Despite a constant racket from the forces of the far-out right (Fox television's yackety-yackers, just-say-no GOP know-nothings, tea-bag howlers, Sarah Palinistas, et al.), the great majority of Americans support a bold progressive agenda for our country, ranging from Medicare for all to the decentralization and re-regulation of Wall Street. Indeed, in the elections of 2006 and 2008, people voted for a fundamental break from Washington's 30-year push to enthrone a corporate kleptocracy.
Yet the economic and political thievery continues, as the White House, Congress, both parties, the courts, the media, much of academia, and other national institutions that shape our public policies reflexively shy away from any structural change. Instead, the first instinct of these entities is to soothe the fevered brow of corporate power by insisting that corporate primacy be the starting point of any "reform." Thus, when Washington began its widely ballyhooed effort last year to reform our health-care system, step number one was to announce publicly that the monopolistic, bureaucratic insurance behemoths that cost us so much and deliver so little would retain their controlling position in the structure. Likewise, Wall Street barons who crashed America's financial system were allowed to oversee the system's remake--and (Big Surprise!) the same top-heavy structure and shaky practices that caused the crash are being kept in place.
In other words, the foxes who ate the chickens keep being put in charge of designing the new hen house -- so nothing really changes.
This is more than frustrating, it's infuriating -- and it's debilitating for our democracy. As a fellow said to me about the lack of real changes in national policy during the Clinton presidency, "I don't mind losing when we lose, but I hate losing when we win."
Why does this keep happening to us, and who's doing it? It's not merely a matter of too many fickle and pusillanimous politicians -- they're the on-stage actors in this drama, but not the producers, not the ones behind the scenes plotting to thwart the people's democratic will. Who, specifically, are these plotters, and how do they impose their narrow agenda of self-interest over the public interest?
These crucial questions for our democratic republic are the focus of this Lowdown, and they'll be a recurring topic in future issues. After all, to achieve genuine grassroots power, we have to know the full dimensions of the plutocratic powers we're up against. Most Americans are totally unaware of these interests, which have attained a dangerous reach by quietly embedding themselves (and their self-centered worldview) much more deeply in our society's governing institutions than they want us to realize. So let's take a peek at them, beginning with a look at the intricate web of power woven by a huge corporation you've probably never heard of, even though your consumer dollars are financing its right-wing political agenda.
It's none of my business, but maybe you have Northern tissue on your toilet roll. You might also buy Brawny paper towels, Dixie paper cups, and Vanity Fair napkins. Maybe you have clothing that owes its clingy and comfy stretchiness to Lycra, and perhaps you have a Stainmaster carpet or a Solarmax couch in your home.
All of these well-known brands are owned and produced by a global conglomerate that deliberately tries to stay little known: Koch Industries (pronounced "coke"). Based in Wichita, Kansas, Koch is also a major producer of oil, gas, timber, coal, and cattle. It's a petroleum refiner, too, as well as a manufacturer of asphalt, chemicals, polyethylene plastic, nitrogen fertilizers, cement, and lumber products. It owns or controls some 4,000 miles of pipelines, including a piece of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. And, in a poetic bow to its desire for anonymity, Koch also owns Teflon.
With 70,000 employees in 60 countries, this publicity-shy giant is
America's second-largest privately owned corporation. Being private
means it makes very few disclosures about its finances and operating
practices, but we do know that it has sales topping $100 billion a year,
which means it is bigger than such corporate giants as Verizon and
The Billionaire Brothers
Charles and David Koch, who control this family-owned empire, are tied for a spot as the 19th-richest billionaire in the world, according to a 2009 ranking by Forbes. Each brother has a net worth of $14 billion, just below the wealth held by four heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune. Charles, 73, and David, 68, boast of being "self-made" billionaires. Actually, that's a fib, for they had a little help from Daddy. Fred Koch, who died in 1967, started his name-sake business after inventing a method of turning heavy oil into gasoline, and his sons got a leg up on their climb to billionairedom by inheriting Fred's company.
They also inherited something else: a burning ideological commitment to right-wing politics. How right wing? In 1958, Daddy Fred helped found the John Birch Society.
Following in those footsteps, Charles and David have used the wealth they draw from Koch Industries to fuel a network of three Koch Family Foundations. During the past three decades, these "charitable" foundations have set up and financed a secretive army of political operatives dedicated to achieving the brothers' anti-government, corporate-controlled vision for America. This stealth force includes national and state-level think tanks, Astroturf front groups, academic shills, university centers, political-training programs, fundraising clearinghouses, publications, lobbyists, and various other units useful to Charles and David's ideological cause.
This army's effort is effective because it is comprehensive, well funded, coordinated, and focused on a long term political strategy. Contrast that to the progressive movement, which largely consists of underfunded, unconnected groups and hops from battle to battle with little or no strategic planning.
Koch's wicked web