Years ago a political scientist said that the mass media can't influence what people think, but it can influence what people think about. Today it does both. If you're a billionaire who wants to manipulate public opinion, that means you'll keep feeding it stories that serve your ideology and self-interest.
Hedge fund billionaire Peter G. "Pete" Peterson is a master of the art. At a time when 47 million Americans (including one child in five) live in poverty, when our national infrastructure is collapsing and the middle class dream is dying before our eyes, he's managed to convince a few voters, a lot of politicians, and far too many major-media journalists that our most urgent problem is ... federal deficit spending.
They don't just want you to be concerned about it. They want you to be afraid.
The front for this effort (one of many assembled by the Peterson Foundation) is called "The Coalition for Fiscal and National Security," and they've assembled a list of prominent figures to promote it. Let us consider the message, and the messengers.
"The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt."
That's a surprisingly bold and naïve proclamation, especially from someone of Mullen's stature. It takes a lot of imagination, and some highly implausible assumptions, to believe that our national security is really endangered by federal deficits.
The Peterson Foundation provides both, of course. Unfortunately its manipulated facts and figures fail to make their case, even when taken at face value.
What would a rational list of non-military risks look like? Climate change would almost certainly top the list. Many military experts already consider it a grave national security threat. A bipartisan group of 48 defense leaders and experts - including, perhaps paradoxically, some of the Peterson group's signatories - signed a full-page ad let year entitled "Republicans and Democrats Agree: U.S. Security Demands Global Climate Action."
One defense expert called climate change "the mother of all risks."
It's easy to see why. Rising sea levels threaten many of our coastal towns and cities, including most of lower Manhattan. Millions of Americans are likely to become internal refugees in their own country, posing the risk of widespread lawlessness and instability.
Climate change is expected to trigger a number of future conflicts around the globe, as nations and peoples compete for increasingly scarce resources. Some scientists believe that climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Wealth inequality also belongs near the top of the list. Extreme inequality makes a society unstable. Today millions are trapped in poverty while the 20 richest Americans own more wealth than half the entire nation -- some 150 million people in 57 million households.
Persistent poverty plagues minority communities, while the 400 richest Americans own more than the nation's entire African-American population (plus one-third of this nation's Latinos). There are growing rates of suicide, opioid overdose, and deaths from alcoholism among lower-income whites. Economist Anne Case calls them "deaths of despair."
What will happen if the middle class continues to collapse, if poverty remains inescapable for generation after generation, if most people face working years filled with dashed hopes and retirements plagued by penury?
Despair can turn to rage, sometimes without warning.
That's one reason why it's especially imprudent for the corporate-friendly "Coalition" to target Social Security, along with the rest of the social safety net. Sure, they try to sound reasonable. They even mention cutting the military budget (although they tip their hand by emphasizing military health care and payroll expenses, rather than cost overruns or expensive weapons systems.)
But they always turn to social programs, sometimes with not-so-subtle transitions like this: "Defense spending is the largest single category of discretionary spending... In 2015, it was second only to Social Security spending."
See what they did there?
There's little chance of getting tax increases or cuts in defense spending through this Congress or the next, and they know it. The drumbeat for lower deficits only serves to undermine the social safety net -- when we should be spending more to rebuild our economy.
When a group uses prominent people to promote its arguments, it's prudent to ask: Who are these people? Can we trust them? Are they wise and just?
Well, there's Michael Hayden, who headed both the NSA and the CIA. History will remember Hayden for giving sworn testimony to Congress that contained numerous falsehoods, as documented by the Senate Subcommittee on Intelligence. (Experts say it's very difficult to convict someone for lying to Congress, but it's still wrong -- and illegal.)
Madeleine Albright's on the list too. She was widely criticized for answering "we think the price is worth it" when asked about the Iraqi children who died as the result of sanctions against Iraq.
But the most prominent name on the list is Henry Kissinger's. Is Kissinger credible? It's true that he's popular among media and political elites, but that sad fact only serves to remind us that some memories are short - and that, for some people, the ties of social status outweigh those of morality and decency.
It was Kissinger who reportedly fed confidential information to then-candidate Richard Nixon - information that was used to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks, extracting a massive toll in human lives just to boost Nixon's election chances.
It was Kissinger who delivered the illegal order to bomb Cambodia and Laos. More bomb material rained down on these tiny nations than was used in all of World War II. His actions cost countless lives and gave rise to the mad, massacring Pol Pot regime.
It was Kissinger who ignored the pleadings of a US diplomat and gave the green light to Pakistani atrocities in what is now Bangladesh, praising Pakistan's dictator for his "delicacy and tact" while ridiculing those who "bleed" for "the dying Bengalis."
Kissinger supported the violent overthrow of the Chilean government by a right-wing dictator. Kissinger gave the go-ahead to the Indonesian government's massacre of from 100,000 to 230,000 people in East Timor. (Estimates vary.) Kissinger's other offenses and blunders are too numerous to list here.
His intellect is overrated, too. Princeton professor Gary Bass writes that "Kissinger's policies were not only morally flawed but also disastrous as Cold War strategy."
Would you trust this man with your Social Security? Do you think he'd make wise and humane decisions about our society's priorities?
Sure, there are some decent people on the Coalition list. But they've been misled by tricksters and lulled by the groupthink that comes from decades inside a bubble of insular privilege.
And what a bubble it is. It's a glassy gold bubble that filters out every color of the rainbow except its own, bathing its occupants in a warm autumn-colored glow as strangers shiver in the cold blue daylight outside. The bubble speaks with the voice of false authority. It's a floating oracle with the soul of a confidence man.
But the crowd is thinning out. There are real threats to face outside the bubble: poverty, inequality, a crumbling infrastructure, a dying planet. It's time for the bubble to disappear, as all bubbles eventually do, by blowing away on the wind or vanishing with a soft pop in the light of the midday sun.