Jul 2 2010

Nancy Altman on deficits and Social Security, Alfie Kohn on education


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This week on CounterSpin: a special look at two issues that seem to bring out the worst in the corporate media. First up, the deficit. Worrying about the budget deficit is a corporate media staple, so President Obama’s deficit commission must appear a godsend. Early reports are that Social Security cuts, another media obsession, have become the commission’s main focus. Somewhat tellingly, the commission has announced that it will not be reporting on its recommendations until after the November elections. We’ll talk about the President’s commission, social security, public opinion and the media, with Nancy Altman, the co-director of Social Security Works, and author of The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble.

Also this week: If you try to follow the media discussion of education policy, it tends to be black and white—there are reformers on one side, teachers unions on the other. There are calls to Leave No Child Behind and get all schools to Race for the Top. Right-wing foundations and think tanks have steered this conversation right where they want it, emphasizing things like achievement, accountability, school choice and so on. Critics of what’s labeled “reform” are rarely heard in a media system that emphasizes the need to get tough on teachers. We’ll be joined by author and education expert Alfie Kohn to talk about that.


CounterSpin: If you stay current on economic news then you’ve seen the repeating media theme that says that Americans are terribly concerned about high deficits—so concerned, according to some media outlets, that they see lowering deficits as a more pressing matter than job creation. These days, the theme that most of us are deficit hawks is often found hand-in-hand with the theme that Social Security is in trouble, and that we must do something about it—”something” virtually always meaning, cuts in benefits. These two themes have come together in President Obama’s deficit commission, formally titled the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Though there are many possible approaches to fiscal reform, the president’s commission seems to have made Social Security its most pressing concern.

With us to talk about deficit hawks, social security, the president’s commission, and what Americans really think, is Nancy Altman. Altman is the co-director of Social Security Works, and the author of the The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble.

Nancy Altman, welcome to CounterSpin!

Nancy Altman: Thank you so much for having me.

CS: I want to get to the President’s deficit commission in a moment, but first, let’s talk about this notion that most of us are deficit hawks. On June 18, the Washington Post reporter Lori Montgomery wrote that concern over exploding deficits was resonating even more profoundly with voters than unemployment concerns. What can you tell us about this media trope that says Americans are by and large deficit hawks, more concerned over deficits than jobs?

NA: There have been a number of focus groups and polling that’s been done recently on this question, and what I have seen is that people are concerned about the economy. And often people equate a bad economy with the government’s got to do something, and it’s we’ve got to tighten our belts, they’ve got to tighten theirs. It’s really, in some ways, simply a proxy that the economy is bad and that people want jobs programs and so forth. But another mistake that I think a lot of policymakers make is to think that people equate the deficit with social security. What our focus groups and polling show is that people understand Social Security as a program that people are paying into, it’s a dedicated trust fund, and that it has no borrowing authority and has nothing to do with the deficit. So I think to the extent policy makers decide that they should cut Social Security to reduce the deficit because that’s what their constituents want are going to be surprised when they get back home.

CS: It’s also true that poll after poll shows that the public has much greater concern for job creation than for fighting the increasing deficits.

NA: Absolutely, and in fact, the two go together. The best thing we can do to reduce the deficit is get our economy back going, put people to work in good paying jobs.

CS: So now president Obama has a commission to deal with this overriding deficit concern. Tell us about the commission, whose on it, and what does is seem to be looking at these days?

NA: This is very troubling. I think Americans have not heard much about this commission, and that, I think, is almost intentional. It’s a commission that’s been set up by executive order: six members from the president, six members from Congress, the House, and six members from the Senate with very broad authority for the entire federal budget. It reports December 1 after the election. As you mentioned, in the history of Social Security, I actually think this is the biggest threat to Social Security that we may have ever had, certainly bigger than 2005 and privatization. And the reason I say that is because all of this is being done behind closed doors, in the quiet, so the people don’t even know what’s going on. The members who have been appointed to this commission, many of them have a long history of opposing Social Security, wanting to see it cut. Alan Simpson, who is a conservative former senator from Wyoming, has used the term “greedy geezer” so much that some think he invented the term—he’s the co-chair of this. The other co-chair is Erskine Bowles, who worked in the Clinton White House and has been for a long time in favor of a kind of privatization of Social Security. The two of them have made quite clear that Social Security is a clear target of what they want to do, and I think it’s very serious because they will report on December 1, after the election. And the leadership has already agreed that if 14 out of the 18 members reach agreement—the majority leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, has agreed to bring it up in December in the lame duck, and if it passes the Senate, Speaker Pelosi has said she will bring it up. So it’s on a very fast track—if they come out with recommendations to cut Social Security, it will be acted upon without much time for public input. So I think people should start asking their members now about what is going on.

