Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tea Party climate change deniers funded by BP and other major polluters

Original Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/24/tea-party-climate-change-deniers

By Suzanne Goldenberg

BP and several other big European companies are funding the midterm election campaigns of Tea Party favourites who deny the existence of global warming or oppose Barack Obama's energy agenda, the Guardian has learned.

An analysis of campaign finance by Climate Action Network Europe (Cane) found nearly 80% of campaign donations from a number of major European firms were directed towards senators who blocked action on climate change. These included incumbents who have been embraced by the Tea Party such as Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, and the notorious climate change denier James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The report, released tomorrow, used information on the Open Secrets.org database to track what it called a co-ordinated attempt by some of Europe's biggest polluters to influence the US midterms. It said: "The European companies are funding almost exclusively Senate candidates who have been outspoken in their opposition to comprehensive climate policy in the US and candidates who actively deny the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by people."

Obama and Democrats have accused corporate interests and anonymous donors of trying to hijack the midterms by funnelling money to the Chamber of Commerce and to conservative Tea Party groups. The Chamber of Commerce reportedly has raised $75m (£47m) for pro-business, mainly Republican candidates.

"Oil companies and the other special interests are spending millions on a campaign to gut clean-air standards and clean-energy standards, jeopardising the health and prosperity of this state," Obama told a rally in California on Friday night.

Much of the speculation has focused on Karl Rove, the mastermind of George Bush's victories, who has raised $15m for Republican candidates since September through a new organisation, American Crossroads. An NBC report warned that Rove was spearheading an effort to inject some $250m in television advertising for Republican candidates in the final days before the 2 November elections.

But Rove, appearing today on CBS television's Face the Nation, accused Democrats of deploying the same tactics in 2008. "The president of the US had no problem at all when the Democrats did this," he said. "It was not a threat to democracy when it helped him get elected."

The Cane report said the companies, including BP, BASF, Bayer and Solvay, which are some of Europe's biggest emitters, had collectively donated $240,200 to senators who blocked action on global warming – more even than the $217,000 the oil billionaires and Tea Party bankrollers, David and Charles Koch, have donated to Senate campaigns.

The biggest single donor was the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which gave $108,100 to senators. BP made $25,000 in campaign donations, of which $18,000 went to senators who opposed action on climate change. Recipients of the European campaign donations included some of the biggest climate deniers in the Senate, such as Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has called global warming a hoax.

The foreign corporate interest in America's midterms is not restricted to Europe. A report by ThinkProgress, operated by the Centre for American Progress, tracked donations to the Chamber of Commerce from a number of Indian and Middle Eastern oil coal and electricity companies.

Foreign interest does not stop with the elections. The Guardian reported earlier this year that a Belgian-based chemical company, Solvay, was behind a front group that is suing to strip the Obama administration of its powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Citizens United v. America's Citizens: A Voter's Guide

Orginal Link: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=15635

By Charlie Cray

The midterm elections are days away, but the winners are virtually certain: the corporations and conservative operatives like Karl Rove who have taken advantage of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling to establish a well-heeled “shadow party” of networked trade associations and G.O.P. front groups.

Outspending Democratic-aligned groups by 7 to 1, these Republican-aligned groups have blitzed the nation's airwaves with wave after wave of ads. They have outlaid a staggering $300 million plus -- five times as much on congressional elections as they did on the 2006 midterms, the October 4 Washington Post reported. And “they are more secretive than ever about where that money is coming from.”

Even without the flood of funds, Republicans were expected to capitalize in this year’s midterm elections on widespread antipathy to congressional incumbents and progressives’ disappointment with Pres. Barack Obama. But the groundswell of independent conservative groups – many with huge war chests for broadcast and cable attack ads – has some predicting a much larger Republican margin of victory.

A poll conducted by SurveyUSA, an independent research firm, found that a majority of voters think they have a right to know who is paying for the explosion of anonymous election ads. But this majority – despite believing that the nameless groups behind the “independent” ads don't have Americans’ best interest in mind -- do not appear to be sufficiently outraged to spur structural reforms during the lame duck session that will follow the election. If Republicans retake the House, as most pollsters predict, other popular reforms such as public funding of elections will have little chance of passage, Thus it is likely that a key role in 2012 will continue to be played by corporate-funded front groups and, if recent charges are true, by foreign corporations and other interests alleged to be funneling campaign funds through the Chamber of Commerce and other groups.

The Citizens United Effect

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC – widely acknowledged as a radical departure from precedent – defined corporate campaign spending as Constitutionally protected free speech. The Jan. 21, 2010 ruling opened the floodgates for corporations, unions, and non-profit front groups wishing to keep their funders anonymous and to spend unlimited funds on political ads.

The decision to extend First Amendment rights for corporations was a clear victory for “business civil liberties,” but the Court majority, recognizing that “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions,” also advocated rapid and clear disclosure of political spending in the ruling. That stance rallied support for the DISCLOSE Act, a partial fix that would make third-party groups name their funders. While the bill passed the House, it met united Republican opposition in the Senate, and failed to pass before the election recess.

The possible ramifications of disclosing controversial donations were made clear this summer in the wake of the Citizens United decision. A new Minnesota law mandating transparency forced Target (known for strong affirmative action policies) to disclose its $150,000 contribution to a business group that was backing an anti-gay gubernatorial candidate. The company was “flashmobbed” by gay rights groups and other progressive coalitions led by MoveOn.org. Target’s CEO responded with a quick apology to employees and a pledge to set up a review process to screen future contributions.

Since the Citizens United decision shareholders and groups such as the Washington, DC-based non-partisan Center for Political Accountability have convinced a growing number of companies to disclose or otherwise improve their political spending policies. Yet judging by the rapid growth of conservative non-profits that keep their donors anonymous, it seems many wealthy individuals and corporate executives learned a different lesson from Target's PR embarrassment: Don’t get caught.

Coordination Is Key

There are now more than a dozen Republican-leaning nonprofit front groups and trade associations giving cover to corporations that want to influence this year’s elections by funding political ads. The groups have amassed a war chest estimated at more than $300 million so far, enough to air more than 60,000 TV ads between August 1 and mid-October, according to Media Matters.

Although the web of associations among these groups is too dense to untangle completely, it is already clear that a powerful “shadow party” has emerged on the conservative right. It is poised to take credit for buying the midterm elections, and will presumably be a force to contend with in 2012.

Campaign reformers like Craig Holman of Public Citizen say that in addition to sharing office space and overlapping staff, the groups’ ability to collaborate is enhanced by weak FEC rules regarding coordination between the independent groups and campaigns. The Citizens United ruling is just one of a number of regulations and court decisions that effectively allow operatives like Karl Rove to raise and spend unprecedented amounts of money unrestrained by the restrictions that apply to party institutions such as the Republican National Committee.

“The RNC is a mess, and has no money on hand,” Mary Cheney explained to CBS news, which reported that Rove and others chose instead to coordinate their efforts through the “Weaver Terrace Group,” named after Rove’s home address in Washington, DC, where it first met in April. Members include Gillespie, Law, Barbour, Coleman, and other Republican rainmakers, including Fred Malek.

The Weaver Terrace Group has reportedly been convening weekly at Crossroads’ offices. Although American Crossroads is not allowed to coordinate directly with campaigns, as the RNC can, its ability to monitor ad buys gives it fairly easy – albeit indirect -- organizational clout without breaking the FEC’s rules.

“They can use the same ad buyers,” says Public Citizen's Holman, which means the campaigns and the independent groups can coordinate through a third consultant.

Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer, the “dean of campaign reform,” agrees that none of this coordination would be possible if not for weak FEC rules and lax enforcement. Democracy 21 filed an IRS complaint alleging that American Crossroads has violated its tax status by operating primarily in support or against candidates for office. But no one – including Wertheimer -- expects the issue to be resolved for years.

Public Citizen and three other groups filed a complaint with the FEC on October 13, charging Crossroads GPS with violating FEC rules by registering as a nonprofit 501(c)4 organization without registering as a political committee. But if the complaint doesn’t die in a deadlocked vote among the FEC commissioners, it will also take years to resolve–and certainly not affect the November election.

“Un-American Corporations”

Everyone who has examined the numbers agrees that labor and groups like MoveOn.org cannot possibly match pro-Republican spending, especially with rich liberals like George Soros largely sitting out the midterms. Without its own phalanx of outside groups Democrats, including Obama, have countered by attacking the secrecy of the groups’ donors and using the organizer-in-chief to try to mobilize young voters.

Even revelations that foreign interests may be funding campaigns have failed to trigger a large enough backlash to have much impact on the election outcome. In early October the Center for American Progress reported that the Chamber of Commerce was taking money from foreign corporations and effectively commingling it with domestic corporate contributions for election campaign activities. After Obama and Vice President Joe Biden repeated the charge, the Chamber insisted that none of the cash it admits receiving from foreign-based corporations was going into its ad campaigns. Yet, without full disclosure, there’s no way of knowing if that assertion is true.

Meanwhile, as Democratic party allies are scrambling to cut their losses with a last-minute get-out-the-vote ground war, they are already strategizing about what to do if Republicans win big, as most predictions suggest. Blaming secretive financing by the Chamber, American Crossroads, and other groups, Democrats may mount another effort to pass the DISCLOSE Act during the upcoming lame duck session of Congress.

