Raising young deficit hawks
February 3, 2011 — No one has done more than the billionaire private-equity investor Peter G. Peterson to stir America’s anxiety over deficits, debt, and what Peterson (among others) considers out-of-control entitlement-program spending. Those same concerns now lie at the heart of a “fiscal responsibility” curriculum being developed for America’s high schools. The curriculum bears the stamp of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College, but reflects the focus suggested by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which provided $2.4 million in funding for the project.
Teachers College gave Remapping Debate access to a set of 24 lessons set to be test-taught in four states this spring prior to a wider roll-out in 2011-12. Heavily weighted toward the themes and arguments of Peterson and other deficit hawks, the trial lessons could be seen as part of an effort by one of the country’s wealthiest men, now 82, to spread his gospel to coming generations. Although the lessons focus on the perils of public debt, they also suggest another danger — of an academic institution inadvertently lending its weight to a big funder’s cause.
The curriculum’s authors — a team of educators working under the supervision of Teachers College faculty — describe it as nonpartisan and “inquiry-driven.” Anand Marri, the assistant professor of Social Studies and Education in charge of the project, rejected the idea that Peterson and his foundation might be using Teachers College to promote an agenda. “People from the right and the left are going to find something wrong,” Marri said. “But the larger point of this curriculum is to get kids to think about multiple perspectives. We’re trying to give them as holistic a picture as we can.”
In their presentation of questions and selection of evidence, however, the trial lessons repeatedly point toward two core ideas of Peterson’s long crusade: first, that America’s future is threatened by deficit spending, and, second, that Social Security and Medicare have helped put our economy on an “unsustainable course.”
Debt and deficit, first and last
Andrew Fieldhouse, one of several economists asked by Remapping Debate to review parts of the 409-page curriculum, objected strenuously to what he said was a loaded discussion of the debt and deficit, one designed both to fuel alarm and to put undue focus on the spending rather than the revenue side of things.
Fieldhouse, a federal budget analyst at the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute, questioned the practice of treating taxes, spending and fiscal balance as issues unto themselves. “Budgeting is the numeric embodiment of all your national values and priorities,” he said. “It’s about the public goods you want to provide for the nation, and how you pay for them.”
The starting point of any discussion of public finances, Fieldhouse continued, should be a vision for the country and its future, and, within that framework, a conviction about the role of government. A curriculum conceived in that spirit, he said, would explore a range of possible government missions — providing social insurance, funding education, investing in infrastructure, easing people’s fears, strengthening communities, smoothing out the economic cycle — before it tried to tackle questions of debt financing and fiscal responsibility. The trial lessons, which plunge right into these questions, rest on “a problematically narrow-minded view of the economy,” Fieldhouse said.
Robert Prasch, an economics professor at Middlebury College, voiced similar complaints about the way the curriculum deals with Social Security. “No effort is made to explore whether, and to what extent, there may or may not be a fiscal crisis facing Social Security,” Prasch said. “It is presumed or taken as an unimpeachable fact.”
In its discussion of Social Security and other issues, the curriculum does sometimes cite materials from liberal as well as conservative sources, but the effort to provide balance is often brief or oblique. The first of five economics lessons, for example, cites a proposal to gradually eliminate the social-security-tax income cap, which currently stands at $106,800 a year. That step alone, the economist Teresa Ghilarducci is quoted as saying, would “solve the entire predicted Social Security deficit for 75 years.”
Out of four Social Security remedies laid out for consideration, however, hers is the only one that would not mean lower benefits for at least some recipients. Moreover, the lesson fails to provide what Ghilarducci and other retirement-policy experts regard as an important piece of background information: the fact that because of rising income inequality, the Social Security tax now covers only about 84 percent of all payroll income, down from the 90 percent target set by a reform commission in 1983.