Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > "Fix the Debt": Sheer Hypocrisy or a Myth Worth Debating?

Jan 9, 2013

"Fix the Debt": Sheer Hypocrisy or a Myth Worth Debating?


The New York Times has just published an expose on Fix the Debt, “a group of business executives and retired legislators who have become Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal deficit.” It turns out that “close to half of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and steering committee have ties to companies that have engaged in lobbying on taxes and spending, often to preserve tax breaks and other special treatment.” The Times gives plenty of examples to support that charge.

I’m shocked. Shocked. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow’s Times reveals that there’s gambling going on in the back room at Rick’s Café Americain.

Actually, the analogy with the film Casablanca may not be a bad one. Mr. Rick certainly makes enough money from his business establishment to live quite comfortably, dress impeccably, and keep his place among the city’s elite. But we know that he’s in no way just a greedy money-grubber. He aims to be a useful citizen, providing a service that his city needs and offering it at a high level of quality.

I suspect that Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who co-founded Fix the Debt to promote economic policies along the lines of their Simpson-Bowles plan, would probably say much the same about themselves. So would the other leaders of Fix the Debt who were outed by the Times.

They would make the case that they aren’t merely out to engorge their own bank accounts. Smart people who go into government or lobbying know that they are not going to get truly rich that way. They are going to help other people get truly rich, though they’ll be well-paid for their services along the way.

Nor, they’d probably claim, are they hypocrites. Though the Times article never uses that word, it’s the word that will spring to the minds of many readers. The article leaves a clear impression of men (they’re all male) who claim to be serving the public good while actually serving their own private interests.

Fix the Debt leaders might well protest that this view rests on a false dichotomy, as if one must choose between public good and private interests. On the contrary (I suspect they’d argue), the genius of capitalist democracy is to erase the conflict between those two. Our system is set up so that the only way to improve material life for everyone is to let the truly rich get even richer. Call it “a rising tide” or “trickle down.” Either way, if we limit the wealth of the truly rich we all suffer. So enriching private interests is the best way to serve the public good.

If they are historically minded, they might point out that most of the Founding Fathers saw things this way, too. Alexander Hamilton articulated this view at great length on behalf of the Federalists, who didn’t think a fledgling democracy could survive unless it had a strong central government making thoughtful arrangements for the very rich to get richer. 

Jefferson and Madison refuted that view on behalf of the eighteenth-century Republicans. But they came from the wealthy, slave-owning elite of Virginia. Jefferson argued against abolishing the slavery that made him rich because it would bring the whole socio-economic system crashing down upon everyone -- rich and poor, white and black, alike. And as president he used the power of government in many ways that helped the truly rich get richer, because he saw those policies necessary to serve the public way. Every president since has done the same thing.

There are many good arguments, both economic and moral, against the view that our society, or any democracy, must or should or really does work this way. But Simpson, Bowles, and the rest of the Fix the Debt crew probably have never taken those arguments seriously; perhaps never even heard them. Nor did most of the Founding Fathers. The rich and their top-flight hired hands generally live in a restricted social circle, where they meet and hear only other economic elite figures like themselves.

As in any social circle, their conversation is based on shared premises. It constantly reinforces their shared story of how human life works. In other words, they hang out with each other and keep telling each other the same myth. They never get a chance to hear any other myths. So why shouldn’t they genuinely believe their own? I’m not saying they do believe it. I’m just suggesting they might.

It’s worth considering because, if the rest of us assume that they are merely money-grubbers, most of us may easily dismiss the Times’ story with the same mock shock that was my first reaction. Of course they are gaming the system for their own profit, we’ll say. That’s how the system works. It’s the way of the world. So we’ll have our few minutes of righteous indignation and then go on our way, reaffirming our own myth about the selfishness of the rich.

But suppose a major newspaper ran an expose on the mythic worldview of Fix the Debt’s leaders. Suppose it was clearly explained and traced back to its roots in the worldview of the Founding Fathers. Then at least some of us would feel that we ought to start thinking about it.

Just what is wrong with their assumptions? If we don’t want our society based on those assumptions, can we reform the current system but still keep its basic structure? Or is their elite worldview the foundation of that structure? If we challenge their way of thinking, must we soon find ourselves talking about a revolution?

Back in the 1790s, the Republican attack on the Federalists raised these issues, albeit in a restricted way. Jefferson and Madison never seem to have taken a really long, hard look in the mirror. But even if they had a disturbing measure of hypocrisy, they did spark a debate about whether the United States really needed a federal government helping the truly rich get richer. Sometimes, at least, that debate was conducted on a fairly sophisticated intellectual level.

In the past year the United States has flirted with at least a few threads of that debate, and even that very limited flirtation has been very healthy for us. We should take every opportunity to continue it. If we cut it off with a curt “They all do it,” we steer ourselves toward an intellectual and political dead end, which cuts off any possibility of meaningful change. We ignore the myths of the economic elite at our peril.

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