But campaign reformers say even the DISCLOSE Act won’t be enough, and many are planning to push for public funding of elections (embodied in the Fair Elections Now Act), along other reforms.

The Campaign Finance Institute’s Michael Malbin and others say that reformers need to take a step back and rethink their approach. "The key to a successful public financing program is to realize that it has to be about creating incentives for broader participation," Malbin wrote in The American Interest. Rather than futile attempts to "drive private money out of politics," the solution, Malbin argues, is to tilt the balance of power away from wealthy campaign financiers by giving rebates and tax credits for small contributions, and by using matching donations to give voters increased leverage.

Still others think that meaningful reform must rest on a constitutional amendment to restrict corporations from unlimited spending on elections. (SEE Box: Constitutional Amendment) But unless the political landscape shifts radically, it seems unlikely that an amendment has any chance of passage in the next Congress -- especially if Republicans maintain a united front against reform.

"The Citizens United decision is just one of a string of decisions vastly enhancing the power of corporations to run our economy, government and lives," says Holman. "Citizens attempting to take back their country will require vigilance and a willingness to pit ideas and activism against corporate money."

Karl Rove’s “Shadow Party”

Key organizations have attributed their sudden rise to the Citizens United decision. Among the network of interlinked conservative political groups, the larger ones include:

* 60 Plus Association: Formed by Jim Martin (“The Man Who Put the Death Tax on the Political Map”), a conservative operative associated with Richard Viguerie’s direct mail firm, 60 Plus bills itself as the “conservative alternative” to the AARP, amassing a $4 million war chest that it intends to use to target nine House Democrats.

* Alliance for America’s Future: Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary Cheney formed the 501(c)4, which was barred from running ads in Nevada because it refused to register in the state. Cheney formed another group -- Send Harry Packing – to pick up the slack. She also oversees the Partnership for America’s Future, a 527 group required to report its donors. Mary Cheney told CBS News’ Political Hotsheet that she believes there should be “full and immediate disclosure” of all campaign-related donations. The Partnership’s only donor? The Alliance for America’s Future, which doesn’t have to reveal its own donors. The three groups together will spend $12 to $15 million this year, according to Cheney.

* American Action Network and American Action Forum: AAN’s president is House GOP Whip Eric Cantor’s former chief of staff. The group’s corporate ties include Goldman Sachs, Wachovia, Home Depot, and several tobacco firms. Its board members include governors Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, and Tom Ridge, plus various Republican ex-senators and congress members. Ex-senator Norm Coleman, who co-founded the group, explicitly cited the Citizens United decision as a reason for AAN’s “greatly enhanced” fundraising. The group is running attack ads against Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), and others. An ad against Feingold blames the senator for the country’s $9 trillion debt, an absurd claim given that the group’s backers are largely veterans of the Bush-era policies that produced most of the nation’s deficit. AAN leases space in its Washington office to American Crossroads.

* American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS: Karl Rove and former RNC chair Ed Gillespie formed the group in April, but quickly turned over day-to-day operations to Robert M. Duncan, a close Rove associate and a former RNC chair, along with Steven Law, a former general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and onetime chief of staff to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Back in July Rove was already crowing on Fox News that, because of Citizens United, donors who had “maxed out” contributions to the RNC could now give more to American Crossroads or Crossroads GPS. American Crossroads was running attack ads against Harry Reid in Nevada even before Sharron Angle’s (R-NV) campaign geared up. American Crossroads’ backers include Bob J. Perry ($7 million), a wealthy Texas homebuilder who backed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s attacks on John Kerry in 2004, Bradley Wayne Hughes ($2.3 million), founder and chairman of Public Storage, and Joseph Craft ($2 million) a Tulsa-based coal mine owner.

* Americans for Job Security (AJS): Founded in 1997 with help from the American Insurance Association and the American Forest and Paper Association, the group has no “purpose other than to cover various money trails all over the country,” according to a report by the Alaska Public Offices Commission. The group openly praised the Citizens United decision as an “unequivocal victory.” In September the New York Times reported that AJS spent $6 million on ads during the primary season, concluding that its “deep ties” to Crossroads Media (a beltway Republican consulting operation also tied to Rove’s American Crossroads) made it “largely a funnel for anonymous donations.” Public Citizen calls AJS “one of the most egregious” violators of campaign finance laws.

* Americans for New Leadership and Liberty.com: Founded by Tea Party Activists Eric Odom and Yates Walker, the group has received strategic help from Republican activist Dick Morris. Walker, who is a consultant to Christine O’Donnell’s campaign for Delaware’s senate seat, told Politico that Citizens United “paved the way for the group’s formation.” He added that Liberty.com intends to “be a player for a long time,” evolving into the “right-wing version of MoveOn.org.”

* Americans for Prosperity (AfP): Chaired by billionaire right-wing industrialist David Koch, AfP’s president, Tim Phillips, is an associate of Ralph Reed, a lobbyist for Fortune 100 corporations, and the architect of various Astroturf campaigns. AfP played a key role in funding the Tea Party movement, and has 31 state-level operations. The group has fired off a variety of dubious propaganda salvos, including ads that blame the Obama administration’s stimulus plan for rising unemployment. A memo recently leaked to ThinkProgress.org reveals that Koch and a variety of corporate “investors” in the Republican Party met in June with Republican strategists, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Glenn Beck, and other conservatives to plot election strategy.

* American Future Fund: Formed by Iowa Republican operatives, the group expects to spend nearly $25 million on ads this year.

* Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity: Created by William B. Canfield, a Republican lawyer specializing in election law, the group expects to raise $25 million to help two dozen GOP candidates. Scott Reed, a veteran GOP operative who ran former Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-KS) 1996 presidential campaign, helped launch the 501(c)4. Reed told the Center for Public Integrity’s Peter Stone that “Citizens United opened the door for the unparalleled participation by corporations at the financial level.”

* Revere America: Founded by ex-Gov. George Pataki (R-NY), this 501(c)4 was formed to repeal the health care bill. It has spent well over $1 million in New York and New Hampshire races.

* The Club for Growth: Founded in 1999 by conservative economist Steve Moore and the Cato Institute’s Ed Crane, the group set up “Club for Growth Action.” After the Citizens United ruling, the independent expenditure committee announced that it would accept “unlimited individual and corporate contributions,” and aims to spend $24 million on this year’s election. The club’s former president, Pat Toomey, is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, and CfG is backing him in many ways.

* The First Amendment Alliance: A 527 “Super PAC” that People for the American Way reports is “a sham group for the energy industry whose office is a mailbox.” The group’s ads have been so misleading that one TV station pulled an ad targeting Jack Conway of Kentucky. Another energy-backed group is the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), which receives funding from the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and other oil, mining, and gas interests. BIPAC is expected to spend $6 million this year, and aims primarily to influence how the employees of its 400 member companies vote.

* U.S. Chamber of Commerce: According to U.S. Chamber Watch (a project of the Change to Win labor federation), the Chamber is the nation’s most powerful lobbying juggernaut, spending over $144 million in 2009 and using its “borderline thuggish” lobbying tactics (as one congressional aide described them to The Hill), to kill a variety of reforms, including the DISCLOSE Act. After Citizens United, Chamber President Tom Donahue opened the group’s doors to any member company that wanted to pay for anonymous attack ads. In October, U.S. Chamber Watch filed an IRS complaint charging the Chamber with illegally laundering more than $18 million from insurance giant AIG’s charitable foundation (run by former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg) through the Chamber’s political coffers.

(For more details about these and other groups see People for the American Way, "After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics")

Constitutional Amendment to Restrict Corporations

Many reformers remain convinced that the only way to fully address the problems created by the Citizens United decision is to pass a constitutional amendment restricting corporate participation in electoral politics. At least two coalitions, FreeSpeechforPeople.org and MovetoAmend.org, have formed to support an amendment, which is gathering broad support:

* Various members of Congress have endorsed the idea, including representatives Donna Edwards (D-MD), chair of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers (D-MI), and senators Baucus, Dodd, Udall, Bennet and Specter.

* The vast majority of voters of all political affiliations are more likely to support candidates who favor a Constitutional amendment limiting corporate spending, according to a June poll for PFAW conducted by Hart Research Associates.

* A bipartisan group of more than 50 constitutional scholars and prominent attorneys – including former Massachusetts Attorney General Frank Bellotti and six other former state attorneys general-- recently issued a statement with the support of Voter Action and Free Speech for People urging Congress to consider a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision.

* In August, the National Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling.

Welcome to the Plutocracy

Original Link: http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/133228.html

By Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers speech at Boston University on October 29, 2010, as a part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series.

I was honored when you asked me to join in celebrating Howard Zinn’s life and legacy. I was also surprised. I am a journalist, not a historian. The difference between a journalist and an historian is that the historian knows the difference. George Bernard Shaw once complained that journalists are seemingly unable to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. In fact, some epic history can start out as a minor incident. A young man named Paris ran off with a beautiful woman who was married to someone else, and the civilization of Troy began to unwind. A middle-aged black seamstress, riding in a Montgomery bus, had tired feet, and an ugly social order began to collapse. A night guard at an office complex in Washington D.C. found masking tape on a doorjamb, and the presidency of Richard Nixon began to unwind. What journalist, writing on deadline, could have imagined the walloping kick that Rosa Park’s tired feet would give to Jim Crow? What pundit could have fantasized that a third-rate burglary on a dark night could change the course of politics? The historian’s work is to help us disentangle the wreck of the Schwinn from cataclysm. Howard famously helped us see how big change can start with small acts.

