Pragmatic Realist: Dissing the Era of Big-Program Liberalism a Cover for Attack on Bernie

by on February 15, 2016 · 2 comments

in Under the Perfect Sun

(Salvador Dali)

(Salvador Dali)

By Jim Miller

Last week, in a New York Times editorial, Mark Schmitt joined the chorus of clear-eyed “realists” chiming in against Bernie Sanders’ bold agenda in “Is the Era of Big-Program Liberalism Over?”

While acknowledging the political appeal and strategic advantages of universal programs, Schmitt argued that, given the presumably inevitable constraints of the present, the future belongs to an incrementalism that is “most interesting and novel for the absence of big, universal programs that require legislative action.”

This approach to policy forgoes the need for tax increases on the rich and corporations and instead “test[s] the limits of what government can do by rearranging the pieces of existing programs, using regulations, incentives to states, tax credits and ‘nudges’ informed by behavioral economics in place of direct spending.”

Therefore, Schmitt continues, “the future of social and economic policy will involve, for better or worse, these complex, incremental and often invisible changes, instead of big programs.” The public may wish for more but, sadly, “if this is the only way to drive reform — and in the current political configuration, it is — then politicians in both parties will have no choice but to find ways to achieve big change without big new programs.”

Thus spoke the voice of disinterested pragmatic realism in the service of the greater good.

Or so one might think unless the intrepid reader noticed that Mark Schmitt’s byline lists him as “the director of the political reform program at New America” and then took the time to Google “New America” to find that:

New America is dedicated to the renewal of American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age. We carry out our mission as a nonprofit civic enterprise: an intellectual venture capital fund, think tank, technology laboratory, public forum, and media platform. Our hallmarks are big ideas, impartial analysis, pragmatic policy solutions, technological innovation, next generation politics, and creative engagement with broad audiences.

On that same page, one also learns that this “intellectual venture capital fund” has some “aspirations” premised on the notion that:

New technologies change how we live and work — disruptions that in turn affect families, schools, social networks, civic organizations, political preferences, and foreign policy. They reshape what we buy and sell and where and how we invest our capital, creating new winners and losers.

Over time, however, the nature and impact of these technologies depend on choices made by governments, businesses, civic groups, and communities. American institutions today – the workplace, the family, the schoolhouse, the doctor’s office, the corner store, the bank, the voting booth, the town hall, the military, the embassy – have only begun to transform and adapt to a digital economy and society.

Hence, however “impartial” their analysis claims to be, it’s clear that the folks at New America want to shape the field of play and help determine who the “winners and losers” are that inevitably come with “disruptions” in how we live and work.

Our same intrepid New York Times reader might also see that New America is primarily interested in “innovative” solutions to education and international policy problems and that their board of directors includes both university presidents and capital management fund CEOs.

And if that New York Times reader took her inquiry a step further, she just might wonder, “Who funds New America?” This second Google search would bring her to Source Watch’s page on New America and reveal that Eric Schmidt, the Chairman and CEO of Google itself, is one of the founders of New America whose long list of wealthy, corporate, and foundation funders include prominent education reform “disruptors” such as Bill Gates and the Lumina Foundation along with a host of the usual suspects from the financial sector and elsewhere including one particularly noteworthy patron of big ideas, Peter G. Peterson:

Peter G. Peterson, born June 5, 1926, is a controversial Wall Street billionaire who uses his wealth to underwrite a diversity of organizations and PR campaigns to generate public support for slashing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, citing concerns over “unsustainable” federal budget deficits. In 2007, he made a fortune from the public offering of the private equity firm he co-founded, Blackstone Group, and pledged to spend $1 billion of this money to “fix America’s key fiscal-sustainability problems.” He endowed this money to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which he launched in 2008. His son, Michael A. Peterson, is the President and Chief Operating Officer of the foundation.

According to its website, the foundation’s mission is to “increase public awareness of the nature and urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America’s future and to accelerate action on them.” [2]

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has been highly critical of the Peterson Foundation, stating that Medicare and Social Security are “under assault at the hands of the Peterson Foundation” . . .

In fiscal year 2010 the Peterson Foundation gave $2,027,470 to the group America Speaks for a series of Town Hall meetings intended to inform the deliberations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission. [4] America Speaks sponsored 19 town hall meetings linked by video on the same day, June 26, 2010 while the Simpson-Bowles commission was underway and six months before the chairmen released a report. These “Town Halls for the 21st Century” made headlines when the audience revolted against the message they were being spoon fed and instead backed a series of progressive policy solutions, such as a financial transaction tax.

So it would seem that, after a little homework, our dear reader would discover that some of the good folks behind New America aren’t interested in incremental change after all; they are invested in radical change in the wrong direction.

Of course, this is not to say that the funders of New America dictate the precise content of the work of people like Mark Schmitt, but it strains credulity to think that a writer or researcher with a job at a think tank at the center of an interlocking network of corporate and political interests would somehow be completely outside of the sway of the ideology that supports such interests.

It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize to figure that out, but the fact that think tank pundits such as New America’s almost never openly reveal their funders makes it more difficult for the public to discover. Hence, the average reader will never make the connection and perhaps take columns such as Schmitt’s as disinterested wisdom.

It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to note that in the era of neoliberalism, people like Bill Gates and Peter G. Peterson are really just two sides of the same coin—they fund think tanks that help shape the public discourse in a way that ensures the current hegemony stays in place. That’s not a conspiracy theory: it’s how power works in the real world.

While some of them may favor more extreme measures, a neoliberal Democrat will do in a pinch. What they don’t want is the kind of “disruption” that would come from Bernie Sanders with his terribly antiquated ideas about the rich paying their fair share of taxes and the people themselves having the temerity to change the narrative in a way that might displease their faceless masters.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Jack Hammer February 15, 2016 at 6:24 pm

Do you know the name of the Dali painting?


Eugene Debs February 17, 2016 at 3:43 pm

Would be great if Jim would write a piece on why the American Federation of Teachers is backing Hillary Clinton and not Bernie Sanders. Anything to do with the broader trend of union member votes being different than the leaderships?


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