Tag Archives: Koch brothers

An Idea Whose Time Has Definitely NOT Come

Periodically, I come across reports updating progress toward a so-called “Article V” Constitutional Conventions. The last time I looked, twenty-eight states had called for one; only thirty-four are needed.

I’ve shared my concerns about that movement previously–in mid-2014, in a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal, and again, on this blog,  in 2017. The major forces behind this effort to convene what proponents call an “Article V” convention are ALEC and the Koch brothers, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the motives of the proponents..

My original arguments against calling such a convention were rooted in history, which tells us that major changes in government rarely reflect the relatively benign and/or limited expectations of people who agitate for that change.

In this case, state lawmakers who favor a new constitutional convention argue that it would allow delegates to devise a framework for reigning in overspending, overtaxing and over-regulating by the federal government and would move the U.S. toward a less centralized federal government. Many of them insist that an Article V convention could be limited to consideration of those goals.

Warren Burger, former Chief Justice of the United States, begged to differ, writing

[T]here is no way to effectively limit or muzzle the actions of a Constitutional Convention.  The Convention could make its own rules and set its own agenda.  Congress might try to limit the Convention to one amendment or one issue, but there is no way to assure that the Convention would obey.  After a Convention is convened, it will be too late to stop the Convention if we don’t like its agenda.

But even if a convention could be limited, the enumerated goals are Pandora-box wide.

For example, Wall Street bankers argue that financial laws are “overregulation;” if polls are to be believed, most taxpayers view the same rules as barely adequate.

My definition of “overspending” would include the massive subsidies enjoyed by fossil fuel companies and the obscene amounts we spend on the military; yours might be Medicare or farm subsidies. 

“Less centralization” could justify virtually any limitation of federal government authority, from FDA regulation of food and drug quality to laws against discrimination.

I could go on. And on. But the risk isn’t simply that a Convention could rather easily be hijacked by people who disagree with the conveners about the nature and extent of needed changes, or even the  predictable influence of well-heeled special interests. The real danger is in calling together a representative group of Americans and asking them to amend a document that few of them understand.

Even bright graduate students came into my classes with little or no knowledge of American history or government. Most had never heard of the Enlightenment or John Locke or Adam Smith. A truly depressing percentage of my undergraduate students were unable to explain what a government is, and had no idea how ours operates. Separation of powers? Checks and balances? The counter-majoritarian purpose of the Bill of Rights? Blank stares.

The danger inherent in calling deeply polarized and depressingly under-educated politicians together to “improve” the Constitution should be obvious. Do we really want people like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Paul Gosar—or their Red-state-level clones–deciding how the American Constitution should be changed?

In the years since I first became aware of this effort, I have seen no reason to revisit my original concerns about such a convention. As Common Cause has warned,

With no rules and complete uncertainty about the constitutional process, an Article V convention would cause political and economic chaos. There is no language in the U.S. Constitution to limit a convention to one issue, no guidelines for rules to govern a convention, no rules on who picks the delegates and how they are selected, no guarantee that the American people would be equally represented, and no limits on corporate special interest influence.

I can only imagine what sorts of regulatory changes the Koch brothers hope to make, or what the armies of anti-journalism “Trumpers” would do to the freedoms of speech and press. Proponents of Pence-style “religious freedom” (a/k/a the privileging of fundamentalist Christianity) would see this as a God-given (!) chance to dismantle the Wall of Separation between Church and State.

We should also remind those who see such a convention as their chance to get rid of all those pesky constitutional provisions that keep them from installing a government more to their liking, that they are also at risk. A convention might also end up with participants reflecting  the majority of Americans who think it’s time to get rid of the Second Amendment and the Electoral College, and a great idea to outlaw gerrymandering…

In other words, such a convention would be a monumental crap-shoot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where’s George Soros When We Need Him?

Despite all the accusations prompted by MAGA fever dreamers (George Soros paid for those Jewish space lasers over California!), normal Americans don’t have anything remotely commensurate with the funding sources and highly sophisticated organizational infrastructure of the far Right. That worries me.

A recent report from the Tampa Bay Times began by following just one of the many astroturf groups masquerading as spontaneous grassroots organizations.

This one was “Moms for Liberty.” Much like similarly misnamed organizations (“Patriots for Truth, Justice & the American Way,” or “Grandmas for Cuddly Kittens”), “Moms for Liberty” emerged pretty much full grown during the most recent assault on public education. The author applied a four-part test to determine whether any particular educational group was legitimate or contrived.

