On June 26, without knowing exactly what I was in for, I participated in a “national town hall meeting” conducted by AMERICA SPEAKS (AS). Nineteen cities in 18 states were linked by video. Additional locations across our country participated off-video. AS announced approximately 3,500 people took part in this 6 1/2 hour marathon. In Chicago, we met at Navy Pier, and I’d estimate near 400 participants with at least six from Oak Park. Our mission? Cut the U.S. deficit by $1.2 trillion from a supplied menu of options.
According to AS, this gathering was convened to provide “Americans with a greater voice in the most important decisions that affect their lives.” However, this was an agenda-driven event. We were assigned tables, given worksheets and told by our moderator to reach agreement on cutting the deficit by $1.2 trillion by end of day.
We were provided a primer: Federal Budget 101: An Introduction to the Federal Budget and Our Fiscal Challenges. In it, was this quote: “Rising deficits and debt in the coming decades will be driven largely by rising health care costs and an aging population.” Yet choices on health care did not include a single payer option or one for our government to negotiate drug costs for Medicare or Medicaid.
At the outset, we were told we could make suggestions that might be considered pertinent, but useless in this exercise. Only their value-assigned menu could be used to reach goal. Early on people across the country raised the need for single payer health care. This prompted AS to announce that our recommendation would be included in their report to lawmakers and others. Cheers erupted in Chicago.
Another menu selection focused on the military. We could cut military spending by 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent or not at all. Pushback by participants made it clear that many wanted to cut the military budget by more than 15 percent. Again, AS said this would be included in their report. More cheers.
Ultimately, participants indicated that increasing taxes on the wealthier was an appropriate way to raise revenue. To reduce expenses, there was broad support for more than a 15 percent reduction in military funding, while keeping our troops safe, as well as enacting single payer health care. These two choices unfortunately could not be tabulated.
AS failed to include our trade deficit or suggest any jobs creation program. While such a program would increase our deficit initially, done properly, it will lead to increased employment and income, creating a broad, stable tax base. Massive unemployment is a sure economic drag.
This day-long event seemed a faux democratic process to achieve consensus on the AS target of cutting the deficit. Another quote from the primer: “The federal budget is an expression of our priorities as a people and our values as a nation.” Given the feedback by so many participants, I hope that AMERICA SPEAKS gives serious consideration to our lack of enthusiasm at being ham-strung, and articulates our alternate responses in their final report.