We honor his memory. We honor him, for Howard championed grassroots social change and famously chronicled its story as played out over the course of our nation’s history. More, those stirring sagas have inspired and continue to inspire countless people to go out and make a difference. The last time we met, I told him that the stories in A People’s History of the United States remind me of the fellow who turned the corner just as a big fight broke out down the block. Rushing up to an onlooker he shouted, “Is this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?” For Howard, democracy was one big public fight and everyone should plunge into it. That’s the only way, he said, for everyday folks to get justice – by fighting for it.

I have in my desk at home a copy of the commencement address Howard gave at Spelman College in 2005. He was chairman of the history department there when he was fired in 1963 over his involvement in civil rights. He had not been back for 43 years, and he seemed delighted to return for commencement. He spoke poignantly of his friendship with one of his former students, Alice Walker, the daughter of tenant farmers in Georgia who made her way to Spelman and went on to become the famous writer. Howard delighted in quoting one of her first published poems that had touched his own life:

It is true
I’ve always loved
the daring ones
like the black young man
who tried to crash
all barriers
at once,
wanted to swim
at a white beach (in Alabama)
Nude.

That was Howard Zinn; he loved the daring ones, and was daring himself.

One month before his death he finished his last book, The Bomb. Once again he was wrestling with his experience as a B-17 bombardier during World War II, especially his last mission in 1945 on a raid to take out German garrisons in the French town of Royan. For the first time the Eighth Air Force used napalm, which burst into liquid fire on the ground, killing hundreds of civilians. He wrote, “I remember distinctly seeing the bombs explode in the town, flaring like matches struck in the fog. I was completely unaware of the human chaos below.” Twenty years later he returned to Royan to study the effects of the raid and concluded there had been no military necessity for the bombing; everyone knew the war was almost over (it ended three weeks later) and this attack did nothing to affect the outcome. His grief over having been a cog in a deadly machine no doubt confirmed his belief in small acts of rebellion, which mean, as Howard writes in the final words of the book, “acting on what we feel and think, here, now, for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and obedience.”

His friend and long-time colleague writes in the foreword that “Shifting historical focus from the wealthy and powerful to the ordinary person was perhaps his greatest act of rebellion and incitement.” It seems he never forget the experience of growing up in a working class neighborhood in New York. In that spirit, let’s begin with some everyday people.

***

When she heard the news, Connie Brasel cried like a baby.

For years she had worked at minimum-wage jobs, until 17 years ago, when she was hired by the Whirlpool refrigerator factory in Evansville, Indiana. She was making $ 18.44 an hour when Whirlpool announced earlier this year that it was closing the operation and moving it to Mexico. She wept. I’m sure many of the other eleven hundred workers who lost their jobs wept too; they had seen their ticket to the middle class snatched from their hands. The company defended its decision by claiming high costs, underused capacity, and the need to stay competitive. Those excuses didn’t console Connie Brasel. “I was becoming part of something bigger than me,” she told Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times. “Whirlpool was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

She was not only sad, she was mad. “They didn’t get world-class quality because they had the best managers. They got world-class quality because of the United States and because of their workers.”

Among those workers were Natalie Ford, her husband and her son; all three lost their jobs. “It’s devastating,” she told the Times. Her father had worked at Whirlpool before them. Now, “There aren’t any jobs here. How is this community going to survive?”

And what about the country? Between 2001 and 2008, about 40,000 US manufacturing plants closed. Six million factory jobs have disappeared over the past dozen years, representing one in three manufacturing jobs. Natalie Ford said to the Times what many of us are wondering: “I don’t know how without any good-paying jobs here in the United States people are going to pay for their health care, put their children through school.”

Now, if Connie Brasel and Natalie Ford lived in South Carolina, they might have been lucky enough to get a job with the new BMW plant that recently opened there and advertised that the company would hire one thousand workers. Among the applicants? According to the Washington Post; “a former manager of a major distribution center for Target; a consultant who oversaw construction projects in four western states; a supervisor at a plastics recycling firm. Some held college degrees and resumes in other fields where they made more money.” They will be paid $15 an hour – about half of what BMW workers earn in Germany

In polite circles, among our political and financial classes, this is known as “the free market at work.” No, it’s “wage repression,” and it’s been happening in our country since around 1980. I must invoke some statistics here, knowing that statistics can glaze the eyes; but if indeed it’s the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved by statistics, as I once read, surely this truly educated audience will be moved by the recent analysis of tax data by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. They found that from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of l0 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefitted. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

That’s wage repression.

Another story in the Times caught my eye a few weeks after the one about Connie Brasel and Natalie Ford. The headline read: “Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts.” Nelson Schwartz reported that despite falling motorcycle sales, Harley-Davidson profits are soaring – with a second quarter profit of $71 million, more than triple what it earned the previous year. Yet Harley-Davidson has announced plans to cut fourteen hundred to sixteen hundred more jobs by the end of next year; this on top of the 2000 job cut last year.

The story note: “This seeming contradiction – falling sales and rising profits – is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and unemployment shows few signs of easing.”

There you see the two Americas. A buoyant Wall Street; a doleful Main Street. The Connie Brasels and Natalie Fords – left to sink or swim on their own. There were no bailouts for them.

Meanwhile, Matt Krantz reports in USA TODAY that “Cash is gushing into company’s coffers as they report what’s shaping up to be a third-consecutive quarter of sharp earning increases. But instead of spending on the typical things, such as expanding and hiring people, companies are mostly pocketing the money or stuffing it under their mattresses.” And what are their plans for this money? Again, the Washington Post:

“…. Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more than five times as much compared with this time last year… But the rise in buybacks signals that many companies are still hesitant to spend their cash on the job-generating activities that could produce economic growth.”

That’s how financial capitalism works today: Conserving cash rather than bolstering hiring and production; investing in their own shares to prop up their share prices and make their stock more attractive to Wall Street. To hell with everyone else.

Hear the chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Ethan Harris, who told the Times: “There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy. Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.”

Or the chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York, Neal Soss: As companies have wrung more savings out of their work forces, causing wages and salaries barely to budge from recession lows, “profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.”

Just this morning the New York Times reports that the private equity business is roaring back: “While it remains difficult to get a mortgage to buy a home or to get a loan to fund a small business, yield-starved investors are creating a robust market for corporate bonds and loans.”

If this were a functioning democracy, our financial institutions would be helping everyday Americans and businesses get the mortgages and loans – the capital – they need to keep going; they’re not, even as the financiers are reaping robust awards.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But he’s run off with all the toys.

Late in August I clipped another story from the Wall Street Journal. Above an op-ed piece by Robert Frank the headline asked: “Do the Rich Need the Rest of America?” The author didn’t seem ambivalent about the answer. He wrote that as stocks have boomed, “the wealthy bounced back. And while the Main Street economy” [where the Connie Brasels and Natalie Fords and most Americans live] “was wracked by high unemployment and the real-estate crash, the wealthy – whose financial fates were more tied to capital markets than jobs and houses – picked themselves up, brushed themselves off, and started buying luxury goods again.”

Citing the work of Michael Lind, at the Economic Growth Program of the New American Foundation, the article went on to describe how the super-rich earn their fortunes with overseas labor, selling to overseas consumers and managing financial transactions that have little to do with the rest of America, “while relying entirely or almost entirely on immigrant servants at one of several homes around the country.”

Right at that point I remembered another story that I had filed away three years ago, also from the Wall Street Journal. The reporter Ianthe Jeanne Dugan described how the private equity firm Blackstone Group swooped down on a travel reservation company in Colorado, bought it, laid off 841 employees, and recouped its entire investment in just seven months, one of the quickest returns on capital ever for such a deal. Blackstone made a killing while those workers were left to sift through the debris. They sold their homes, took part-time jobs making sandwiches and coffee, and lost their health insurance.

That fall, Blackstone’s chief executive, Stephen Schwarzman, reportedly worth over $5 billion, rented a luxurious resort in Jamaica to celebrate the marriage of his son. According to the Guardian News, the Montego Bay facility alone cost $50,000, plus thousands more to sleep 130 guests. There were drinks on the beach, dancers and a steel band, marshmallows around the fire, and then, the following day, an opulent wedding banquet with champagne and a jazz band and fireworks display that alone cost $12,500. Earlier in the year Schwarzman had rented out the Park Avenue Armory in New York (near his 35-room apartment) to celebrate his 60th birthday at a cost of $3 million. So? It’s his money, isn’t it? Yes, but consider this: The stratospheric income of private-equity partners is taxed at only 15 percent – less than the rate paid, say, by a middle class family. When Congress considered raising the rate on their Midas-like compensation, the financial titans flooded Washington with armed mercenaries – armed, that is, with hard, cold cash – and brought the “debate” to an end faster than it had taken Schwartzman to fire 841 workers. The financial class had won another round in the exploitation of working people who, if they are lucky enough to have jobs, are paying a higher tax rate than the super-rich.

