Frank Underwood is known for deceiving people into acting against their own best interests. (We'll miss you, President Walker.) Now we learn that this trait may extend to the series which features him.
There have already been at least two debunkings of the economics behind the fictional president's wacky "America Works" plan. But the greatest deceptions on House of Cards can be found in the misleading arguments, presented as "truth," which suggest that cutting "entitlements" is a necessity and raising taxes isn't even an option.
The fact that Netflix has insisted upon heavy tax breaks for filming the show in Maryland may be coincidental. Here's what's not: We have learned that the series hired a leading "new Democrat" (read, "corporate Democrat") as a consultant for the show's most misleading episode.
The audience loves watching Frank Underwood deceive other characters. It's less likely to appreciate being deceived itself, especially as some real-life Frank Underwoods are launching an attack against the party's populist wing.
If you're like me, House of Cards has been a binge-watching guilty pleasure, a chance to set aside the burden of idealism for a dark but engaging worldview which is half Machiavelli and half telenovela.
But who knew that the show itself -- not the characters, but the show -- had a hidden agenda? It's already taken on teachers. Now comes the anti-"entitlement" tirade from Frank Underwood in Episode One of the new season. Frank, despite his evil ways and means, has an ambitious dream, which is introduced during a lengthy scene in which he lectures his staff, and the audience, on some highly misleading "facts."
How did that happen? How did the "AmericaWorks" fictional plot point come to be built on real-world lies?
Here's a clue: Episode One's credits list Jim Kessler as a consultant. Kessler is, as his IMDB biography notes, the co-founder of Third Way. That's a Wall Street-funded, so-called "centrist" Democratic organization with a mission: to promote neoliberal economics and make the world safe (at least financially) for its wealthy patrons.
Third Way has consistently misrepresented the financial condition of Social Security, misdirected the public debate about Medicare, and generally promoted the socially liberal but fiscally conservative worldview of its patrons.
Kessler and co-founder Jon Cowan carefully tiptoed their way through the minefield of public opinion for years, pretending to be technocrats rather than de facto lobbyists for powerful interests. They finally lost their balance last year. When confronted with the rise of Elizabeth Warren and the populist wing of the Democratic Party, they lashed out at Sen. Warren with an intemperate Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Frank's Spin -- and the Show's
Frank's a Democrat, like all Third Way members, and his rant is filled with exactly the kind of misinformation and manipulation that we've come to expect from that corporatist crowd. "Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, every entitlement program that is sucking us dry," says Underwood in his rant, "I want it on the table."
"Sucking us dry"? That's economic gibberish.
"We obviously have to get back to some basics," Underwood says in his rant, "remind ourselves of some of the facts that are before us ..." (emphasis ours.)
Underwood continues: "This (the number $32,781, displayed on a flip chart) is what the average senior gets in one year from entitlements ...This money is a job we could be giving to a single mother or a student just out of school. Now at the moment, 44 cents of every tax dollar goes to pay for these programs. By 2030, it'll be over half, 62 cents."
"Entitlements are bankrupting us," he concludes.
Except that they're not. Social Security accounts for 24 percent of the Federal budget, but it is forbidden by law from adding to the overall deficit. What's more, its trust fund is currently holding $2.8 trillion dollars in reserves. The statement is meaningless.
Straw (Man) Polls
Then Frank says his chief of staff has conducted a poll in which 74 percent of voters said they agreed with this statement: "Doing what's best for my country means doing some things that I don't like."
"Now, what does that tell us?" Underwood asks. "We have to do the things that people won't like. And even when we do, three out of four of them will go along with us."
This is exactly the kind of poll the real-life corporate crowd loves to conduct -- so general as to be meaningless. When asked specific questions, most voters -- including Republicans, Dems, and independents -- don't want cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Seventy-six percent of self-described Tea Party members objected in one poll. And they'll punish any politician who tries.
Voters want millionaires and billionaires to pay the same payroll tax rate as other Americans (the tax is currently capped at approximately $118,500 per year of income). They want Social Security's benefits increased, which makes sense, since retirement benefits have been decimated in this country and our benefits don't fare well when compared to those of other industrialized nations. And they're willing to step up and pay for these increases with higher taxes, according to a poll from the National Academy for Social Insurance.
That's more than the Third Way's financiers are willing to do.
"Brave" Corporate Politicos
The Third Way crowd loves to present itself as young, bold, and visionary, and their opponents as "special interests." House of Cards sticks to this script by employing an aging political apparatchik as the voice of liberalism.
