as the United States used to do when it had a prosperous economy is quite different from confiscating everything. And doing so wouldn't have to pay for the entire government in order to pay for part of it.
Baker didn't pick up on the topic of taxing the wealthy, but he did respond to Simpson's request never to ask who was responsible for anything. Here's what Baker said, followed by Sabato objecting (joking, ha ha) that he depends on a lack of accountability. Following Sabato are Simpson's closing remarks in which he repeats that we must not blame the rich or anyone else, although it would be a good idea to blame poor people who bought four houses with no money down. I'm reminded of the case against the estate tax that was costing so many poor families their farms, specifically of the fact that not a single such family could be found in the country to represent the horrible trend. How many people do you know who went out and bought four houses with no money down? And even if you can find one, do you think he or she qualifies for blame while all members of government are off the hook? Simpson concludes by stressing that government cannot provide people with anything they might want. Watch the clip:
After the event, Simpson came up to me, shook my hand and blathered some more nonsense along the same lines. I asked if he could tell me how much wealth everyone with over a million dollars had, and he began ranting about how I needed to stop blaming people. I asked my friend next to me if he'd heard me blame anyone. I asked Simpson if we couldn't forget blaming people, look forward, and still end the wars, cut the military, and tax the rich. He replied as if he were Michelle Bachmann staring into the wrong camera. He was having a conversation with someone who wasn't there, certainly not with me. He wanted the rich to be left alone and he wanted me to leave them alone. Finally, he wanted me to go out and vote for people who would do what I wanted rather than just hanging around like some kind of slacker who goes to panels rather than spending every waking moment voting.
“Anonymous blogging,” Simpson had remarked earlier in the evening, “is cutting America to shreds.” I've signed my name to this, Senator.