Fix the Debt is the most hypocritical corporate PR campaign in decades, an ambitious attempt to convince the country that another cataclysmic economic crisis is around the corner and that urgent action is needed. Its strategy is pure astroturf: assemble power players in business and government under an activist banner, then take the message outside the Beltway and give it the appearance of grassroots activism by manufacturing an emergency to infuse a sense of imminent crisis.
Behind this strategy are no fewer than 127 CEOs and even more “statesmen” pushing for a “grand bargain” to draw up an austerity budget by July 4. With many firms kicking in $1 million each on top of Peterson’s $5 million in seed money, this latest incarnation of the Peterson message machine must be taken seriously.
Fix the Debt has hired such powerful PR firms and lobby shops as the DCI Group, the Glover Park Group, the Dewey Square Group and Proof Integrated Communications, a unit of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, which was the go-to firm for Big Tobacco. In the run-up to the “fiscal cliff,” these firms launched a flashy $3 million media campaign, blanketing Capitol Hill with TV, Internet, Metro and newspaper ads featuring slogans like “Got Debt?” and “Just Fix It.”
Fix the Debt’s stable of CEOs are a PR flack’s dream. Not only are they able to get meetings with everyone from John Boehner to President Obama; they can flood cable news with laughable messages of “shared sacrifice” and be treated with fawning respect. Fix the Debt’s David Cote, CEO of Honeywell, “brings serious financial muscle to the table” when he pushes “market credible solutions,” chirps The Wall Street Journal. There is no mention that Cote is a tax-dodging, pension-skimping hypocrite: Honeywell has a negative average tax rate of -0.7 percent and underfunds its employee pensions by -$2.8 billion, making Cote’s workers even more reliant on Social Security.
Creating a crisis is key. “America is more than $16 trillion in debt,” Fix the Debt’s website warns, calling it “a catastrophic threat to our security and economy.” The CEOs echo this warning, writing to Congress of the “serious threat to the economic well-being and security of the United States.”
But as Dean Baker shows, this talking point just isn’t true—and the inventors of Fix the Debt know it. Indeed, they have admitted it: former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, who is on the steering committee, has said publicly that the goal is to create an “artificial crisis” to get Congress to act.
To foster the illusion of a grassroots uprising, Peterson has nursed what the National Journal calls a “loose network of deficit-hawk organizations that seem independent but that all spout the Peterson-sanctioned message of the need for a ‘grand bargain.’”
In addition to throwing money at groups for national tours and town hall meetings, the 86-year-old Peterson is obsessed with creating the fantasy that young people care more about the national debt than their own. This time around we have The Can Kicks Back, complete with a mascot—“AmeriCAN,” a staffer dressed as a giant can—who in December taught former Senator Alan Simpson to dance “Gangnam Style.” This goofy press stunt went viral—Peggy Noonan labeled it “merry and shrewd”—and the group enjoyed puff pieces in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.