So the answer to the question: “Do the Rich Need the Rest of America?” is as stark as it is ominous: Many don’t. As they form their own financial culture increasingly separated from the fate of everyone else, it is “hardly surprising,” Frank and Lind concluded, “ that so many of them should be so hostile to paying taxes to support the infrastructure and the social programs that help the majority of the American people.”

You would think the rich might care, if not from empathy, then from reading history. Ultimately gross inequality can be fatal to civilization. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond writes about how governing elites throughout history isolate and delude themselves until it is too late. He reminds us that the change people inflict on their environment is one of the main factors in the decline of earlier societies. For example: the Mayan natives on the Yucatan peninsula who suffered as their forest disappeared, their soil eroded, and their water supply deteriorated. Chronic warfare further exhausted dwindling resources. Although Mayan kings could see their forests vanishing and their hills eroding, they were able to insulate themselves from the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well-fed while everyone else was slowly starving. Realizing too late that they could not reverse their deteriorating environment, they became casualties of their own privilege. Any society contains a built-in blueprint for failure, Diamond warns, if elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their decisions, separated from the common life of the country.

Yet the isolation continues – and is celebrated. When Howard came down to New York last December for what would be my last interview with him, I showed him this document published in the spring of 2005 by the Wall Street giant Citigroup, setting forth an “Equity Strategy” under the title (I’m not making this up) “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer.”

Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word and wasn’t meant to become an American phenomenon – some of our founders deplored what they called “the veneration of wealth.” But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of coining a variation on the word— “plutonomy”, which describes an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer and that government helps them do it. Five years ago Citigroup decided the time had come to “bang the drum on plutonomy.”

And bang they did. Here are some excerpts from the document “Revisiting Plutonomy;”

“Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper… [and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years.”

“…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the United States – the plutonomists in our parlance – have benefitted disproportionately from the recent productivity surged in the US… [and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor.”

“… [and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. Because the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.”

I’ll repeat that: “The dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.” That was the case before the Great Collapse of 2008, and it’s the case today, two years after the catastrophe. But the plutonomists are doing just fine. Even better in some cases, thanks to our bailout of the big banks.

As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist – no Marxist journal – of a study by Pew Research:

More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have cancelled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with their parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower. For many Americans the great recession has been the sharpest trauma since The Second World War, wiping out jobs, wealth and hope itself.

Let that sink in: For millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope.

Time for a confession. The legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here is mine: Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder.

Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption – a deep, systemic corruption. I urge you to seek out the recent edition of Harper’s Magazine. The former editor Roger D. Hodge brilliantly dissects how democracy has gone on sale in America. Ideally, he writes, our ballots purport to be expressions of political will, which we hope and pray will be translated into legislative and executive action by our pretended representatives. But voting is the beginning of civil virtue, not its end, and the focus of real power is elsewhere. Voters still “matter” of course, but only as raw material to be shaped by the actual form of political influence – money.

The article is excerpted from Hodge’s new book, The Mendacity of Hope. In it he describes how America’s founding generation especially feared the kind of corruption that occurs when the private ends of a narrow faction succeed in capturing the engines of government. James Madison and many of his contemporaries knew this kind of corruption could consume the republic. Looking at history a tragic lens, they thought the life cycle of republics – their degeneration into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy – was inescapable. And they attempted to erect safeguards against it, hoping to prevent private and narrow personal interests from overriding those of the general public.

They failed. Hardly a century passed after the ringing propositions of 1776 than America was engulfed in the gross materialism and political corruption of the First Gilded Age, when Big Money bought the government right out from under the voters. In their magisterial work on The Growth of the American Republic, the historians Morrison, Commager, and Leuchtenberg describe how in that era “privilege controlled politics,” and “the purchase of votes, the corruption of election officials, the bribing of legislatures, the lobbying of special bills, and the flagrant disregard of laws” threatened the very foundations of the country.”

I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that this “degenerate and unlovely age” – as one historian described it – served to inspire Karl Rove, the man said to be George W. Bush’s brain and now a mover and shaker of the money tree for the corporate-conservative complex (more on that later.) The extraordinary coupling of private and political power toward the close of the 19th century – the First Gilded Age – captured Rove’s interest, especially the role of Mark Hanna, the Ohio operative who became the first modern political fund-raiser. (David von Drehle wrote (“Washington Post, July 24, 1999) that “as a tenacious student of political history, Rove had dug so deeply into the McKinley era that he had become “the swami of McKinley mania.” Rove denied it to the writer Ron Susskind, who then went on to talk to old colleagues of Rove “dating back 25 years, one of whom said: “Some kids want to grow up to be president, Karl wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna. We’d talk about it all the time. We’d say, ‘Jesus,Karl, what kind of kid wants to grow up to be Mark Hanna?”

“There are two things that are important in politics,” Hanna said. “The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” He had become rich as a business man in Ohio, “the characteristic American capitalist of the Gilded Age” (Columbia Encyclopedia). He was famously depicted by one cartoonist as “Dollar Mark,” the prototype of plutocracy. Hanna tapped the banks, the insurance companies, the railroads and the other industrial trusts of the late 1800s for all the money it took to make William McKinley governor of Ohio and then President of the United States. McKinley was the perfect conduit for Hanna’s connivance and their largesse – one of those politicians with a talent for emitting banalities as though they were recently discovered truth. Hanna raised “an unprecedented amount of money (the biggest check came from the oil baron John Rockefeller) and ran a sophisticated, hardball campaign that got McKinley to the White House, “where he governed negligently in the interests of big business,” wrote Jacob Weisberg in “Slate” (November 2, 2005) His opponent in the l896 election was the Democrat-Populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan, whose base consisted of aroused populists – the remnant of the People’s Party – who were outraged at the rapacity and shenanigans of the monopolies, trusts, and corporations that were running roughshod over ordinary Americans. Because Bryan threatened those big economic interests he was able to raise only one-tenth the money that Mark Hanna raised for McKinley, and he lost: Money in politics is an old story.

Karl Rove would have learned from his study of Hanna the principles of plutonomy. For Hanna believed “the state of Ohio existed for property. It had no other function…Great wealth was to be gained through monopoly, through using the State for private ends; it was axiomatic therefore that businessmen should run the government and run it for personal profit.”

He and McKinley therefore saw to it that first Ohio and then Washington were “ruled by business…by bankers, railroads, and public utility corporations.” The United States Senate was infamous as “a millionaire’s club.” City halls, state houses and even courtrooms were bought and sold like baubles. Instead of enforcing the rules of fair play, government served as valet to the plutocrats. The young journalist Henry George had written that “an immense wedge” was being forced through American society by “the maldistribution of wealth, status, and opportunity.” Now inequality exploded into what the historian Clinton Rossiter described as “the great train robbery of American intellectual history.” Conservatives of the day – pro-corporate apologists – hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian liberalism and turned words like “progress,” “opportunity,” and “individualism” into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right. Laissez faire ideologues and neo-cons of the day – lovers of empire even then – hijacked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and so distorted it that politicians, judges, and publicists gleefully embraced the notion that progress emerges from the elimination of the weak and the “survival of the fittest.” As one of the plutocrats crowed: “We are rich. We own America. We got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it.”

And they have never given up. The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a “massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich.” As Roger Hodge makes clear, under Bill Clinton the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever-growing share of national income. The trend continued under George W. Bush – those huge tax cuts for the rich, remember, which are now about to be extended because both parties have been bought off by the wealthy – and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking in 50% of the national income. Today, a fraction of people at the top today earn more than the bottom 120 million Americans.

You will hear it said, “Come on, this is the way the world works.” No, it’s the way the world is made to work. This vast inequality is not the result of Adam Smith’s invisible hand; it did not just happen; it was no accident. As Hodge drives home, it is the result of a long series of policy decisions “about industry and trade, taxation and military spending, by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in concrete-and-steel buildings.” And those policy decisions were paid for by the less than one percent who participate in our capitalist democracy political contributions. Over the past 30 years, with the complicity of Republicans and Democrats alike, the plutocrats, or plutonomists (choose your own poison) have used their vastly increased wealth to assure that government does their bidding. Remember that grateful Citigroup reference to “market-friendly governments” on the side of plutonomy? We had a story down in Texas for that sort of thing; the dealer in a poker game says to the dealer, Now play the cards fairly, Reuben; I know what I dealt you.” (To see just how our system was rigged by the financial, political, and university elites, run, don’t walk, to the theatre nearest you showing Charles Ferguson’s new film, “Inside Job.” Take a handkerchief because you’ll weep for the republic.)

Looking back, it all seems so clear that we wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs at the time. One of the few journalists who did see it coming – Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post – reported that “business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favour of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena.” Big business political action committees flooded the political arena with a deluge of dollars. They funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. And their political allies in the conservative movement cleverly built alliances with the religious right – Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition – who zealously waged a cultural holy war that camouflaged the economic assault on working people and the middle class.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan also tried to warn us. He said President Reagan’s real strategy was to force the government to cut domestic social programs by fostering federal deficits of historic dimensions. Senator Moynihan was gone before the financial catastrophe on George W. Bush’s watch that could paradoxically yet fulfill Reagan’s dream. The plutocrats who soaked up all the money now say the deficits require putting Social Security and other public services on the chopping block. You might think that Mr. Bush today would regret having invaded Iraq on false pretences at a cost of more than a trillion dollars and counting, but no, just last week he said that his biggest regret was his failure to privatize Social Security. With over l00 Republicans of the House having signed a pledge to do just that when the new Congress convenes, Mr. Bush’s vision may yet be realized.

