If you watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, you may have noticed a welcome interruption to the endless string of Bud Light and Doritos ads. Wedged between these paeans to beer and chips was a seemingly harmless commercial featuring cute elementary schoolers with their hands on the chests, pledging allegiance. But the ad soon turned a little darker: Instead of reciting the words that were drilled into all young children’s minds, they pledged their allegiance to the national debt and to China. In an odd twist, the girl pictured at the end looked conspicuously like Sasha Obama.
The 30-second spot that ran in the DC area, and supposedly cost over $100,000 to air during the big game, is part of a larger campaign run by the Employment Policies Institute. EPI, founded in 1991, is a “non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth.” EPI’s website doesn’t offer much else besides links to editorials that attack the minimum wage, research papers that do the same, and other articles that assault health care reform. (In November, the group launched a $10 million campaign against health care reform.) All of which might make it a fairly run-of-the-mill, if very well funded, right-wing hack shop. What sets EPI apart, though, is its president: Rick Berman.
Berman, a lawyer-lobbyist who has been dubbed “Dr. Evil,” is the real-life version of Aaron Eckhart’s character in Thank You For Smoking. Over the years, he has set up a series of non-profits that have crusaded against organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and PETA, and legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act. His groups have tried to debunk the “myths” that mercury in fish poses serious health risks, and those regarding the danger of sugar alternatives such as high-fructose corn syrup.* At the behest of the various unnamed persons and industries that fund him, Berman is apparently trying to dismantle even the most commonsensical aspects ofthe nanny state. “He’d have no restrictions on tobacco advertising, junk foods galore in schools. No minimum wage. He wants to leave corporate America unfettered of any regulations that protect the public's health," explained Dr. Michael Jacobson, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest, on “60 Minutes” in 2007. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has actually set up a whole site to expose the numerous projects of the self-proclaimed “consumer advocate.”
Defeat the Debt is just another project of Berman’s that essentially employs scare tactics (and some nifty cartoons) in order to educate “Americans about the size, scope, and consequences of our rapidly escalating debt.” Its website features a constantly updating ticker that measures what we owe as a country. In addition to what you saw on Super Bowl Sunday, the campaign has aired this ad across the country and launched a string of print ads, including a Times Square billboard, and has sent about a dozen “destitute Uncle Sams” to various cities “to beg for 12 trillion from taxpayers.” Whatever its mission statement, EPI’s stock in trade is demagoguery disguised as serious policy advocacy.
Who is providing Berman with millions of dollars to fund anti-deficit Super Bowl ads and a campaign against health care reform? The names of EPI’s funders are not disclosed because as a non-profit, the organization doesn’t have to reveal its sources of funding (a fact for which Rachel Maddow attacked Berman in November; Berman, however, remained tight-lipped). But according to “60 Minutes,” a partial list of businesses with which Berman worked when he was involved in fighting healthy food initiativesincludes Coca-Cola, Tyson Chicken, Outback Steakhouse, and Wendy’s. (EPI has since disputed the authenticity of the list.)* National Journal has also reported that Berman’s anti-EFCA group, the Employee Freedom Action Committee, received backing from Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson.
Berman, for his part, swears he doesn’t do his work for the money. "I didn't need to be doing this,” Berman told “60 Minutes.” “I'm doing this because it's a passion of mind. I believe in what I'm doing.” Given Berman’s track record, it’s almost enough to make you think the national debt is a good thing.
Amanda Silverman is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.
*Correction: The story originally said "His groups have tried to convince citizens that mercury and trans-fats are in no way detrimental to their health," but has been changed to reflect more specifically the aim of the groups. The article has also been updated to explain that EPI has since disputed the partial list of business who were listed as Berman’s clients by 60 Minutes.