"The programs that you want to scale back or dismantle are the bedrock of the American dream," says the gray-haired, soft-hearted cliché. "You work hard, you pay your taxes--"
Underwood interrupts. "No, I'm sorry, they were the bedrock of the American dream. But they're not anymore. Certainly not for the 10 million people who are out of work."
In Episode Two, Underwood gives a "bold" speech outlining his plan. It begins:
For too long, we in Washington have been lying to you. We say we're here to serve you, when in fact, we're serving ourselves. And why? We are driven by our own desire to get reelected ...
That's another favored trope: that the corporate politicians are courageous (as if it's brave to serve the wealthy and powerful!), while their opponents are cravenly pandering to the voters -- by representing them.
"That ends tonight," says Underwood. "Tonight, I give you the truth."
There's that idea again, that the corporate version of reality is "fact" or "truth." We're told that "the root of the problem" is "entitlements" -- a favorite word in the corporate crowd because it has negative connotations. (I've written about that before.)
"Let me be clear," adds Underwood. "You are entitled to nothing ... " Just like real-life Third Way types, Underwood is trying to cancel our nation's social contract.
Real-Life Frank Underwoods
At least Underwood wants to use the money to create jobs, which is more than most corporate Dems are willing to do. That's a little disturbing: Real-life Third Wayers seem less responsive to the public than a fictional sociopath.
About those real-life Underwoods: You can read about them in an article TheHill.com published this week under the headline "Centrist Dems ready strike against Warren wing." They claim to be truth-tellers too, but the truth is their policies don't work for anyone but the wealthy and privileged.
Their ideas don't work politically, either: Congressional Democrats ran on their platform in 2010 and 2014 and lost big.
What They're Not Telling You
You know what Frank Underwood and his real-life counterparts never mention? Taxes. The payroll tax shift, combined with a financial transaction tax and an increase in the payroll tax rate, could fund an increased Social Security program in perpetuity.
They're trying to make us believe in a false choice instead: between health care and financial security for the elderly and disabled, or jobs and growth for the young. This country has accomplished both before, and can gain -- with a balanced program of government investment in growth, higher taxation for the wealthy, regulation of Wall Street (whose gambling got us into our current mess), and sound financial policy.
We could cut our health care costs by as much as 40 percent by doing what other industrialized nations do: negotiating with drug companies, changing physicians' financial incentives, and limiting the role of for-profit medicine.
Then there is the overarching economic problem of extreme and growing inequality. A more equal economy, like the one we saw during the decades of our greatest growth, would address many of these financial problems. That's another "truth" Frank and his creators forgot to mention.
Billions for Boeing
You know what else the "centrists" don't talk about much? Military spending. It produces far few jobs for the buck than spending in other sectors -- including health care.
Military spending is 19 percent of the budget, nearly as much as Social Security -- and it does come out of general revenues. So why the free pass? As it happens, the defense industry is well-represented in some of the groups fighting to cut Social Security and Medicare.
Netflix itself has pushed aggressively for tax breaks. It has played Underwood-style hardball with the state of Maryland, as Citizens for Tax Justice noted, extracting more than $62 million in tax breaks from a film credit program which only produces 10 cents for every dollar granted in economic benefits.
You can fund a lot of "entitlements" with that kind of money. But, as we were saying, that wouldn't be in a corporation's best interests. As Frank might say, in his smooth Southern drawl: Now isn't that a coincidence?
Don't turn your back on Frank Underwood. Everybody knows he's a murderous sociopath. But he's portrayed as someone who is capable of telling the political truth because he is a sociopath. Only he can see that our old people are spending us into oblivion, because only he is unafraid to take on the "special interests" and think the unthinkable.
I'd like to think that the producers used a corporate "Third Way" Democrat as a consultant because it suits Frank's character. He's amoral and incapable of empathy, after all, which does arguably make for a good fit. That doesn't seem to be their motivation.
As an audience we're asked to believe that Frank Underwood has been liberated from the petty restrictions of conventional minds and sees the "truth." But it's a lie, packaged as truth and peddled by House of Cards. Why? A wise politician once spoke of a "conspiracy of shared values," and that may be all there is to this story.
Whatever the motivations, it's a deception nonetheless. And since everybody in Washington watches the show, it's a potentially destructive one.
Frank Underwood is a liar, thief, and murderer. Sure, we can all enjoy the show if we want. But let's not join Frank, or Netflix, or House of Cards, as they try to push America's seniors in front of a train.