CS: Explain to listeners why it’s telling that the commission isn’t releasing its recommendations until after the election.

NA: Well, the executive order has specified December 1, but this is kind of typical of these situations. The idea is that you don’t want to do anything unpopular before the election.

CS: Now, you’ve already mentioned this, but I think it really bears repeating. This commission was brought together, it’s commonly referred to as the president’s deficit commission, and yet their main concern is Social Security—that has what to do with the deficit?

NA: It has nothing to do with the deficit. It is a creditor of the U.S. Government. It has no borrowing authority. It is currently in surplus. It’s a very carefully monitored program, so that every year it makes projections out 75 years. And it does show over the 75-year period that in several decades there is a manageable shortfall that’s being projected, which we should take steps to close. But it is not a part of the deficit. In fact, as I say, it is not allowed to pay a penny if it doesn’t have the assets on hand to cover the cost. It has no borrowing authority.

CS: So this commission that is focusing with laser-like focus on Social Security is supposed to be about overall fiscal reform. Why wouldn’t they be looking into some other issues, like say, perhaps, military spending?

NA: Well, it’s interesting. Their charge is to look at everything, and they have three working groups. One on mandatory spending, which involves primarily Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid. They have another group on discretionary spending and another group on taxes. But all you hear about from all of them is Social Security, Social Security, Social Security. One of the members is the former CEO of Honeywell, which is a big defense contractor with lots of lobbyists, who are lobbying for defense increases, certainly against any defense cuts.

CS: William Greider, the economics reporter for the Nation magazine, has said all along that the deficit commission is really just a stalking horse for cutting Social Security. Do you think he’s overstating things?

NA: I do not. It appears exactly that way, as I say. Whenever they talk about it, they talk about we must address Social Security. And on top of that, they seem to working in close lockstep with a billionaire most people have never heard of, whose name is Peter G. Peterson. He was Commerce Secretary under President Nixon. He has made a lot of money, billions of dollars, as a hedge fund manager and has staked a huge part of his fortune on drumming up this idea that we’ve got a huge deficit problem and the cause is Social Security.

CS: We should mention also that Pete Peterson is the creator of Fiscal Times, the media front that has gotten so much affective propaganda into the aforementioned Washington Post.

NA: Just to make one point about that: and that’s what happens when you have billions of dollars. He set up his own wire service so that it sounds like you’re getting it from AP wire, or UPI. The newspapers have laid off reporters; he set up the Fiscal Times and hired them. And the concern I have is: he’s entitled to his opinion, he’s entitled to send in op-eds and see if he can get them published in newspapers, but instead he’s purchased a new service, and his opinions are going out as hard news, and I worry that they are picked up in a lot of the local papers, but it’s really propaganda that’s going out.

CS: Well, I wanted to get back to this one issue, and you’ve touched on it already. Obama administration officials have actually gone on the record to say that though cutting Social Security doesn’t have anything to do with deficits, cutting it would show a sort of grown-up, responsible resolve. Obama advisor Paul Volcker said cuts would be “confidence building,” while Obama advisor John Podesta said “reforms could starkly demonstrate to skeptical debt markets that the United States is willing to take on a politically difficult fiscal issue.” Mind you these are Democrats, the supposed defenders of Social Security. Why is it that cutting Social Security is so important to the Democrats, do you think?

NA: I think what’s happened is the Democratic Party has forgotten its roots. This is a program that is important to millions and millions of Americans, and I think they have bought the conservative line that we can’t afford it, when every analysis shows that we can. There’s been a drum beat to convince younger Americans, younger workers that they will never see a penny of Social Security. That is complete nonsense. You look at the trustees report that comes out every year, and you see that Social Security is the most fiscally responsible part of the budget.

CS: I wanted to ask you very quickly: media discussions of issues such as the deficit and Social Security are usually populated by the same experts and economists who missed some of the looming crises of recent times—the tech bubble collapse, the housing credit collapses—while seeing “crises” that don’t exist, like the imminent demise of social security. Why do you suppose that corporate media avoid experts like say, you or economist Dean Baker, who’ve gotten things right along the way, in favor of people who’ve gotten them wrong so often?