Daniel Altman also saw what was coming. In his book Neoconomy he described a place without taxes or a social safety net, where rich and poor live in different financial worlds. “It’s coming to America,” he wrote. Most likely he would not have been surprised recently when firefighters in rural Tennessee would let a home burn to the ground because the homeowner hadn't paid a $75 fee. That’s what is coming to America.

***

Here we are now, on the verge of the biggest commercial transaction in the history of American elections. Once again the plutocracy is buying off the system. Nearly $4 billion is being spent on the congressional races that will be decided next week, including multi millions coming from independent tax-exempt organizations that can collect unlimited amounts without revealing the sources. The organization Public Citizen reports that just 10 groups are responsible for the bulk of the spending by independent groups: “A tiny number of organizations, relying on a tiny number of corporate and fat cat contributors, are spending most of the money on the vicious attack ads dominating the airwaves” – those are the words of Public Citizen’s president, Robert Wiessman. The Federal Election Commission says that two years ago 97% of groups paying for election ads disclosed the names of their donors. This year it’s only 32%.

Socrates again: To remember a thing, you must first name it. We’re talking about slush funds. Donors are laundering their cash through front groups with high-falutin’ names like American Crossroads. That’s one of the two slush funds controlled by Karl Rove in his ambition to revive the era of the robber barons. Promise me you won’t laugh when I tell you that although Rove and the powerful Washington lobbyist who is his accomplice described the first organization as “grassroots”, 97% of its initial contributions came from four billionaires. Yes: The grass grows mighty high when the roots are fertilized with gold.

Rove, other conservative groups and the Chamber of Commerce have in fact created a “shadow party” determined to be the real power in Washington just like Rome’s Opus Dei in Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.” In this shadow party the plutocrats reign. We have reached what the new chairman of Common Cause and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls “the perfect storm that threatens American democracy: an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money, flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work. We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.”

That word again. But Reich is right. That fraction of one percent of Americans who now earn as much as the bottom 120 million Americans includes the top executives of giant corporations and those Wall Street hedge funds and private equity managers who constitute Citigroup’s “plutonomy” are buying our democracy and they’re doing it in secret.

That’s because early this year the five reactionary members of the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are “persons” with the right to speak during elections by funding ads like those now flooding the airwaves. It was the work of legal fabulists. Corporations are not people; they are legal fictions, creatures of the state, born not of the womb, not of flesh and blood. They’re not permitted to vote. They don’t bear arms (except for the nuclear bombs they can now drop on a congressional race without anyone knowing where it came from.) Yet thanks to five activist conservative judges they have the privilege of “personhood” to “speak” – and not in their own voice, mind you, but as ventriloquists, through hired puppets.

Does anyone really think that’s what the authors of the First Amendment had in mind? Horrified by such a profound perversion, the editor of the spunky Texas Observer, Bob Moser, got it right with his headline: “So long, Democracy, it’s been good to know you.”

You’ll recall that soon after the Court’s decision President Obama raised the matter during his State of the Union speech in January. He said the decision would unleash a torrent of corrupting corporate money into our political system. Sitting a few feet in front of the president, Associate Justice Samuel Alito defiantly mouthed the words: “Not true.”

Not true? Terry Forcht knew otherwise. He’s the wealthy nursing home executive in Kentucky whose establishments is being prosecuted by Attorney General Jack Conway for allegedly covering up sexual abuse. Conway is running for the Senate. Forcht has spent more than $l million to defeat him. Would you believe that Forcht is the banker for one of Karl Rove’s two slush funds, American Crossroads, which has spent nearly $30 million to defeat Democrats?

What’s that, Justice Alito? Not true?

Ask Alan Grayson. He’s a member of Congress. Here’s what he says: “We’re now in a situation where a lobbyist can walk into my office…and say, ‘I’ve got five million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against it.’” Alito was either disingenuous, na├»ve, or deluded. He can’t be in this world without knowing he and his four fellow corporatists were giving big donors the one thing they most want in their campaign against working people: an unfair advantage.

My friend and colleague, the writer Michael Winship, told a story this week that illuminates the Court’s coup de grace against democracy. It seems the incorrigible George Bernard Shaw once propositioned a fellow dinner guest, asking if she would go to bed with him for a million pounds (today around $1,580,178 US dollars). She agreed. Shaw then asked if she would do the same for ten shillings. “What do you take me for?” she asked angrily. “A prostitute?” Shaw responded: “We’ve established the principle, Madam. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

With this one decision, the Supreme Court established once and for all that Shaw’s is the only principle left in politics, as long as the price is right.

Come now and let’s visit Washington’s red light district, headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the front group for the plutocracy’s prostitution of politics. The Chamber boasts it represents more than three million businesses and approximately 300,000 members. But in reality it has almost nothing to do with the shops and stores along your local streets. The Chamber’s branding, as the economics journalist Zach Carter recently wrote, “allows them to disguise their political agenda as a coalition of local businesses while it does dirty work for corporate titans.” Carter reported that when the Supreme Court came down with its infamous ruling earlier this year, the Chamber responded by announcing a 40% boost in its political spending operations. After the money started flowing in, the Chamber boosted its budget again by 50%.

After digging into corporate foundation tax filings and other public records, the New York Times found that the Chamber of Commerce has “increasingly relied on a relatively small collection of big corporate donors” – the plutocracy’s senior ranks – “to finance much of its legislative and political agenda.” Furthermore, the chamber “makes no apologies for its policy of not identifying its donors.” Indeed, “It has vigorously opposed legislation in Congress that would require groups like it to identify their biggest contributors when they spend money on campaign ads.”

Now let’s connect some dots. While knocking down nearly all limits on corporate spending in campaigns, the Supreme Court did allow for disclosure, which would at least tell us who’s buying off the government. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell even claimed that “sunshine” laws would make everything okay. But after the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require that the names of all such donors be publicly disclosed, McConnell lined up every Republican in the Senate to oppose it. Hardly had the public begun to sing “Let the Sunshine In” than McConnell & Company went tone deaf. And when the chief lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce was asked by an interviewer, “Are you guys eventually going to disclose?” the answer was a brisk: “No.” Why? Because those corporations are afraid of a public backlash. Like bank robbers pulling a heist, they prefer to hide their “personhood” behind sock masks. Surely that tells us something about the nature of what they’re doing. In the words of one of the characters in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day:: “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse in places where everything is kept in the dark.”

That’s true in politics, too. Thus it turns out that many of the ads being paid for secretly by anonymous donors are “false, grossly misleading, or marred with distortions,” as Greg Sargent reports in his website “The Plum Line.” Go to Sargent’s site and you’ll see a partial list of ads that illustrate the scope of the intellectual and political fraud being perpetrated in front of our eyes. Money from secret sources is poisoning the public mind with toxic information in order to dupe voters into giving even more power to the powerful.

On another site –“thinkprogress.com” – you can find out how the multibillionaire Koch brothers – also big oil polluters and Tea Party supporters – are recruiting “captains of industry” to fund the right-wing infrastructure of front groups, political campaigns, think tanks and media outlets. Now, hold on to your seats, because this can blow away the faint-hearted: Among the right-wing luminaries who showed up among Koch’s ‘secretive network of Republican donors’ were two Supreme Court Justices: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. That’s right: 2 of the 5 votes to enable the final corporate takeover of government came from justices who were present as members of the plutocracy hatched their schemes for doing so.

Something else is going on here, too. The Koch brothers have contributed significantly to efforts to stop the Affordable Care Act – the health care reforms – from taking effect. Justice Clarence Thomas has obviously been doing some home schooling, because his wife Virginia claims those reforms are “unconstitutional,” and has founded an organization that is fighting to repeal them. Her own husband on the Supreme Court may one day be ruling on whether she’s right or not (“Play the cards fair, Reuben; I know what I dealt you.”) There’s more: The organization Virginia Thomas founded to kill those health care reforms – also a goal of the Koch brothers, remember – got its start with a gift of half a million dollars from an unnamed source, and is still being funded by donors who can’t be traced. You have to wonder if some of them are corporations that stand to benefit from favorable decisions by the Supreme Court. Now guess the name of the one Supreme Court justice who voted against the disclosure provision. I’m not telling, but Mrs. Thomas can tell you – if, that is, she’s willing to share the pillow talk.

This truly puzzles me. It’s what I can’t figure out about the conservative mindset. The Kochs I can understand: messianic Daddy Warbucks who can’t imagine what life is like for people who aren’t worth 21 billion dollars. But whatever happened to “compassionate conservatism?” The Affordable Care Act – whatever its flaws – extends health care coverage to over 40 million deprived Americans who would otherwise be uncovered. What is it about these people – the Thomases, the secret donors, the privileged plutocrats on their side – that they can’t embrace a little social justice where it counts – among everyday people struggling to get by in a dog-eat-dog world? Health care coverage could mean the difference between life and death for them. Mrs. Thomas is obviously doing okay; she no doubts takes at least a modest salary from that private slush fund working to undermine the health care reforms; her own husband is a government employee covered by a federal plan. Why wouldn’t she want people less fortunate than her to have a little security, too? She headquarters her organization at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a reportedly Christian school aligned with the Moral Majority. How is it she’s only about “Live and Let Live?” Have they never heard there the Old Time Religion of “Live and help live?” Why would this cushioned, comfortable crowd, pious crowd, resort to such despicable tactics as using secret money to try to turn public policy against their less fortunate neighbors, and in the process compromise the already tattered integrity of the United States Supreme Court?

