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AmericaSpeaks: The Debrief

By Tracy Dingmann

This weekend, Albuquerque was one of 19 cities to host the latest incarnation of AmericaSpeaks, an interactive national town hall meeting focusing on real talk about America’s budget and economy.

Thousands of participants gathered at meetings all over the country or joined the conversation online. The organizers of the event had said they wanted to include as many diverse groups as possible to “reflect the authentic views of a large, informed, and representative group of Americans.”

In promotional materials, the organizers said:

“The discussion will not be manipulated by any side or point of view, and will give the American public a real chance to find common ground.”

Organizers say ideas raised at the town hall will be passed along to actual policymakers, including Congressional leaders and the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The Demographics

So who showed up, and what happened?

According to an AmericaSpeaks preliminary report issued shortly after the event, about 3,500 turned out nationwide.

The report showed that in comparison to U.S. Census numbers, certain groups were over or underrepresented in the conversation.

Young people – including the entire demographic under age 44 – were underrepresented at the AmericaSpeaks forum, while the senior demographic was overrepresented.

Hispanics and Latinos were underrepresented, with only 5% participating in the forum. According to the Census, Hispanics and Latinos make up at least 15% of the overall population.

Also, those with a household income of $75,000 or more were significantly overrepresented, while those making $50,000 were underrepresented.

The Ideas

The majority of people who participated in AmericaSpeaks said they agree that the government should be doing more to strengthen the economy. Similarly, a majority indicated that it is the public’s job to hold government accountable to the needs of ordinary citizens.

It appears that the group was generally split across many policy options. However, a majority of attendees agree we should ask the rich and corporations to pay their fair share.

In addition, 68% recommend that we create an extra 5% tax for people earning more than $1 million a year, and 59% believe we should raise the corporate income tax rate.

Faults?

Some of those who attended the event lamented that the discussion about America’s economic future was limited at the outset to a discussion of cutting the deficit.

Some of the same folks noted that, in discussing the deficit, the conversation seemed skewed toward cutting spending on social programs like Medicare and Social Security – and distinctly away from other solutions, such as discussion of rolling back Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003.

Wrote participant Claus Whiteacre on the blog New Mexico FBIHOP:

As feared by some critics prior to the town meetings, the options given were skewed toward cuts or changes in Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, which were represented as the major drivers of the deficit.

This was, as Whiteacre noted, in spite of the fact that at least one major tax policy think tank has identified other significant factors behind the debt. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities listed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Bush-era tax cuts as the top drivers of the deficit.

Others who observed the town hall were less charitable than Whiteacre. Blogger Matt Reichbach, also writing at NMFBIHOP, had his own criticism of the town hall.

And you can read the blog New Deal 2.0’s harsh assessment of it here.

So, for at least some, it seemed the AmericaSpeaks participants were given a narrow task, outfitted with a narrow focus and – despite the best efforts of the organizers – operated with a group that included a narrower than anticipated demographic.

Was It Worthwhile?

The responsibility of coming up with recommendations that address our nation’s fiscal situation is huge – especially now, when our leaders are still in the process of responding to an economic crisis that has had a devastating impact people’s lives.

Encouraging Americans to engage in a constructive dialogue that continues to engage the public in exploring the realm of public policy is definitely a worthy a cause.

However, while it is important to investigate the details and weigh the consequences of each policy suggestion to ensure that they are necessary and fair – it’s not realistic to expect that lasting solutions can be hammered out during one Saturday afternoon.

Especially when it seems the scope of the argument has been limited from the start.



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