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Meet the high priests of austerity politics: 'Fix the Debt'

Thursday's New York Times includes an exposé on the "backers of Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal
Alan Simpson (YouTube)
Alan Simpson

Thursday's New York Times includes an exposé on the "backers of Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal deficit": Fix the Debt, a non-partisan advocacy group co-founded and co-chaired by the omnipresent anti-debt crusaders Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.

While the organization's website presents itself as a non-ideological advocate for a "common-sense solution," Nicholas Confessore's New York Times piece suggests that it might serve as a vehicle for wealthy backers to protect their business interests.

"In all, 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," writes Confessore.

Fix the Debt's public statements bear some of the corporate lobby's fingerprints. For example, an October 25 blog post on the group's website served as a platform for 80 corporate CEOs—including Jeffrey Immelt and Jamie Dimon—to lobby for a deficit reduction deal with a 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases. Another post from around the same time approvingly cites a paper from the Committee for a Responsible Budget (Fix the Debt's parent organization) which calls for cutting the corporate tax rate "while broadening the tax base and changing the international tax system."

While Fix the Debt thinks Congress should reduce corporate taxes, it proposes (vaguely defined) "serious entitlement reforms," claiming, "rising health costs remain our largest single fiscal challenge and Social Security is on a road toward insolvency." Economists at groups such as the progressive Economic Policy Center question the dire prognosis for Social Security.

The important thing to understand about all of this is that Fix the Debt is not a conservative organization, at least not relative to the spectrum of mainstream American politics. The group's co-founders are also the two men behind the Simpson-Bowles plan, a favorite shibboleth for Washington's "sensible moderate" caucus. Its website's list of backers includes such evangelical centrists as former Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, former Republican Senator Judd Gregg (President Obama's one-time nominee to be Secretary of Commerce), and the very avatar of centrism himself: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Fix the Debt's makeup and politics go a long way towards explaining the ideological and institutional pressures behind Washington's bipartisan consensus in favor of privileging deficit reduction over employment, poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, and so on. A close look at Fix the Debt suggests that this has more to do with class than "common sense" or partisanship: as the New York Times points out, Fix the Debt's major backers almost uniformly hold substantial corporate stakes and travel in elite political circles. Despite the fact that they represent two different political parties, they also happen to be lobbying for the same program of corporate tax cuts and reduced entitlements.