I don’t get it.

You be the judge (Because if you don’t, Justice Thomas will.)

Time to close the circle: Everyone knows millions of Americans are in trouble. As Robert Reich recently summed it the state of working people: They’ve lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings. Their grown children have moved back in with them. Their state and local taxes are rising. Teachers and firefighters are being laid off. The roads and bridges they count on are crumbling, pipelines are leaking, schools are dilapidated, and public libraries are being shut.

Why isn’t government working for them? Because it’s been bought off. It’s as simple as that. And until we get clean money we’re not going to get clean elections, and until we get clean elections, you can kiss goodbye government of, by, and for the people. Welcome to the plutocracy.

***

Obviously Howard Zinn would not have us leave it there. Defeat was never his counsel. Look at this headline above one of his essays published posthumously this fall by the Progressive magazine: DON’T DESPAIR ABOUT THE SUPREME COURT. The Court was lost long ago, he said – don’t go there looking for justice. “The Constitution gave no rights to working people; no right to work less than 12 hours a day, no right to a living wage, no right to safe working conditions. Workers had to organize, go on strike, defy the law, the courts, the police, create a great movement which won the eight-hour day, and caused such commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, and Social Security, and unemployment insurance….Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel and violate the law in order to uphold justice.”

So what are we to do about Big Money in politics buying off democracy? I can almost hear him throwing that question back at us: “What are we to do? ORGANIZE! Yes, organize—and don’t count the costs.” Some people already are. They’re mobilizing. There’s a rumbling in the land. All across the spectrum people oppose the escalating power of money in politics. Fed-up Democrats. Disillusioned Republicans. Independents. Greens. Even Tea Partiers, once they wake up to realize they have been sucker-punched by their bankrollers who have no intention of sharing the wealth.

Veteran public interest groups like Common Cause and Public Citizen are aroused. There are the rising voices, from web-based initiatives such as “freespeechforpeople.org” to grassroots initiatives such as “Democracy Matters” on campuses across the country, including a chapter here at Boston University. “Moveon.org” is looking for a million people to fight back in a many-pronged strategy to counter the Supreme Court decision.

What’s promising in all this is that in taking on Big Money we’re talking about something more than a single issue. We’re talking about a broad-based coalition to restore American democracy – one that is trying to be smart about the nuts-and-bolts of building a coalition, remembering that it has a lot to do with human nature. Some will want to march. Some will want to petition. Some will want to engage through the web. Some will want to go door-to-door: many gifts, but the same spirit. A fighting spirit. As Howard Zinn would tell us: No fight, no fun, no results.

But here’s the key: If you’re fighting for a living wage, or peace, or immigration reform, or gender equality, or the environment, or a safe neighborhood, you are, of necessity, strongly opposed to a handful of moneyed-interests controlling how decisions get made and policy set. Because most Americans are attuned to principle of fair play, of not favoring Big Money at the expense of the little guy – at the expense of the country they love. The legendary community organizer Ernesto Cortes talks about the “power to preserve what we value.” That’s what we want for Americans – the power to preserve what we value, both for ourselves and on behalf of our democracy.

But let’s be clear: Even with most Americans on our side, the odds are long. We learned long ago that power and privilege never give up anything without a struggle. Money fights hard, and it fights dirty. Think Rove. The Chamber. The Kochs. We may lose. It all may be impossible. But it’s OK if it’s impossible. Hear the former farmworker and labor organizer Baldemar Velasquez on this. The members of his Farm Labor Organizing Committee are a long way from the world of K Street lobbyists. But they took on the Campbell Soup Company – and won. They took on North Carolina growers – and won, using transnational organizing tacts that helped win Velasquez a “genius” award from the MacArthur Foundation. And now they’re taking on no less than R. J. Reynolds Tobacco and one of its principle financial sponsors, JPMorgan-Chase. Some people question the wisdom of taking on such powerful interests, but here’s what Velasquez says: “It’s OK if it’s impossible; it’s OK! Now I’m going to speak to you as organizers. Listen carefully. The object is not to win. That’s not the objective. The object is to do the right and good thing. If you decide not to do anything, because it’s too hard or too impossible, then nothing will be done, and when you’re on your death bed, you’re gonna say, “I wish I had done something. But if you go and do the right thing NOW, and you do it long enough “good things will happen—something’s gonna happen.”

Shades of Howard Zinn!

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Republicans and Their Big Business Allies Duped Tens of Millions of Evangelicals into Voting for a Corporate Agenda

Original Link: http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/148795/how_republicans_and_their_big_business_allies_duped_tens_of_millions_of_evangelicals_into_voting_for_a_corporate_agenda/

By Frank Schaeffer

The bible-thumping white underclass have given a big boost to the corporate bottom line.

Tens of millions of American voters got duped badly in the 2010 election. The bible-thumping white underclass thought they hit back at what they regarded as the nefarious forces trying to “take our country away.”

They were bought, paid for, sold, traded and manipulated by the most powerful in the US election: a Billionaire Lynch Mob led by Rupert Murdoch, Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and hundreds of millions in organize corporate cash. They peddled a fear agenda: fear of immigrants, fear of government control of our lives, fear that their country would become irrevocably changed.

Here's how it happened:

Where the fear and loathing began

A bedrock article of faith among many of the anti-Obama white voters is that America had “Christian origins,” and that today America must be “restored” to “our religious heritage.” The “Puritan heritage” of America is constantly cited as evidence for our need to return to our “biblical roots.” The Constitution is also waved around as if it too is some sort of Bible to be religiously believed in. Of course the Billionaire Lynch Mob doesn’t care about such quaint ideas as individual liberties, let alone “biblical absolutes,” but many of the people who believed the anti-Obama lies did care.

The earnest, mostly Evangelical dupes have a point: by calling for a “return to our roots” (be they biblical and/or constitutional) they are actually maintaining a grand old American tradition: religious delusion as the basis for conquest. The Puritans believed that they were importing “authentic Christianity” to America, especially as written in the Old Testament. They said that they were on a divine mission, even calling themselves “The New Israel” and a “city set upon a hill.” John Winthrop (governor of Massachusetts Bay) transferred the idea of “nationhood” in biblical Israel to the Massachusetts Bay Company. And the Puritans claimed they were God’s “Chosen People.” They said that they had the right to grab land from the “heathen.” These were the American Indians whom the Puritans thought of as the “new Canaanites,” to be slaughtered with God’s blessing and in the case of the Pequot Indians burned alive.

There are many threads in the anti-Obama tapestry but three are ignored at our peril: 1) The End Times fantasies of the Evangelicals; 2) The rise of so-called Reconstructionist theology and 3) the culture war launched over the legalization of abortion.

These “threads,” not the economy alone, are also the source of the vote where white lower class and white middle class Americans voted in droves against their own self-interest. Let’s unpick these fraying threads one at a time.

1. “End Times” Fantasies

The evangelical/fundamentalists/Republican far right is in the grip of an apocalyptic “Rapture” cult centered on revenge and vindication. This “End Times” death wish is built on a literalist interpretation of the Book of Revelation. This fantasy has many followers. For instance to take one of many examples, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series of sixteen novels represents both a “reason” and a symptom of the hysteria that grips so many voters.

The “Left Behind” novels have sold tens of millions of copies while spawning an “End Times” cult, or rather egging it on. Such products as Left Behind video games have become part of the ubiquitous American background noise. Less innocuous symptoms of End Times paranoia include people stocking up on assault rifles and ammunition, freeze dried food (pitched to them, by the way, by Billionaire Lynch Mob-handmaid Glenn Beck), gold (also sold to them by Glenn Beck), adopting "Christ-centered" home school curricula, fear of higher education (“we’ll lose our children to secularism”), embracing rumor as fact (“Obama isn’t an American”) and fighting against Middle East peace iniatives, lest they delay the “return of Jesus,” for instance through Houston mega church pastor John Hagee’s Christian Zionist-centered “ministry.”

A disclosure: My late father, Francis Schaeffer, was a key founder and leader of the American Religious Right. For a time in the 1970s and early 80s I joined him in pioneering the Evangelical anti-abortion Religious Right movement. I changed my mind. I explain why I quit the movement in my book CRAZY FOR GOD -- How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All - Or Almost All - Of It Back.

John Hagee, mega church pastor and founder of Christians United for Israel said: “For 25 almost 26 years now, I have been pounding the Evangelical community over television. The Bible is a very pro-Israel book. If a Christian admits ‘I believe the Bible,’ I can make him a pro-Israel supporter or they will have to denounce their faith. So I have Christians over a barrel you might say.” The assumption Hagee makes -- that “Bible-believing Christians” will be pro-Israel -- is the dominant view among American Evangelical Christians. These are the people who goad us to make perpetual war worldwide. And these are the people who supposedly follow a teacher who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Few within the Evangelical community have dared to publically question such Haggee’s approach. The Christian Zionists led by Hagee et al even went after their very own George W Bush for backing peace talks between Palestinians and the Israeli government. So can you imagine the hatred the Christian Zionists have for President Obama, who also wants peace in the Middle East?