The first part of the test is financial: has the organization grown at a pace that only an undisclosed donor’s monetary resources could manage?

Moms for Liberty incorporated as an Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) organization, a form that lends itself to dark money political shenanigans. It exploded on the scene with its leaders being guests on Fox News and breaking into the Washington Post. It has a well-developed website and extensive social media reach. Moms for Liberty has formed three federal and one state political action committees, one of which is a SuperPAC able to accept unlimited donations. Its careers page is seeking state coordinators to work with the chapter chair coordinator, and a communications officer.

This “grassroots” group of “just-your-average-mom” members also managed to hold a fund raiser with Megyn Kelly (top ticket $20,000), and to co-host The American Dream Conference featuring former Trump Cabinet secretary Ben Carson. An upcoming national summit (presenting sponsorships for $50,000 are sold out), will feature Ron DeSantis, Carson, Sen. Rick Scott and Betsy DeVos.

Just your average PTA members….

So who is really funding these Rightwing mamas? Here’s a clue: they aren’t getting by on T-shirt sales.

They’ve barely even heard of the Koch brothers! Yet perhaps they’ve heard of the Council for National Policy. Two of Moms for Liberty’s National Summit sponsors, the Leadership Institute and Heritage Foundation are critical members of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of right wing billionaires and Christian fundamentalist leaders that underwrites and coordinates right wing politics.

When the author looked to see who is really running the operation, he found that one of the two purported “founders” –Tina Descovich –is a communications and marketing professional. The other–Tiffany Justice (surely not her real name)– is a former Florida school committee member. He also discovered a third, “silent” founder, one Bridget Ziegler, whose husband just happens to be vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party and the owner of a political marketing firm. He has boasted that Moms for Liberty will provide crucial ground support for DeSantis’ re-election.

Another part of the test revolves around whether the genuinely grassroots folks suckered into joining the organization have any clue what the organization is  really all about. Moms for Liberty may have “activated and harnessed” actual anger and grievance, but–as the article notes–that doesn’t mean those people understand that they are being manipulation for partisan political purposes.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the author’s “deep dive” into the bona fides of Moms for Liberty is the identification of the nefarious network of which it is a part:

Then there’s the odd coincidence of so many grassroots parents organizations arising at the same time with similar missions. Parents Defending Education is Koch-connected. The Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council claims credit for the havoc wreaked by anti-Critical Race Theory legislation. The Council for National Policy’s Leadership Institute commenced its own program to take over school boards. The Council for National Policy-connected Turning Point USA initiated a School Board Watch List for reporting “woke” school boards.

Reading all this, I vacillated between disgust and grudging admiration. These interlocking astroturf organizations are dishonest and manipulative–but they’re effective. You’ve got to give the Christian Nationalists credit for their success in controlling the narrative, and making it far more probable that America will continue to be dominated by a minority of truly despicable theocrats.

Meanwhile, the people I consider to be “the good guys” are happily forming circular firing squads and scrounging for five-dollar donations on Facebook. If Soros is funding any of them, I’ve missed it.

Have I mentioned that I’ve been hitting the booze more frequently since 2016?

 

 

The Love Of Money

The Guardian recently had an article with the headline “How the Koch Brothers Built the Most Powerful Right-Wing Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Actually, most regular readers of this blog–at least those who comment–have heard of Americans for Prosperity, and understand what it is intended to do. But with midterms rapidly approaching, it may be useful to revisit what we know about the organization.

The article began by recapping Scott Walker’s attacks on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions.

At first blush this might seem like a years-old local issue in a US state that rarely lights up the international headlines. Yet events in Wisconsin are crucial to understanding how a little-known, billionaire-funded organization, called Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has tilted American politics to the right. It is intertwined with, and rivals in size, the Republican party itself.

Where did Walker’s ultra-conservative labor agenda come from? As a candidate, Walker barely mentioned collective bargaining or union busting. And we know this plan did not come from voters. Before the legislation popped up on the agenda, Wisconsinites generally supported collective bargaining. Nationally, only about 40% of American adults favor curbs to public sector bargaining rights, and in Wisconsin, this minority level of support was about the same.

