Friday, June 20, 2014

Rum. And Koch.

Special-interest groups and their propaganda are not new but since the advent of the internet, not only has the manner of information dissemination changed, but so has the way the information is consumed.

Where once a pressure group only had the printed medium, when radio came along, they went with it. Same with television. And now, the Internet and in particular social media like Twitter, Facebook, and the rest.

Pressure groups take on all sorts of personas. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is a pressure group. But so are television networks, for that matter. Each tries to get the media consumer to consume their media.

The hope, the expectation, is that by osmosis, you’ll get the message and start seeing things their way. If there’s an interest, there’s a Twitter account for it.

Four Phases of Interest Group Development

Pressure, Interests, and Ideas

Just about any ‘grouping’ of people can be construed to fit the definition. Some try to get you to change your behavior; some to make you aware of something you may not have been aware of, and others to share a little or as yet unknown idea. And some want to make money.

All of them wish for you to believe them to be the new, relevant ‘thought leaders’. And each group's arguments make better sense that the other’s. And, they all produce policy papers, analysis, statistics, and endorsements to prove it.

Much has been discussed regarding the Koch brothers and their many-faceted effort to influence the body politic of late. Many, especially from the left, have decried the massive amounts of money they pump into their efforts, some even accusing the Machine of trying to buy elections.

It’s hard not to agree with this argument, considering the Machine seems to have a product available to slake a wide variety of political thirsts.

If it’s Right-to-Work, there’s ALEC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Right to Work Committee and others.

If Minimum Wage is your bag, there’s the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the National Association of Manufacturer’s and others.

Reince and repeat for tax reform, voter rights, segregation, and on and on.

Types of Interest Groups

These days, it not unusual at all to learn that a particular businessman belongs to any number of associations, involving a variety of industries, and in an array of functions. When criticized for this, they will mention that many if not all of the Founding Fathers belonged to business associations.

What they don’t mention is that before the modern era, a business man usually belong to only one association, if any[1].

What’s more, in the modern era, a particular association or think tank may serve several functions such a trade association and as a type of ‘chamber of commerce’ for a segmented market, as well as a social group.

Similar-Issue Politics

The Koch brothers aren't the first moneyed-interest to employ multi-pronged marketing as a way of affecting the tone and direction of political discourse, just the biggest. And they may be the best at it.

They have been linked to no less than an oodleplex[i] of think tanks, policy institutes, advocacy groups, etc. All of which concern themselves with the same issues, have incestuous staff arrangements, receive funding from the same sources, and are all independent and non-partisan. According to them, anyway.

Yet, the Koch brothers didn’t invent this scheme. Before them, there was the John Birch Society, who claimed, when discussing their approach to ‘educating the public’ (I forgot to mention all the educating going on), to have gotten the idea from the Communist Party, no less.

Great Expectations

But they didn't really. Years before the JBS was even a small tingly glioma in Robert Welch Jr.’s brainstem, a group calling themselves the American Liberty League (ALL), an organization that espoused Ayn Rand’s philosophy earlier than she did, operated in much the same way. Like Koch, they embraced the idea of the uncommon man.

Obviously, they didn’t use Twitter or Facebook. But they did issue a slew of pamphlets, leaflets, radio ads, and press releases. Led by prominent businessmen, politicians, and academics, the group sought to defend the “American Way”.

As Frederick Rudolph in The American Historical Review said this about the ALL:
“The cloak in which the Liberty League dressed itself in order to promote its position and its program was made of respectable generalities, partial self-delusion, intense sincerity, and frequently embarrassing hypocrisy. It supported with worshipful intensity the Constitution of the United States; it placed itself on the side of the individual and of liberty in opposition to an encroaching government bureaucracy; it respected the judgment of the founding fathers who had so wisely incorporated the separation of federal powers and the rights of the states into the great national document.”
Sound familiar? How could a group who held the Constitution and (gasp) the Founding Fathers in such high regard be anti-American?
The League’s main opponent: The President of the United States of America, Franklin Roosevelt. The group was determined to do all they could to push back on the affront to liberty and individualism that was the New Deal.
When one member of the group referred to the depression as a ‘healthful tonic’, the public, still reeling in the depression caused by the rugged individualism of uncommon men, wasn’t too receptive to their message.
One would have thought that such accomplished men, scholars some, would have been a bit smarter about their public comments. Really, they should have known better. Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior called the ALL a coalition of “industrialists, constitutional lawyers, and captains of finance who drove our good ship onto the rocks[ii]
Captain’s Rum

Years earlier, many of the same men involved with the American Liberty League had come together to form the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), founded in 1918 by Captain William Stayton.

It’s not hard to understand what this group was about. And once their objective was met, they disappeared.

There is one similarity between the old and the new: The various Koch groups, with their tendency to cross-pollenate ideas and leadership personnel, a throw-back to the AAPA, constitute a locus of ideology driven by one ever-present goal: Money.

There is also one huge difference: From time to time we hear from the Koch brothers, Charles, in particular, who says that the two have had their names dragged through the mud simply for trying to be good citizens by providing information and educational materials to the public. They claim it is fundamentally unfair for the public to link their good name to such nefarious aims such as ‘trying to buy elections’, citing that other players are afoot, and their names aren’t mentioned in the same context.

There are reasons for this. One is that no one else is involved in so many areas and no one else is as committed as they are or are willing to spend so much of their fortunes to see that public issues are resolved to their liking. The other reason is that the Koch brothers, more than the others, make their contributions so selective that each dollar given is done so with the objective of putting even more money back into their own pockets. The Koch’s don’t really makes donations, they make investments, tax free.