The momentum for building a subculture that’s seceding from mainstream society (in order to await "The End Times" has irrevocably pried loose a chunk of the American population from both sanity and from their fellow citizens. The Christian Zionist franchise holds out hope for the self-disenfranchised that -- at last -- everyone will know "We born-again Christians" were right and "They" were wrong. But here’s the political significance of the Christian Zionist dominance: the evangelical/fundamentalists’ imagined victimhood.

I say imagined victimhood, because the born-agains are hardly outsiders let alone victims. They’re very own George W Bush was in the White House for eight long, ruinous years and Evangelicals also dominated American politics for the better part of thirty years before that by enforcing a series of “moral” litmus tests that transformed the Republican Party into their very own culture wars lickspittle.

Nevertheless, the white evangelical/conservative Roman Catholic sense of being a victimized minority only grew with their successes. “You are not alone!” said Glenn Beck, playing to these “disenfranchised” “victims,” who – as the midterm results once again proved -- turn out to look more like a majority of white voters who had the power to turn Sarah Palin into a multimillionaire overnight and send the likes of Rand Paul to the Senate.

2. The Rise of Reconstructionist Theology

Where did the “victims” on the Far Right get their “theology” of perpetual damn-the-facts victimhood from? The history of theology (Christian or otherwise) is the history of people desperately trying to fit the way things actually are into the way their “holy” books say they should be. And since the facts don’t fit and never will, religious believers can either change their minds, embrace paradox, or find someone else to blame for their never-ending loss of face and self-esteem.

Most Americans have never heard of the Reconstructionists. But they have felt their impact through the Reconstructionists’ (often indirect) influence over the wider Evangelical community. In turn, the Evangelicals shaped the politics of a secular culture that barely understood the Religious Right let alone the forces within that movement that gave it its rage.

If you feel victimized by modernity (let alone humiliated by reality) then the Reconstructionists have The Answer to your angst: apply the full scope of the Biblical Law to modern America and to the larger world! Coerce “non-believers” to live in your imaginary universe! In other words Reconstructionists wanted to replace the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights with their interpretation of the Bible.

Most Evangelicals are positively moderate by comparison to the Reconstructionist “thinkers.” Most libertarians, who formed the backbone of the Tea Party (at least until the Far Right Evangelicals began to take the Tea Party over) would hate them. But the Reconstructionist movement is a distilled version of the more mainstream evangelical version of exclusionary theology that nonetheless divides America into the “Real America” (as the Far Right claim only they are) and the rest of us “sinners.”

The Reconstructionist worldview is ultra Calvinist, but like all Calvinism has its origins in ancient Israel/Palestine, when vengeful and ignorant tribal lore was written down by frightened men (the nastier authors of the Bible) trying to defend their prerogatives to bully women, murder rival tribes and steal land. These justifications probably reflect later thinking: origin myths used as propaganda to justify political and military actions after the fact—i.e., to justify their brutality the Hebrews said that God made them inflict on others and/or that they were “chosen.”

In its modern American incarnation, which hardened into a twentieth century movement in the 1960s and became widespread in the 1970s, Reconstructionism was propagated by people I knew personally and worked with closely when I too was a Religious Right activist claiming God’s special favor. The leaders of the Reconstructionist movement included the late Rousas Rushdoony (Calvinist theologian, father of modern-era Christian Reconstructionism, patron saint to gold-hoarding Federal Reserve-haters, and creator of the modern Evangelical home-school movement), his son-in-law Gary North (an economist, gold-buff, publisher and leading conspiracy theorist), and David Chilton (ultra-Calvinist pastor and author.)

Reconstructionism, also called Theonomism, seeks to reconstruct “our fallen society.” Its worldview is best represented by the publications of the Chalcedon Foundation, which has been classified as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to the Chalcedon Foundation website, the mission of the movement is to apply “the whole Word of God” to all aspects of human life: “It is not only our duty as individuals, families and churches to be Christian, but it is also the duty of the state, the school, the arts and sciences, law, economics, and every other sphere to be under Christ the King. Nothing is exempt from His dominion. We must live by His Word, not our own.

It’s no coincidence that the rise of the Islamic Brotherhoods in Egypt and Syria and the rise of Reconstructionism took place in more or less the same twentieth-century time frame—as modernism, science and “permissiveness” collided with a frightened conservatism rooted in religion. The writings of people such as Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and those of Rushdoony are virtually interchangeable when it comes to their goals of “restoring God” to his “rightful place” as he presides over law and morals. Or as the late Reconstructionist/Calvinist theologian David Chilton, writing in PARADISE RESTORED--A Biblical Theology of Dominion (and sounding startlingly al-Banna-like) explained:

Our goal is a Christian world, made up of explicitly Christian nations. How could a Christian desire anything else? Our Lord Himself taught us to pray: “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6: 10)… The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the worldwide dominion of God’s Kingdom… a world of decentralized theocratic republics.... That is the only choice: pagan law or Christian law. God specifically forbids “pluralism.” God is not the least bit interested in sharing world dominion with Satan.

The message of Rushdoony’s work is best summed up in one of his innumerable Chalcedon Foundation position papers, “The Increase of His Government and Peace.” He writes: “[T]he ultimate and absolute government of all things shall belong to Christ.” In his book Thy Kingdom Come -- using words that are similar to those the leaders of al Qaida would use decades later in reference to “true Islam” -- Rushdoony argues that democracy and Christianity are incompatible: “Democracy is the great love of the failures and cowards of life,” he writes. “One [biblical] faith, one law and one standard of justice did not mean democracy. The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state… Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.”

3. The Culture Wars Launched over the Abortion Debate

The significance and rise of the Reconstructionists and their (often indirect) impact on the wider evangelical subculture can only be understood in the context of the January 22, 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade.

Roe energized the culture war like nothing else before or since. This war has even fed the passion that burned within the so-called Tea Party movement’s reaction to Obama’s moderate legislative health care reform predicting “Death Panels.” Roe also indirectly energized even those members of the Far Right – for instance the Tea Party’s pro-choice libertarians -- who didn’t care about abortion per se. Roe had such far-reaching effects because reactions to Roe defined the scorched-earth, winner-take-all and rabidly anti-government tone of the culture war fights since 1973.

Fast forward thirty years to the first decade of the twenty-first century: The messengers and day-to-day “issues” changed but the volume of the anti-government “debate” and anger originated with the anti-abortion movement. “Death Panels!”, “Government Takeover!”, “Obama is Hitler!” and all such “comments” were simply updated versions of “pro-life” rhetoric. And ironically, at the very same time as the Evangelicals who began the anti-abortion crusade (along with conservative Roman Catholics) had thrust themselves into bare knuckle politics over Roe, they also (I should say we also) retreated to what amounted to virtual walled compounds.

Evangelicals created a parallel “Christian America,” our very own private world, as it were, posted with “No Trespassing” signs. Our new “world” was about creating a Puritan/Reconstructionist-style holy-nation-within-our-fallen-nation.

This went far beyond mere alternative schools and home schools. Thousands of new Christian bookstores opened, countless Evangelical radio programs flourished in the 1970s and 80s, and new TV stations went on the air. Even a “Christian Yellow Pages” (a guide to Evangelical tradesmen) was published advertising “Christ-centered plumbers,” accountants and the like who “honor Jesus.” New Evangelical universities and even new law schools appeared, seemingly overnight with a clearly defined mission to “take back” each and every profession – including law and politics – “for Christ.” For instance, Liberty University’s Law School was the creation of the late Jerry Falwell, who told me in 1983 of his vision for Liberty’s programs: “Frank, we’re going train a new generation of judges and world leaders in the law from a Christian worldview to change America.” This was the same Jerry Falwell who wrote in America Can Be Saved: “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools.”

To the old-fashioned Goldwater-type conservative mantra of “big government doesn’t work,” in the 1970s the newly-radicalized Evangelicals added “the US Government is Evil!” Our swap of spiritual faith for the illusion of political power – I say “illusion” since even in the 70s and 80s the real power was in the hands of the Billionaire Lynch Mob -- meant that we would tell people how to vote, but that we didn’t want our kids going to school with theirs. We’d wind up defending not just private schools and home schooling to “protect” our children from the world, but also private oil companies and private gas-guzzling polluting cars, private insurance conglomerates and so forth.

The price for the Religious Right’s wholesale idolatry of private everything was that Christ’s reputation was tied to a cynical political party owned by billionaires from the fast-food industry, raping the earth (not to mention our health), to the oil companies destroying our climate. It only remained for a Far Right Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to rule in 2010 (Citizens United V. The Federal Election Commission), that unlimited corporate money could pour into political campaigns – anonymously -- in a way that clearly favored corporate America and the super wealthy who long since were the only entities served by the Republican Party’s defense of the individual against the government. The “individuals” turned out to be Exxon, the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, McDonald’s and Goldman Sachs et al.

Conclusion

It’s a question of legitimacy and illegitimacy. What the Religious Right, including the Religious Right’s Roman Catholic and Protestant “intellectuals” (like my father) did, was contribute to a climate where the very legitimacy of our government, even any government, is up for grabs. Then the internet came along and Fox News came along and Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann et all came along and no fiction was too fantastical to be believed as fact. We passed into a high tech stone age, myth superstition and outright lies gained a new currency.