The article in the Guardian was the product of a group of Columbia and Harvard-based researchers who spent five years investigating precisely how the Koch brothers have used Americans for Prosperity to influence US politics, and especially how they have managed to destroy unions. (The Koch’s desire to make lasting changes to the American political system requires permanently weakening organizations supportive of liberal candidates and causes – especially the labor movement.)

That war on unions, waged by politicians like Walker who are beholden to the brothers, has largely succeeded.

Since the passage of the anti-union bill, public union membership rates in Wisconsin have plummeted by more than half, falling from around 50% in 2011 to around 19% by 2017. With fewer members and revenue, the political clout of the labor unions has fallen sharply. Campaign contributions by teachers’ unions to state and local races have fallen by nearly 70%.

In presidential elections, Democrats lose around three percentage points after the passage of anti-union legislation, and turnout dips by around two points. So while there are many factors that might explain Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin in 2016 by a mere 23,000 votes, a weaker labor movement less able to turn out Democratic voters might have been one important contributor to Trump’s victory.

As the article points out, wealthy people have always thrown their weight around to influence elections and policy. What is new, and painfully effective (especially at the state level) is the rise of organized big donor collectives through which hundreds of billionaires and millionaires invest in organization-building intended to change the electoral landscape.

Organized political mega-donors can get much more leverage through persistent organizations than from scattered, one-time contributions to particular politicians.

The Kochs are fantastically wealthy and their generous funding of Americans for Prosperity has allowed them to influence policy in ways that have increased that wealth. It has been a very good investment for them.

The article is lengthy, but well worth reading in its entirety. I do think the following paragraphs sum up the threat Americans for Prosperity poses to working-class Americans and to democracy itself:

The Koch brothers have created a vehicle that is perfectly positioned to reshape American politics. AFP focuses on both elections and policy battles at all levels of government, from city councils to Congress and the White House. Although its activities are mostly centrally directed from its headquarters in Virginia, AFP has active local, state and regional offices that reflect the federated nature of US politics. And even though grassroots participants do not have much say in the direction of the group, AFP has nearly 3 million citizen activists signed up to mobilize for candidates and policy causes. Activists participate in rallies or protests and contact elected officials at the direction of more than 500 paid staffers nationwide.

Taken together, AFP’s grassroots volunteers and staffing rival those of the Republican party itself. However, AFP is not a free-standing political party – but instead is an extra-party organization that parallels and leverages Republican candidates and office-holders. By providing resources to support GOP candidates and officials, and exerting leverage on them once elected, AFP has been able to pull the Republican party to the far right on economic, tax and regulatory issues.

The Koch network has retarded the implementation of the Affordable Care Act–especially the expansion of Medicaid in states like Missouri and Tennessee. It has succeeded in rolling back state efforts to address climate change in Kansas and West Virginia, and of course, it has succeeded in passing state and federal tax cuts that have primarily benefitted wealthy individuals and companies.

The love of money evidently leaves no room for consideration of the public good.

A Step Too Far

The modern-day version of the Golden Rule is apparently: “He who has the gold, rules.”

Today, I’d like to consider the application of that axiom to institutions of higher education, and the donors they solicit.

People give money to colleges and universities for a number of reasons, and many of those reasons are laudable. University research is responsible for curing diseases, explicating history and developing philosophies, among many other things. University classrooms introduce students to great literature and art, help them develop critical skills, and deepen their understanding of the world. Making a gift to support those activities is a welcome expression of philanthropic generosity.

Then, of course, there are people like the Koch brothers, whose “gifts” generally come with rather disquieting strings. 

FAIRFAX, Va. — Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.

The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom.

University President Angel Cabrera wrote a note to faculty Friday night saying the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” The admission came three days after a judge scrutinized the university’s earlier refusal to release any documents.

The report from the New York Times, from which the above paragraphs were taken, confirms a  widespread suspicion among academics. There have been rumors about George Mason University for years; those rumors have cast a shadow over the school’s reputation and that of its scholars. When people believe a donor’s “generosity” has purchased a desired research result, the research results will–properly– get discounted.

When it appears that a faculty member has been added not because a search committee, operating under standard academic procedures, determined that the person hired was the most accomplished applicant, but because s/he was the preferred choice of a donor–especially a donor like Koch– looking askance at that new hire shouldn’t be surprising.

The newly released agreements spell out million-dollar deals in which the Koch Foundation endows a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at the university’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The agreements require creation of five-member selection committees to choose the professors and grant the donors the right to name two of the committee members.

