Peter Peterson’s Budget Ball

Peter Peterson

O.K. folks, it looks like the whole country is now playing Peter Peterson’s budget ball. For those not familiar with him, Peterson is a Wall Street investment banker. He has made billions of dollars through his dealings and government subsidies, and now he is using much of this money to accomplish a lifelong quest, gutting Social Security and Medicare.

Toward this end, he has set up a fake news service (the “Fiscal Times“); he’s funded scary, anti-Social Security documentaries; sponsored a set of rigged public forums (America Speaks) and even paid for the construction of a high school curriculum to indoctrinate school children. According to some accounts, he is now the largest employer in the DC area after the Pentagon.

The way Peterson’s budget game works is that you get some deficit or debt target. This is against a backdrop where the baseline projections show the deficits going through the roof in 10-20 years. The reason for the exploding deficit is the projection of exploding health care costs. The US would be looking at massive budget surpluses if it had the same per person health care costs as any other wealthy country.

Under the rules of Peterson’s budget ball, you are not allowed to do anything about rising health care costs. In fact, reform of the private health care system was explicitly ruled out as an option at the Peterson-funded America Speaks forums.

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This means, for example, that we can’t reduce prescription drug costs by adopting a more efficient mechanism for financing drug research . The Center for Medicare and Medicare Services projects that the country will spend more than $3.3 trillion on prescription drugs over the next decade. We would probably spend less than one-tenth of this amount if drugs were sold in a free market, but Peterson’s budget ball doesn’t let you reform the system of financing drug research. You can’t even go the intermediate step of public financing of clinical trials advocated by Joe Stiglitiz, the Nobel laureate who was President Clinton’s chief economist.

Peterson budget ball also doesn’t let contestants take any of the other steps that could bring US health care costs more in line with costs elsewhere. This would include letting Medicare beneficiaries buy into more efficient health care systems elsewhere. This could put tens of thousands of dollars into the pockets of beneficiaries each year while saving the government trillions of dollars in the coming decades.

Nor does Peterson budget ball allow for medical tourism, which could lead to huge cost savings as people get their health care in other countries to escape our broken system. Peterson’s budget ball also does not allow contestants to take down the barriers that prevent more foreigners from coming to practice medicine in the US, bringing physicians’ wages here in line with the rest of the world.

Not only does Peterson’s budget ball prevent contestants from fixing the health care system. He also doesn’t want them to tax Wall Street speculation. This source of revenue could raise close to $1.8 trillion over the course of a decade. Virtually all of the revenue would come at the expense of the financial industry, since most investors would simply cut back their trading in response to any increase in trading fees.

And Peterson doesn’t want anyone to consider the possibility that we could have the Federal Reserve Board simply hold the government bonds it is now buying, so that taxpayers are not burdened with hundreds of billions a year in additional interest payments. If the Fed held $3 trillion in bonds in 2020, offsetting the inflationary impact with higher reserve requirements, it would save the country $150 billion a year in interest.

Their argument is that we wouldn’t want Congress dictating policy to the Federal Reserve Board. After all, the Fed has done such a great job. According to the claims of its chairman, Ben Bernanke, the Fed’s policies brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression. With that sort of track record, how can anyone suggest making the Fed more accountable?

In short, in Peterson’s budget ball, we can’t make any changes that might create any serious inconvenience for the rich and powerful. We can have some small cuts in defense and modest tax increases for the rich as window dressing, but what we are left with is a massive budget deficit and nothing but Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs left to cut.

That might sound like a rigged game, but Peterson is paying for it, so he gets to set the rules. What else would we expect? The big question is whether President Obama is also playing this game. We will find out Tuesday.