As billionaires go, Pete Peterson is certainly not one of the wingnut billionaires by any stretch. But if our criteria for evaluating philanthropy is wingnuttery, we're surely lost in a vortex of our own making. Start with this: Peter G. Peterson
January 5, 2013

As billionaires go, Pete Peterson is certainly not one of the wingnut billionaires by any stretch. But if our criteria for evaluating philanthropy is wingnuttery, we're surely lost in a vortex of our own making. Start with this: Peter G. Peterson was a Republican, just like his pal Mike Bloomberg. Not just any Republican, either. A Republican who served under Richard Nixon. And now he is a deficit hawk, which means his efforts support the right wing effort to undermine social insurance while lifting up corporate interests.

Take the latest Peterson PR campaign, Fix the Debt. The Institute for Policy Studies released a report last month about the billionaire CEO coalition standing behind the effort, showing it to be a Trojan Horse created to serve corporate interests. Among their findings:

  • The 63 Fix the Debt companies that are publicly held stand to gain as much as $134 billion in windfalls if Congress approves one of their main proposals — a “territorial tax system.” Under this system, companies would not have to pay U.S. federal income taxes on foreign earnings when they bring the profits back to the United States.
  • The CEOs backing Fix the Debt personally received a combined total of $41 million in savings last year thanks to the Bush-era tax cuts. The top CEO beneficiary of the Bush tax cuts in 2011, Leon Black of Apollo Global Management, saved $9.9 million on the Bush tax cuts. The private equity fund leader reaped $215 million in taxable income last year just from vested stock.
  • Of the 63 Fix the Debt CEOs at publicly held firms, 24 received more in compensation last year than their corporations paid in federal corporate income taxes. All but six of these firms reported U.S. profits last year.

So you see, the "Fix the Debt" effort isn't quite as non/bi-partisan as you might think, nor is it intended to serve progressive interests. But wait, there's more:

The hypocrisy was stunning. We documented, for example, how many of the campaign’s leaders had contributed massively to the national debt through tax-dodging tricks. Twenty-four of them had even paid their CEOs more in 2011 than their firms paid in corporate income taxes. We also calculated that the average Fix the Debt CEO calling for cuts to Social Security themselves had pension assets of $12 million, enough to garner a $65,000 monthly retirement check starting at age 65.

So this is the group who is calling for Social Security checks to be reduced and Medicare eligibility age to be moved up to age 67. A group of people who think our national debt is so serious, so utterly doom-ridden, they're fearmongering even while they set up their fat pensions and healthcare plans for themselves.

Here's the problem. If you're a political junkie, you'll know that Ed Rendell's shill routine for the Fix the Debt effort is not in the best interests of ordinary people. But because Rendell presents himself as a good Democrat with solid Democratic values, he's able to influence the debate. This is why Peterson himself has been named the "most influential billionaire in American politics."

Not the Koch brothers. Not George Soros. Peter G. Peterson. Why? Here's why, via the LA Times:

Peterson doesn't attract venom from the left like the Koch family or bile from the right like Soros. In Washington, he's treated with sedulous respect as a serious thinker about public policy willing to support earnest public discussion with cold cash. His money backs a large number of think tanks across the political spectrum; he has started a news outlet churning out articles about fiscal matters and is funding a high school curriculum aimed, according to its creators at Columbia University, at "teaching kids about the national debt."

Peterson's views are subtly infiltrating the Washington debate — which is why Americans should start getting worried about him.

He isn't content merely to express concern about the federal deficit. His particular targets are Social Security, Medicareand Medicaid, which he calls "entitlement" programs and which he wants to cut back in a manner that would strike deeply at the middle class.

Who is Fix the Debt?