The Koch Foundation enjoyed similar appointment rights to advisory boards that had the right under the agreements to recommend firing a professor who failed to live up to standards.

To label this state of affairs “unacceptable” is to state the obvious. It’s hard enough, in today’s toxic and polarized environment, to find sources of unbiased information. The reputation of a university is inextricably tied to its demonstrated  intellectual honesty. That doesn’t mean that all of its research results are sound, or all of its teaching Socratic, but it does mean that the inevitable flaws and missteps are honest errors, not purchased propaganda.

The activist group UnKoch My Campus noted that the George Mason documents evidencing the arrangement are strikingly similar to agreements the Koch Foundation made with Florida State University–agreements that recently caused an uproar at that institution. (There’s a lesson here for Ball State University, here in Indiana,  which has  accepted Koch dollars to establish an economic Institute.)

Cabrera’s admission that the agreements fall short of standards for academic independence is a stark departure from his earlier statements on the issue. In a 2014 blog post on the issue, he wrote that donors don’t get to decide who is hired and that “these rules are an essential part of our academic integrity. If these rules are not acceptable, we simply don’t accept the gift. Academic freedom is never for sale. Period.”

In 2016, in an interview with The Associated Press, he denied that the Koch donations restricted academic independence and said Koch’s status as a lightning rod for his support of Republican candidates is the only reason people question the donations.

Right. And if you believe that, I have some underwater land in Florida to sell you. It’s going to take some time and effort to restore the reputation of George Mason University–assuming it can wean itself away from the “gold” that has ruled it.

Attacking The Teachers

There are lots of lessons we can learn from the wave of teachers’ strikes that have erupted around the country. To the extent those strikes have been “wildcat” efforts, we can see the extent to which public sector unions have been neutered by anti-union lawmakers. To the extent that we have become aware of the grievances that prompted these actions, we see the effects of the steady erosion of adequate public funding for public education.

Paul Krugman recently reminded us of the connection between that erosion and Republican tax-cut orthodoxy. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force, and “at the state and local levels, the conservative obsession with tax cuts has forced the G.O.P. into what amounts to a war on education, and in particular a war on schoolteachers.”

The GOP’s fixation on tax cuts, together with its anti-union ideology (and a particular hatred of teachers’ unions) and in some quarters, a desire to divert public funds to religious schools via vouchers, has resulted in an unremitting assault on public education.

Thanks to a recent report in The Guardian, we learn that opponents of public education fully intend to intensify their ideological attack on public education and the teachers who provide it.

A nationwide network of rightwing thinktanks is launching a PR counteroffensive against the teachers’ strikes that are sweeping the country, circulating a “messaging guide” for anti-union activists that portrays the walkouts as harmful to low-income parents and their children.

The new rightwing strategy to discredit the strikes that have erupted in protest against cuts in education funding and poor teacher pay is contained in a three-page document obtained by the Guardian. Titled “How to talk about teacher strikes”, it provides a “dos and don’ts” manual for how to smear the strikers.

Top of the list of talking points is the claim that “teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families”. It advises anti-union campaigners to argue that “it’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children.”

According to the Guardian, the “messaging guide” has been developed by an organization called the State Policy Network (SPN). SPN is an alliance of 66 rightwing “ideas factories,” that evidently includes members from every state in the nation. SPN also has an $80 million-dollar” war chest” – funded (no surprise) by the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, and the DeVos family. (If there was any doubt that Betsy DeVos is the antithesis of a person rational lawmakers would install as an education secretary…).

SPN’s previous campaigns have included a plan to “defund and defang” public sector unions. Now it is turning its firepower on the striking teachers….The SPN document urges its followers to attack the walkouts stealthily, rather than criticising them directly. A head-on assault on teachers for their long summer vacations would “sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs [and] having to rely on food pantries”, it says.

If moral people find meaning by acting in ways that will benefit future generations–if, as the saying goes,“The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit”-how immoral is this effort?

It isn’t just that these people are refusing to adequately fund the public schools that educate the overwhelming majority of American children. They are also busily polluting the environment and endangering the planet on which those trees must be planted. They are despoiling public lands originally set aside for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren. They are presiding over the decay of the nation’s infrastructure, and they are intentionally encouraging the tribalism and bigotry that undermine the social cohesion necessary for communities to thrive.

I assume they derive satisfaction from the extra dollars these measures are intended to bring them.

I wish I believed in the existence of hell.