NA: It’s so frustrating. It’s almost a sense of the joke about the Peter Principle where you do badly and you get promoted. I can’t really explain it except that there’s a kind of groupthink that there’s been a drum beat that conservatives have been pushing for a long time that Social Security is unaffordable, it won’t be there, it’s unfair, it’s insecure, it’s this, it’s that. And over time, the message has sunk in with policymakers. The bright spot in all this is that in poll after poll after poll, the American people once again show that they are smarter than the politicians. They have not been fooled. We just had a poll that showed us that Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Tea Partiers, union members are all in agreement: Social Security must be preserved; it shouldn’t be cut. People talk about the tremendous polarization of this country. The only polarization around Social Security involves the people on the one hand and the politicians and media elite on the other—the mainstream media, who think they know best. They don’t; the people do.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works and the author of The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Nancy Altman!

NA: Thank you so much for having me.


CounterSpin: With an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some important political issues are getting next-to-no press attention. When it comes to the way corporate media cover the debate over education policy, less coverage might not always be a bad thing, given how bad that coverage tends to be. Most people are at least familiar with the phrase No Child Left Behind, and with a name like that how bad could it be? The Obama White House and Congress have been wrestling with how and when to re-authorize that law, and if you’re paying attention to the administration’s education policies you know that they’ve devised something called Race for the Top, what amounts to a multi-billion dollar funding contest for states that jump through the appropriate hoops. Like the bold declaration that children shouldn’t be left behind, the idea that schools aim for “the top” sounds totally uncontroversial. And that’s exactly the problem with what passes for a debate about education policy in this country. While relatively little attention is being paid to the Obama White House’s education policy, many critics argue that the administration’s agenda is somewhat troubling.

Alfie Kohn is one of the country’s leading writers on schools, education and teaching. He joins us now by phone.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Alfie Kohn.

Alfie Kohn: Nice to be here.

CS: We might want to start with some of the mistaken assumptions that guide the education debate, or at least the version of it that we get in the media. There are familiar terms that seem relevant. We hear that there are reformers on one side, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan and D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee; and then there are teachers’ unions, on the other side—logically, they’re anti-reform [AK laughs]. For the sake of helping people understand this discussion, when you hear in the media that someone’s an “education reformer” what does that mean?

AK: What it means is they have accepted, usually uncritically, a corporate-styled approach to dealing with education that is deeply reactionary with respect to the government’s role and with respect to how kids are taught and how teachers are assessed. It has been a brilliant, brilliant PR strategy for the right, including the right in the Democratic Party as well, to frame their top-down sort of macho, mindless, bash-the-unions, offer bribes and threats to teachers and kids in order to raise test scores, not improve learning, but raise scores on bad tests—and frame all of this as if it were reform, as if it took bold leadership and real courage to intensify the same kind of tactics that have been used for decades now, except with more force behind it and even more reliance on test scores. And to cast not only teachers by attacking their unions, but also educational activists and theorists and researchers who are really interested in progressive education, as the people who are too wimpy to bear to question the status quo.

CS: After the 2008 election you wrote a piece for the Nation titled, “Beware School Reformers,” which gave us some hints about what to expect from the Obama administration. Their signature achievement so far would seem to be this Race for the Top initiative. It has a nice name and seemingly worthwhile goals, but what does it actually do, though?

AK: Well, first of all, it only has a nice name if you confuse competitiveness with excellence. If you believe that we make progress in life, in schools, in everything by making sure that one group can succeed only by making another group fail, then it sounds good. To those of us who are critical of the idea of competition, where people are set against each other, the name, here, is actually fairly accurate. The first feature of this plan is that only some states will get the money they desperately need in this recessionary economy. So the Obama administration’s first pivot point is you have to try to defeat other kids and not all of them are going to get the money they need. The second point is the federal government will use a big basket of money, very big from a school’s point of view, in order to command compliance with what is known as reform. This is probably the most aggressive attempt by the federal government to mandate how teachers teach and how schools and children are assessed, probably in the history of American education. And it’s not being used to make sure that kids get a rich, engaging kind of instruction, where they become excited about learning and turn into critical thinkers. This unprecedented use of federal power in a competitive mindset is being used to demand that, first of all, school money is siphoned off from regular public schools toward charter schools, many of them run by for-profit corporations, to demand that when teachers are thought to be inadequate—based almost exclusively on how students do on test scores—they will be threatened, fired, their job security will be lessened, will close down entire schools if they’re low performing, even though research shows that is almost never effective. Teachers that produce higher test scores, even at the expense of real learning, will get more money. And so Obama and Duncan are saying to the states, the more you capitulate to this agenda that’s basically been hatched by people in the Gates Foundation and other corporate folks, the more likely you are to get the money you need. It is a right-wing coup in education beyond the wildest dream of what the Bush Administration thought it could accomplish.