Peterson uses voices that are considered "serious voices" and ones that garner respect across the spectrum of a particular audience. While Ed Rendell is shilling for Fix the Debt, Carly Fiorina serves on the board of a related organization, the Comeback America Initiative, which is one of Fix the Debt's coalition partners. In fact, a closer look at specific coalition partners indicates a stealth right-wing attack disguised as centrist argle-bargle. Look at who they are:

  • The Common Sense Coalition - This group names Senator Bill Brock, former chairman of the RNC among the members of its advisory committee. The board looks like a Who's Who of Wall Street and corporate funders.
  • Concord51, the group for young people who also happen to have Ivy League educations and work for Wall Street. Co-founder Matthew Swift worked for Fox News, News Corp and Sky News for six years before deciding to dive into political activism.
  • The Concord Coalition - Reactivated from the Clinton days and includes at least a few voices like Paul Volcker's.
  • Enact the Plan - This is a recent 501c3 organization created to push for adoption of the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan. Timothy Pagliara is its creator. Pagliara is Chairman and CEO of Tennessee-based investment firm CapWealth Advisors. (Side note to Pagliara: Props for putting all of your non-profit documents online)
  • GenNext Foundation - A venture philanthropy organization run by 2005 candidate for College Republicans President Mike Davidson.
  • The Minority Business Roundtable seems to have a non-minority board, and counts Wayne Newton as an honorary board member. You may recall Newton's comments on Fox News, where he used the old tropes about President Obama being an arrogant, uppity sort. Or his love for Michele Bachmann in the Republican primaries, maybe?
  • Moment of Truth Project - This is the Peterson-sponsored coalition partner, with Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles as the "advisory team."
  • National Parks Conservation Association - This may be the first progressive organization on the list, and I'm certain they've joined this as a self-preserving effort, given that some wingnuts, including Mitt Romney, have actually suggested selling national parks to reduce the deficit.
  • National Small Business Association - While claiming to be "strictly non-partisan", their advisory board statements read like a right-wing manifesto. I half-expected David Koch to be listed on there as a "small business owner."
  • Rebellious Truths - This organization claims to be "anti-partisan" while not revealing anything on their website about who they are or who funds them. They will, however, respond to emails, or so they say. We'll see. I found this interview with Christopher Ponzi online. Ponzi is a co-founder of the organization and again, the organization is supposed to be "anti-partisan", so I'm sure that it couldn't possibly be the same Christopher Ponzi who just joined this Tea Party/Republican group, right? That wouldn't be very rebellious, but it would definitely be quite in line with Ron Paul's values.
  • Strengthening America is a project of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. The steering committee is interesting, but the speakers they choose read like a who's who of deficit hawkery-addicted Wall Streeters. Count among them such names as Robert J Rubin, Sam Nunn, Robert Frist, and so on. The best you could say about this group is that they're less malevolent than the wingnut billionaires, but that's about it.
  • Women in Public Policy - Primarily geared toward women in business who also want to have an impact on public policy. It's good to highlight women in these things. God forbid we only had old men billionaires in the mix, right?

What they have in common

A strong desire to undermine our system of social insurance. Why? Well, let's take our friends the venture capitalists and Wall Street folks for a minute. What could be better than all those dollars flowing into investments and health insurance companies?

And on the other side of it, what "small business" doesn't want corporate taxes to be lower, overhead reduced through lower payrolls and payroll taxes, among other things?

This "fix the debt" obsession isn't about some looming international catastrophe. It's fundamentally about putting more dollars into the pockets of billionaires, who will all be very serious and look at you with furrowed brow while explaining in an avuncular tone of voice that they, and they alone, know what's best for the country.

If they did, we wouldn't have had an economic crash in 2008. Note two things here: First, these organizations activate when Democrats take the White House, and deactivate when Republicans assume control. Second, the debt is only a concern for them when they have an opportunity to maneuver Democrats into being the ones to erode Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Pete Peterson is not neutral. Pete Peterson is not liberal. Pete Peterson does not care about debt. His goal is simply to shove open the doors for more fun and profit for billionaires.

Ed Rendell should be ashamed for fronting for him in public. It gives cover to the motive and obscures the goals.

Note: This post updates my earlier posts on Peterson here and here.

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