Monday, August 15, 2016

Dark Money, Jane Mayer, a review

The Billionaire’s Club is a 28-page political cartoon that is my take on how power works in the U.S. The book portrays billionaires getting together at the club and initiating a new member into the fold. It was a device I used to talk about how the 1% have disproportionate influence on our democracy and so are obstacles to addressing the crisis we face. I didn’t think that the 1% conspiratorially met, save socially – they do run in the same circles – it’s just that their interests overlap and acting separately, supporting similar causes, political candidates etc; it is as-if they acted jointly. This is true.

Jane Mayer also shows in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right that they actually have met and organized in significant numbers of rich guys, and even more significant numbers of dollars, to combat what they see as limitations on their “freedom.” They equate the word with less government and less taxes. The current leadership, the Koch brothers Charles and David, hold an annual gathering – a secretive conference aimed to gauge their success to-date and to plot further depradation. The first conference in the ’80s was lightly attended though it still jingled with heavy currency, but it didn’t take long to grow into a formidable gathering of old and new money.
The Koch’s come out of a John Birch Society-type ideology and their goal from the beginning was to shift the country to their fringe views. These include the libertarian mantra “less government” to such an extreme that in their utopia there would be no taxes, no government regulations, and the only survivor of the bill of rights would be the right to and protection of property. This I would venture is a politics of sociopathology. We haven’t gotten completely there yet, but they have created a significant shift that significantly erodes democracy. In one of the many prosecutions brought against the Kochs for their polluting, one worker testified that he was told not to worry about contamination, it’s cheaper to pay off a few cancer victims than to observe regulations. One of the biggest cases was scuttled by the Bush Administration’s replacing the chief prosecutor with someone more business friendly.
Mayer traces this anti-movement back through the Koch dynasty allied with other wealth including the Mellon-Scaife family in Pittsburgh, and even the early Rockefellers. It seems that when one accumulates a certain standing as measured by wealth, there comes an addiction commonly known as greed. Of course, the Koch conference attendees represent those who have been taken by this force. There may be others of this class who escape and spend their time in other pursuits. But these folks are serious sociopaths and given their resources, are a real threat to democracy.
I have wondered in print before, just what is so fearful to them about democracy? Is it the three Ps they might have to sacrifice – profits, privilege and power? Do they imagine themselves hung from the nearest telephone pole, pursued with pitchforks? One of the Mellons commented that when he had trouble sleeping he would count the rooms in his modest 60 room weekend retreat, instead of counting sheep as we lower elements have to content ourselves with. You can get used to that kind of privilege and convince yourself that you deserve it, are “entitled,” as Mitt Romney would have it about a different demographic.
It is worth noting that the Koch patriarch Fred Koch, traded with the Nazis, provided much-needed expertise on fueling Hitler’s diabolical war machine, and admired their system and that of Mussolini. He also provided similar service to Stalin though this he came to regret as he later embraced the religion of anti-communism. He wasn’t alone: the patriarch Prescott Bush also served the Nazis and came very close to prosecution for trading with the enemy. According to Michael Parenti some U.S.-owned corporate factories in Germany during WW II were on a no-bomb list, and those that were inadvertently bombed were given restitution after the war – not information we are likely to encounter in our mainstream media nor standard academic history.
Odd that these extremists were so alarmed about paying taxes, government regulations, and assistance to the needy. I suppose they longed for the good old days before the 1929 crash that caused great suffering to millions and eventually brought us Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The greed-force cannot envision “enough,” neither of money nor of control. This is a psychosis. One of the founding members of the Carthage Group, Andrew Mellon, was Treasury Secretary through the three administrations preceding Roosevelt. He worked diligently to cut taxes on the wealthy and roll back what meager progressive legislation existed in the ’20s. It wasn’t until 1913 that the U.S. instituted an income tax, and though he wasn’t successful in rolling that back, he was able to cut taxes for the 1%, both income and capital gains.
