Thursday, February 11, 2016
Dark Money by Jane Mayer
It will not be surprise to anyone who has been paying attention that for the past twenty years our political system has been awash in special interest money. Mayer tells us it is forty years. What Mayer does in this detailed accounting is to elucidate the sources of that money and the routes it takes to influence votes. What may be more surprising to readers is how often that money has failed in its mission.
Probably the best reason for reading this book is to see how Jane Mayer allows these individuals and groups to speak for themselves. She quotes from statements spoken by fund raisers at their own gatherings, from the literature distributed under their aegis, and from interviews with associates. Mayer also traces the many shell companies through which the money flows to hide its origins. She documents why the groups feel it is necessary to hide the source of the monies and why the folks involved do not want their names to be known.
Many of the families besides David and Charles Koch who most ardently support far right wing causes are not the self-made men of legend. They are heirs of fortunes who seek to retain those fortunes. The tax laws in our country have been such that persons with enormous fortunes could use a portion of it for charitable giving rather than have it taxed by the government. These generous brethren have decided to do the patriarchal thing: to “give” portions of their fortune to like-minded groups they create to influence the populace. I am not suggesting they don’t work hard at it. They do. Lots of effort has gone into creating an empire on the backs of a people they disparage.
What I cannot reconcile in my own mind is how these folks, experienced in the advantages (and disadvantages) of great wealth, don’t come to the conclusion that money isn’t the point. There have been too many studies on the limits of wealth to ensure happiness for these experienced folks to have missed the central point. Money does buy power, but look at the uses to which these folks want to use their power: to perpetuate their own wealth, despite the documented injury to the environment their companies perpetuate and to the continued abasement of their workforces. Even Koch scoffs at the notion that he needs more money. I just don’t get it.
And, it seems, neither do the American public. Despite libertarian donors of like-minded billionaires pooling their capital donations and pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into influencing the last presidential election, their arch-nemesis Obama was reelected. Of course, he was unable to accomplish much in his term because of the groups were successful in filling the House and Senate with politicians they’d supported financially: the darlings of what is still called the Republican party, e.g., Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, among many others. When Mitch McConnell became Majority Speaker of the Senate, he hired a new policy chief who was formerly a lobbyist for Koch Industries. Neither Ohio Governor John Kasich or real estate magnate Donald Trump have a part in the Koch money cabal. But…remind me again, who won in the presidential election primaries in NH this year?
If you have been confused about the obstreperous obstructionism Obama encountered in the House and Senate even after he was elected, twice, to the presidency, you may be interested to learn that the money promised to groups favoring select Republican candidates for the coming presidential election has been estimated to be over $800 million. Apparently the Republican Party itself is the poor step-sister of a shadow organization that dwarfs it in money and reach. These monies have begun in recent years to target local elections and judge nominations. In these arenas dark money seems to have more effect (see the change in the red/blue map of governerships and local districts after 2010), perhaps because national elections get more voters. More voters often translate into more moderate results.
In addition, the money is going to influence academic centers and think tanks. Penetrating academia – a delivery system for the group’s ideology by winning the hearts and minds of college students--has long been on their wish list. Academia is an investment for the Koch’s ambitious designs. Their own literature claims they have funded 5,000 scholars in some 400 universities throughout the country. “Privately funded pro-corporate centers can replace faculty teachings with their own.” The groups are also pouring money into online education, paying lower-income students to take more courses. The intent is to create an “idea pipeline.” I have to say, Bernie Sanders’ proposed free college education sounds better than ever.
But at the end of it all, I am still perplexed. We know the sources of the dark money discussed in this book believe in small government free enterprise. But do they really believe that corporations do not have a responsibility to provide living wages and a non-polluting environment? At the same time company profits and management wages soar. Unfortunately for their argument is the fact that many of the corporate heads financing opposition to regulation are under indictment for pollution caused by their own corporations. They are trying to address this also, changing perceptions by calling their investments “wellbeing” grants.
In the end, what I don’t like about the current system of free enterprise and/or payments for work is that corporations have shown that they don’t do very well at controlling themselves. Corporate governance is beginning to sound like an oxymoron. Corporate boards blame their inability to control costs on the need to make profits for stake-holders or investors, but the salaries and bonuses these boards award themselves at the expense of cleaning up pollution caused by their companies or to avoid paying a living wage to workers make them look foolish (and greedy).
I guess it really is so simple as narcissism: the wealthy come to believe they deserve to be wealthy because they are either smarter or more deserving in some other way. If that is the inevitable outcome of the free market system, I think we can state unequivocally that it does, in fact, need regulation. We could, I suppose, just throw away the whole system. Which, do you think, sources of dark money would prefer?
I think everyone needs to read or listen to this book but if you don’t feel you have the time, go to the library or a bookstore and read Chapter 14. While in previous chapters Mayer tells us how the groups began, which groups and donors comprise dark money, and what they have tried to do, in this final chapter Mayer tells us what is happening now. This is important for how we integrate and process any new information we learn. Mayer has also written several smaller articles in The New Yorker, beginning in 2010. A wonderfully informative January 24, 2016 NYTimes book podcast is also available on this title. Get the information piecemeal if you must, but you will definitely want to inform yourselves.
Link to a list of groups created and sustained by Koch Family Foundations. I listened to the audio of this title, produced by Penguin Random House and narrated by Kirsten Potter. Potter paced the narrative well, and may have tried to inject some excitement into the narrative by using a somewhat sensational vocal modulation. A dry recitation may be more boring, but the material needed no enhancement.
You can buy this book here: Tweet