Never Mind: America Speaks Again

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Written by Dean Baker   
Friday, 23 July 2010 13:11

Yes Saturday Night Live fans, Emily Litella is back! For those too young or too old to remember, Emily Litella was the frumpy commentator on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” She would go invariably go into a tirade over some misunderstood word or phrase. Ms. Litella would then be corrected by Jane Curtin, the news show’s impeccably dressed anchor (e.g. that’s endangered “species,” not feces), and then conclude with, “never mind.”

It appears that Ms. Litella has been reincarnated in the form of America Speaks. America Speaks is an organization that was funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to host a series of town halls around the country to discuss the country’s long-term budget problems. The format was rigged so as to force people to support cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

For example, America Speaks told participants that health care reform was off the table so that the only way to save budget dollars was to cut back programs like Medicare and Medicaid. So that participants would not get ideas about taxing Wall Street, the America Speaks budget booklet underestimated the revenue potentially available from a tax on financial speculation by an order of magnitude.

In spite of the rigged deck, the event did not turn out quite as planned. Progressive national organizations like the Campaign for America’s Future and Moveon.org, along with many state level groups, worked to get supporters at the town halls. As a result, cutting Social Security and Medicare proved to be relatively unpopular routes for reducing the deficit, whereas cutting defense spending and higher taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street proved quite popular.

There was an exception. America Speaks reported that 52 percent of participants favored raising the normal retirement age for collecting Social Security benefits from 67 to 69. This was the only cut to Social Security that got majority support.

However, it turns out that this number was based on a flaw in America Speaks voting software. Apparently some responses were counted more than once. When they corrected this mistake, it turned out that just 39 percent of the participants wanted to raise the normal retirement age for Social Security. As Emily Litella would say: never mind.   

Remarkably, America Speaks did not even have the integrity to publicly correct its error. After having reported its results to President Obama's deficit commission and issuing a press release announcing the initial 52 percent support figure, America Speaks decided to just quietly change the number in their final report. Thankfully David Dayen at Firedoglake was on top of the issue. At least Emily Litella owned up to her mistakes.