Romancing the Stonecutters

In opposition to the businessmen’s groups were those with different 'interests', namely, the trade associations. Since Roman times up to the present day, guilds, or unions, acted as a counterweight to seek decent wages and otherwise improve working conditions for craftsman.

Back then, as with the informal business associations, guilds and unions were local affairs. Today, keeping pace with the industrial organizations, the unions have taken to social media as well. See: Fire, fighting with.
The guilds came to America along with industry.

There were Baker’s Guilds, Ship-Builder’s Guilds, and even Banker’s Guilds. Following close behind them were the employer, or owner groups such as The Employers’ Central Executive Committee (against unionization and the eight-hour day), the Law and Order League, and the Railroad General Managers’ Association, which worked in opposition to the Knights of Labor.

The power of the Koch Machine to apply pressure on elected officials, often through their special-interest associations, has only been rivaled by the British East India Company. The laws the Koch Machine fights against are designed to protect ordinary people, working class people, from predators like the Koch’s (and others, of course) who would exploit their lives for their own profit.

Because of social media, the Koch Machine is even more powerful when it comes to foisting its propaganda upon the public. The lessons from previous groups is not lost on the Koch Machine. Instead of issuing bold, yet honest, statements, the various front groups disguise their objectives in terms of ‘personal liberty’, ‘protecting the constitution’, and the ever popular ‘freedom’, i.e., protecting America, and its Constitution. Who could oppose such efforts?

In a review of “You Are the Government[iii]”, Lane W. Lancaster writes:
“If the words he (Shouse) uses in describing such matters as our Bill of Rights, the Federal system, and the system of checks and balances, are to be given their usual meaning, no such government ever existed anywhere.”
Divide Et Impera

When responding to critics, spokesmen for the various issue advocacy groups claim that the founding fathers’ also belonged to such groups. There is truth to this. Well after the war for independence, special interests played an active part in influencing legislation. Wool, tobacco, hemp, and sugar producers successfully petitioned the government in favor of their financial interests.

However, in the era of the founding fathers, businessmen typically belonged to only one such group, if any[iv]. These days, it’s not at all unusual to see a member of one special interest group belong to a number of other groups at the same time. There are now people whose only source of income comes from involvement in such groups

Point in fact: the Koch Machine employs 240 full-time staff in 32 states. And, that’s just for Americans for Prosperity. That’s a big difference from the guys raising a pint at the Green Dragon.

Pressure groups such as Club for Growth, American Legislative Exchange Council, and the CATO Institute are surrogates for Koch Industries. Their purpose is to persuade you (or your elected representatives) to buy their product, which may range from changes in tax structures and rates to regulatory reform, all meant to line the pockets of Charles and David Koch.

Heads They Win, Tails You Lose

Because contributing to these organizations is tax exempt, the actual tax payers (the 98%) foot the bill, in the same way that taxpayers subsidize Walmart and McDonald’s profits.

Maybe what we need is a limit on the amount of tax-exempt money spent on these groups. Not a limit on what can be given to them, just a limit on how much the rest of us have to cover.

Murray Edelman points out that a policy adopted through special interest groups produces two types of rewards: 1) tangible rewards to those doing the lobbying; and 2) symbolic rewards to the rest. For those who won’t receive financial gain, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that there are others who feel the same as they do. That’s often enough, for some. For example, some non-membership organizations have thousands of pledged supporters on Facebook, thousands of followers on Twitter, and thousands of subscribers on email lists[v].

Some interest groups are spin-offs from other groups. Some are born in opposition to existing groups. Moral victories are hollow. To win, to make the effort (and money) worthwhile, the group must convince government to act:
“Government continues to respond to groups that clearly communicate their interests and have the funding to convey their message effectively. Still, representation is not simply a matter of responding to specific interests or citizens. Government must also respond to society’s collective needs, and responsiveness to particular interests can reduce overall responsiveness.[vi]”
It’s when government stops responding to the interests of all its citizens and focuses on satisfying a small handful of certain citizens that inequality grows. Make no mistake, the Koch brothers aren’t the only concern in this matter. There’s the Walton, Bradley, Richardson, DeVos, Schaif, Cargill, and MacMillan families. But they are the most in-your-face actors on the stage.

That’s why they get so much press.

The difference in treatment between the Koch Machine and say, Walmart? Because unlike Walmart (who came under fire recently because one of its stores held a food drive for its own employees, basically asking their customers to chip in even more beyond the public assistance money spent on Walmart's needy employees, because the company sure as hell wasn't going to), isn't so bold as to fund a medusa's head of issue groups that basically claim the government is picking on them.

Doing so while failing to mention the tax breaks, low extraction fees (another government giveaway), and publicly paid-for subsidies that Koch Industries and its subsidiaries receive.

What the Koch Machine is doing is the same that many others are doing - only they are doing so much more of it. The Koch's are taking advantage of the fact that change is not uniform and coordinated among the many aspects of life. that is to say, technology changes at a a faster rate than our overall society does, and the Koch Machine takes advantage of that fact.

[1] See “The Evolution of Business Groupings”, Clarence E. Bonnett, published in “Pressure Groups & Propaganda” – The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science – Thorsten Sellin, Ed.

[i] An “oodleplex” could be defined as a ‘very big number’.
[iii] Written by Jouett Shouse, who served as President for both the AAPA and the ALL.
[iv] See “Pressure Groups and Propaganda”, published by the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Harwood L. Childs, Ed. Philadelphia, 1935.
[v] “The Not-So-Special Interests”, Matt Grossman. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2012.
[vi] “Interest Group Politics”, Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis, Ed.s. CQ Press, Washington D.C. 2002