Roll-back, motivated by greed, is always justified by tame economists with lofty sounding theories, like trickle-down economics, where it is claimed, falsely, that cutting taxes on the rich will actually increase taxes collected, benefiting everyone. This errant argument gets rolled out periodically, with different names but the same old beneficiaries, promoted by for and of, the wealthy. The theory is bosom buddies with the NRA (National Rifle Association – appendage of the gun industry) adage that more guns make us safer.
A particular villain in this sad story creating a lot of damage is David Weyrich who made himself enthusiastically available in this lucrative endeavor to the boss men. He co-created the right wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation with Mellon providing much of the funding, buying them a nice ten story building across the street from the Supreme Court conveniently located near Senate office buildings and the capital.
Heritage is ostensibly a research center but the name hints at its values: I think a priori is a phrase describing research where you start with the desired conclusions and gather evidence to support it and ignore evidence that doesn’t. It is an indictment of mainstream media, which includes public TV and radio, that these propagandists were and are routinely consulted as “experts.”
Weyrich also co-founded with the repugnant Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority. Another creation on his resume is ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) whose function is to write legislation favorable to business and get it passed by state legislators. One of their projects is to block or slow the development of solar. This effort is supplemented by the bribery system known as campaign contributions.
Part of the aim and effect of Weyrich’s work was to push already existing think tanks, such as Rand and Brookings who did actual research, to the Right by accusing them of the sin of “liberality.” Ever sensitive to funder perception these think tanks then hired conservatives for “balance.” Funny that in the “search for “truth,” balance requires that you bring in some liars.
Part I of Mayer’s book is titled, “Weaponizing Philanthropy: The War of Ideas, 1970 – 2008.” Future reviews will cover part 2, “Secret Sponsors: Covert Operations, 2009 – 2010,” and part 3, “Privatizing Politics: Total Combat, 2011 – 2014.” Part 1 covers billionaires extending their narrow, self-serving influence. People like the Kochs, Mellen-Scaife, Olin and the Bradleys, touching on the earlier wealthy conservatives Rockefeller, Bush and others.
Beach Head: John Olin noted industrial polluter created the Olin Foundation and used his money for several insidious but influential endeavors. His strategy evolved into stealth, where he created what he called beach heads in the law schools. He had his minions create a course innocuously called, Law and Economy, endowing Law Schools including Harvard, Yale and Cornel to incorporate it into their curriculum – the only important school to decline the money based on ethical concerns was the Law School of the UCLA. The course was based on the Libertarian theory that law and regulations should be subject not just to fairness but to considerations of their economic impact. Gee, if we quit polluting the river it will affect our bottom line.
Another project was the Federalist Society, eventually a 40,000-member association of right-leaning lawyers including Ed Meese, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney and all four conservative supreme court justices. Olin also sponsored all expense-paid “seminars” for judges, junkets really to exotic locales where a morning indoctrination lecture left the day free for swimming, golf, etc. Not satisfied with merely attacking democracy while he was alive, Olin left $100 million to his foundation with the caveat that it must spend all the money before its trustees died to insure that liberals could never hijack it as he thought had happened to the Ford Foundation (Henry being that famous anti-semitic, Hitler admirer).
So these guys, truly the 1%, its activist wing anyway, set about to systematically and disproportionately impact our government and institutions in a way that favored them and went a long way toward dismantling democracy. They have always been about this project – especially so since The New Deal, but the last 40 years marks an acceleration and attempt to more fully consolidate their position as, what Chomsky calls, the Masters. The decimation of unions, the trade agreements and “globalization” that moved U.S. production and jobs overseas and largely account for the immigration crisis, and the massive transfer of wealth to them from the rest of us is testament to their success. The TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) trade agreement down the pike offers us more of the same, including a transfer of national sovereignty to unelected and unaccountable corporate panels. A conservative Michigan legislature gave its governor the power to appoint overseers for troubled cities – overseers who can ignore and override elected officials and democracy. Flint is one result of that bargain and that is a model of what they seek for the whole planet. If we don’t resist we become Flint.
  • Image: The feature illustration, The Spoils of War, is by the author © Tom Ferguson