CS: Now you alluded to this, and I think it’s something that’s one of the most fascinating and maybe maddening things about education. It’s a somewhat tricky issue politically because some of these ideas have as much support among certain liberals as they do on the right. When you look at what we might call the kind of elite media, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for these “reform” ideas. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, for example, has recently published two major pieces—the first was this semi-clinical piece on how to create the laboratory to finally find and cultivate good teachers; the more recent one was this piece in May by Steven Brill that was titled “The Teachers’ Unions Last Stand,” which gives you an indication of where he’s coming from.

AK: Right. Now one could argue, from the left, that the New York Times and the Washington Post are not particularly progressive on a whole range of issues. It’s just been defined as liberal by the right wing. The same could be said about Obama and this administration. But in relative terms, even the mass media, who take progressive stands on some issues sometimes, are uniformly in line with the Gates Foundation, with the Bush/Obama approach to top-down school control and standardized testing, all of which, in its most egregious form, is visited upon inner-city kids with a vengeance. And it is astonishing to see that every single major newspaper in the country has editorialized, to the best of my knowledge, in favor of this agenda, without a peep—never questioning why it is that affluent kids can wrestle with ideas and learn to be critical thinkers, while the recipe for African American and Latino kids is to be compelled with bribed and threats to shut up, sit down, and work through worksheets to raise the scores for their schools. And to support these hair-raising charter school programs that I wouldn’t send my dog to, but they’re great for black, poor kids. And you find people who have the right attitudes, as we would see them, on global climate change and international relations, and corporate power, and finance reform, right down the line, but when it comes to children, even people—I’m not talking about just newspapers now, and it’s not just the New York Times and the Washington Post, you know, it’s Newsweek, you basically, whenever you see a syndicated columnist, whenever you turn on the tv, whenever you look at a newspaper editorial—these folks who are liberal on other issues are indistinguishable from Fox News when it comes to education.

CS: There’s always this debate over why these things appeal to relatively well-intentioned people, and some of it seems to be the idea that some of this stuff seems to be just kind of common sense. If you’re going to grade students, you might as well grade teachers, for example. And you can’t get rid of the bad teachers because of the teachers union. David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times, “in every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results,” which certainly isn’t true—”any other job”—but this is the mythology that’s created: that you adhere to these standards in the private sector why not in the teaching community as well?

AK: Which overlooks several important errors. One is, as you say, that this isn’t really even put into place across the board, as a paper for the Economic Policy Institute pointed out recently in terms of merit pay, which isn’t the norm even in the private sector. Number two, it overlooks the respects in which educating children, all of whom have to be welcomed in a public school, and where the currency is not producing widgets for pay, but coming to understand and fall in love with ideas, is powerfully disanalogous with what it is the private sector is trying to do. And the reality is, though, the third point is that things like merit pay, a kind of carrot-and-stick attempt to manipulate employees doesn’t make sense either. I wrote a book years ago called Punished by Rewards, in which I showed that no research has ever demonstrated that bonuses and incentives produce, over the long term, a higher quality of work, even in the workplace. Much less is that stuff appropriate in the schools. But you’re right, a lot of this sounds commonsensical. The less you know about how children learn, the more appealing the Obama/Bush education agenda might seem. Now one key point I think we have to make sure we understand is that if a columnist who’s sort of centrist-liberal writes about this, let’s say Tom Friedman for the New York Times, for example, though there are many, many others—or, you know, the Washington Post editorializes about this. One of the reasons they’ve all fallen in line with this agenda is because their ultimate touchstone for thinking about these issues is not what children need, it’s what ratchets up the U.S. corporate economy relative to its counterparts in other countries. As soon as you frame this discussion, not in terms of how to help kids become happy, ethical, lifelong learners, but how can we prepare future employees for the 21st century global economy, the battle is lost.

CS: We’ve been speaking with education writer and author Alfie Kohn. He’s the author of numerous books, including The Schools Our Children Deserve and most recently The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. You can read his work at AlfieKohn.org.

Thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Alfie Kohn.

AK: My pleasure.


Social Security Works

Alfie Kohn