Following the election of our first black President, the “politics” of the Evangelical, Roman Catholic and Mormon Far Right was not the politics of a loyal opposition, but the instigation of race-tinged revolution first and best expressed by Rush Limbaugh when he said, “I hope Obama fails.” All that happened in the midterm election of 2010 was that the corporate interests (unleashed by the Supreme Court), the Republican Party leadership and the Tea Party built on and/or cashed in on, the “biblically-based” antigovernment passion.

This was the politics that won in the Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections. This was the logical conclusion of the process of delegitimizing the Federal Government that was launched by the Reconstructionists, the anti-abortion movement and of course is fed by the “Left Behind”/Christian Zionist apocalyptic revenge fantasy.

The Billionaire Lynch Mob’s only sacrament is fear. Their reward for cashing in on white religiously-believing middle class American’s addiction to Bronze Age biblical mythology is to walk away with our country. And fear-filled white Americans don’t get anything in return, unless you count their fleeting visceral pleasure of putting “that uppity black man” in the White House in his place.

Insurers Gave U.S. Chamber $86 Million Used to Oppose Obama's Health Law

Original Link: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2010-11-17/insurers-gave-u-s-chamber-86-million-used-to-oppose-obama-s-health-law.html

By Drew Armstrong

Health insurers last year gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86.2 million that was used to oppose the health-care overhaul law, according to tax records and people familiar with the donation.

The insurance lobby, whose members include Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Cigna Corp. of Philadelphia, gave the money to the Chamber in 2009 as Democrats increased criticism of the industry, according to a person who requested anonymity because laws don’t require identifying funding sources. The Chamber got the money from the America’s Health Insurance Plans as the industry urged Congress to drop a plan to create a competing government-run insurance plan.

“Clearly the secrecy was important to industry,” Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, said in an interview. The group tracks money in politics and isn’t affiliated with a political party. “Eighty-six million dollars is an astonishing sum,” she said.

The spending on the Chamber exceeded the insurer group’s entire budget from a year earlier and accounted for 40 percent of the Chamber’s $214.6 million in 2009 expenditures. The spending reflects the insurers’ attempts to influence the bill, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will provide coverage to 32 million previously uninsured Americans, after Democrats in Congress and the White House put more focus on regulation of the insurance industry.

U.S. Disclosure Law

The $86.2 million paid for advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the bill, said Tom Collamore, a Chamber of Commerce spokesman. The Chamber said in a statement it used the funds to “advance a market-based health-care system and advocate for fundamental reform that would improve access to quality care while lowering costs.”

The organizations disclosed the funding yesterday in annual tax records required under U.S. law. The Chamber’s records show it received $86.2 million from a single group, which a second person briefed on the transaction by those involved identified as Washington-based America’s Health group.

Insurers gave the $86.2 million to the Chamber in August 2009, funded by health insurers, said the first person. Early that month, America’s Health Chief Executive Officer Karen Ignagni said Democrats were trying to “demonize” insurers.

Only Amounts Required

Tax forms require organizations to list only the amounts granted or received from other groups, not the organizations’ identities. Health insurers expressed opposition to parts of the health-care legislation while they conferred with congressional Democrats writing the bill and the White House. At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce was advertising its opposition.

The Chamber spent $45.5 million on a campaign against the bill in 2009, according to TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, an Arlington, Virginia-based company that tracks political advertising.

The Chamber began in March 2010, weeks before the bill became law, another $10 million effort focused on pressuring lawmakers to vote against the bill. Blair Latoff, a spokeswoman for the Chamber, wouldn’t say how much of the money was spent in 2009 and how much, if any, was used in 2010.

“With so much at stake we, like other major stakeholders, invested in advocacy,” Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for the insurers, said in an e-mail. “We supported a number of leading health-care advocacy organizations and coalitions that shared our views.” He declined to answer other questions on the money.

‘Breathtaking’ Amount

The amount is “breathtaking,” said Trevor Potter, the head of the political activity practice at Washington law firm Caplin & Drysdale.

The $86.2 million dwarfs other large donations given to the Chamber, such as a $15.4 million 2008 transaction whose contributor isn’t identified, as well an anonymous $4.5 million contribution in 2009, according to records.

By funneling the money through the Chamber, insurers were able to remain at the table negotiating with Democrats while still getting the bill criticized. “It enables you to have it both ways,” Potter said in a phone interview.

“They clearly thought the Chamber would be a more credible source of information and advertising on health-care reform, and it would appear less self-serving if a broader business group made arguments against it than if the insurers did it,” said Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

Critics Pounce

The Center for Responsive Politics’ Klein said that the public would have been “better served” by insurers disclosing the money when they gave it. “Perhaps this key debate would have progressed differently if the true source of the chamber’s spending had been known at the time,” Klein said.

The White House criticized the insurer money in a blog post. Insurers were “desperate to preserve their ability to discriminate against you if you had a preexisting condition, drop your care when you got sick and limit the amount of care you could receive in a year or a lifetime,” wrote Stephanie Cutter, assistant to the president for special projects.

Representative Pete Stark, a California Democrat who helped write the health-care law in the House, criticized the insurer spending in a letter to fellow members of Congress. “That $86 million in attack ads could have been better spent to reduce insurance premiums,” he wrote.

U.S. ChamberWatch, a Washington group that has been critical of the Chamber of Commerce, called the $86.2 million transaction “breathtakingly” large. “The U.S. Chamber has given up the right to call themselves the voice of American business; they are the voice of the insurance industry,” Christy Setzer, the group’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Insurance company members of America’s Health that didn’t respond to questions about whether they gave money to the 2009 effort were: Jim Turner, a spokesman for Louisville, Kentucky- based Humana Inc.; Tyler Mason, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group; Mohit Ghose, a spokesman for Hartford, Connecticut-based Aetna. Kristin Binns, a spokeswoman for Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., and Cigna spokeswoman Gloria Barone declined to comment.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Voters in the Dark Over Outside Money

Original Link: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2010/10/25/voters_in_the_dark_over_outside_money.html

By E.J. Dionne

Imagine an election in a Third World nation where a small number of millionaires and billionaires spent massive sums to push the outcome in their preferred direction. Wouldn't many people here condescendingly tut-tut such a country's "poorly developed" sense of democracy and the inadequacy of its political system?

That, of course, is what is going on in our country as you read this. If you travel any place where there is a contested race for the House or Senate, you are bombarded with attack ads, almost all against Democrats, paid for by groups that do not have to reveal where their money comes from.

What we do know from enterprising journalism and the limited disclosure the law requires is that much of this money is donated in large sums from a rather small number of wealthy individuals.

And The New York Times reported last Friday that among the 10 top-spending organizations this year, five are Republican-oriented shadow groups. Another four are the formal party committees for House and Senate candidates. One is a union.

This is a huge, historic deal, yet many in the media have treated the spending avalanche as a normal political story and arguments about its dangers as partisan Democratic whining.

Some have even maintained that money doesn't really matter in elections, which makes you wonder why people who know quite a lot about politics (one thinks of Karl Rove) have spent so much energy organizing these fundraising and advertising efforts.

The outside money should be an issue for Democrats. They ought to be asking, even more forcefully than they have been, what these secret donors expect for their money. You can be sure that the benefactors will not keep their identities hidden from the members of Congress they help elect. Only the voters will be in the dark.

Nonetheless, the partisan dimension should not distract from the larger problem facing American democracy. Secret money is dangerous. Secret money corrupts. Secret money is antithetical to the transparency that democracy requires. And concentrated money, which is what we're talking about here, buys more influence and access than small contributions.

Candidates have limits on the size of the donations they can raise and must disclose them. They are accountable for the advertisements they put on the air. But the outside groups can say whatever they want without answering for it. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent has been tireless in pointing out how many of the ads sponsored by these shadowy organizations are based on half-truths or outright lies.

It's often been said that what the Republican-leaning groups are doing now is no different from what some Democratic-friendly groups have done in the past. There's actually an important distinction. But first, let me say I didn't like it when Democrats took a step in this direction in 2004, and was critical when Harold Ickes, one of the party's seasoned operatives, organized outside money on John Kerry's behalf.

I called the move "shortsighted," and said then: "My hunch is that in the long run, the country -- and, yes, especially Democrats -- will regret opening a new loophole in the campaign money system." Republicans, I predicted, would "find more than enough rich people to finance groups on the Ickes model" and eventually outspend the Democrats.

But at least the 2004 Democratic money was raised under rules that required disclosure. That's why Republicans, who now complain about criticisms of their efforts, could mount their relentless attacks on the generosity of George Soros.

By contrast, much of the outside Republican money this year is being raised under a different part of the tax code (and under shamelessly loose Federal Election Commission rules), so the money coming in doesn't have to be disclosed. We also have the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which vastly increased the ability of corporations to influence elections.

If you still think this outside secret money is just the Democrats' problem, consider the views of Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, a venerable business group. Kolb, who served in the Reagan administration, thinks all this secret money is bad for both democracy and business because it undermines public confidence that the government and the marketplace are on the level.

"An election is a public good, not a private exchange," he says. "If I want to buy a car from you, that's an exchange between you and me." But elections "are not a private commodity, candidates aren't private commodities."

That's right: Elections are there to be won, not bought.