Dark Money

Dark Money by Jane Mayer covers a period from the early 1970’s to the run up to the Trump election. It documents in meticulous detail the amount of money spent over the period by super rich Americans, not just to secure the election of politicians  supportive of their radical libertarian views but more insidiously to shift the terms of political debate to the right.

DMThe process begins in the late 1960’s early 70’s when a number of very wealthy Americans began to fear the US was about to succumb to socialism. It may seem unbelievable now but looking back it was a time of radical foment, the rights of black Americans were being fought for, a nascent women’s rights movement was emerging, young people’s opposition to the Vietnam war resulted in 4 students being shot and killed in a protest at Kent State University.

Whilst all this protest were real worries to many on the right there were other issues about the role of the state that were of perhaps of more profound concern. The Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson had initiated a War on Poverty. Worse however was a proposal by Republican President Richard Milhous Nixon to create a modest basic income, an idea about which there is currently renewed interest.

In 1970 the Family Assistance Plan passed through Congress with a healthy majority but was lost in the Senate to Democratic opposition that it was not radical enough. At the time it was said “This bill represents the most extensive, expensive and expansive welfare legislation ever handled.” Not only was their bipartisan support for this proposed legislation, but it was supported by 90% of the press and popular in the country.

For some, all of this represented an unwarranted intervention by the state in the operation of the market economy. An intervention that would expand the role of the state, require increased taxation and thus impact directly on the fortunes of the very wealthy. Some decided it was time time to act.

Ms Mayer’s book focuses primarily on the brothers Charles and David Koch. The brothers engaged in active politics in the 1970’s providing financial support to the Libertarian Party. In 1980 David Koch ran as the running mate to the party’s Presidential candidate, Ed Clark who was challenging Ronald Reagan, from the right. They got 1% of the vote. From this point on the Koch’s receded from public view and over the next three decades according to Ms Mayer gave well in excess of $100m “…to dozens of seemingly independent organisations aimed at advancing their radical ideas.”

The book charts how the brothers “weaponised philanthropy”, maximising the tax benefits of establishing charitable trusts, thus avoiding inheritance tax, and then using the money from the trusts to support a series of educational and social welfare groups to promote their libertarian viewpoint. Over the years a variety of think tanks were established or supported all with the aim of ensuring that conservative ideas were made respectable.

Over time the thinking evolved and there was a recognition that in order to change opinions the elite educational institutions of the US had to be “penetrated”. This led to the “beach head” theory which was about establishing conservative beach heads at “…the most influential schools in order to gain maximum leverage.” By 2015 the Charles Koch Foundation was “subsidising pro-business, anti-regulatory and anti-tax programmes in 307 different institutions of higher education in America.” Interestingly the book reports a comment about the Golden Rule of philanthropic giving – those with the gold, rule. This was taken to a higher level when a donation of $965,000 to West Virginia University by the Charles Koch foundation came with strings. The foundation was to have a say over the professors it funded, fundamentally undermining academic independence.

The Koch’s were not alone in this enterprise but they did, and continue, to play a major co-ordinating role such that at one point the sprawling breadth of their influence in right wing political promotion was described as Kochtopussy. Ms Mayer’s book makes clear that this was not the outcome of a series of more or less random individual initiatives. Rather it was an evolving, but very conscious, political strategy to move the political goal posts. It responded to a very clear cri de coeur set out in a memo by Lewis Powell in the late 1970’s urging American capitalists to wage “guerrilla warfare” against those he saw as trying to insidiously undermine them. Ms Mayer claims his call to arms inspired some of the super rich, “to weaponise their philanthropic giving in order to fight a multi-front war of influence over American political thought.”

You may wonder whether these people were driven by a bizarre but genuine belief in radical libertarianism, where the state, taxes and regulation were perceived as demeaning constraints on the freedom of the individual. In truth their idealism was always tempered by a strong regard for their personal advantage. When congress was considering the Troubled Assets Relief Progamme (TARP) the Koch’s and their radical caucus were opposed to the massive package of  state support. This changed however when the stock market started to tank. Suddenly their wealth was at risk and opposition to the TARP was dropped.

Another fascinating insight into the motivation of the Koch brothers comes from a post mortem conducted into the right’s failure to prevent a second Obama term at one of their annual seminars. Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute funded generously by the Koch brothers, made the point that if the 1% want to win control of America, “… they needed to rebrand themselves as champions of the other 99%”. This theme was built on in 2014 in a paper that Richard Fink, Charles Koch’s “grand strategist”, gave to a meeting of one of their annual seminars of the libertarian super rich. The paper was entitled “The Long Term Strategy: Engaging the Middle Third”. In a perfectly candid way Fink asked the question, “We want to decrease regulations. Why?” he then answered his own question, “It’s because we can make more profit, okay?.”

One third of the electorate who were perceived as solidly on the side of the libertarians, another third never would be. This mean the battleground was about gaining the trust of the middle third. To do this it would be necessary to convince the them that libertarian intent was virtuous. “We’ve got to convince these people we mean well and that we are good people.”

Following a Supreme Court decision in 2010 known as Citizens United it was found that corporations had the same rights to freedom of speech as individuals. This overturned a century of restrictions banning corporations and unions from spending all they wanted on the election of candidates. This opened the floodgates to political spending to support congressmen and senators and the Koch Brothers took maximum advantage building a real power base which was in but not of the Republican Party.

In 2014 the Koch network invested $100m into House and Senate races for the GOP plus almost twice as much into other kinds of activism. The result was they won full control of both. Their aim was to spend $889m in the 2016 presidential race. Whilst they could not legislate for the Trump wildcard the first attempt to replace Obamacare was such a shambles because of the intransigence of the right wing caucus within the Republican Party largely made up of Koch supported Congressmen and Senators who thought the Trump proposal was too generous!

Dark Money is a sobering work which casts an unflinching light on the very private world of the super rich in America and specifically on the brothers David and Charles Koch estimated to be worth $41.6bn each. It raises all kinds of issue about the role of multi-billionaires in undermining democracy in America and reinforcing a process which is concentrating ever more power and wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of super rich plutocrats.

The influence of the Koch brothers, and many others of the same ilk, is not confined to the States however. They have played a part in shifting the terms of political debate across the whole of the developed world, dragging the centre of politics so far to the right that people like Richard Nixon look like lefty softies. If one thinks about how a proposal to increase taxes on the rich in Britain today would be greeted it is a testament to how far the super rich have captured common sense and shaped it to their benefit.

This is a book that should be read widely. It’s scale will probably prevent this which is a real shame. It is a tremendous summary of a long and sustained process of the exercise of soft power through the expenditure of vast amounts of private money. If the process is not stopped it will ultimately undermine democracy.

Dark Money. Jane Mayer. Scribe Publications 2016





What is good about the UKIP results?

For the main UK political parties the 2014 UKIP local election results are a challenge which they are unsure how to deal with. Do they cast UKIP as racist and risk being attacked as out of touch with the problems of ordinary people. Or do they attempt to recognise the valid concerns UKIP is thought to have identified? When asked about UKIP politicians from all the main parties choose their words with the same level of lawyerly care that Bill Clinton did when asked about his relationship with Monica Lewinksy. They also look about as comfortable as he did.

Crudely one might ask whether UKIP has tapped into a rich vein of base racism which they transform into a respectable concern about the strain on public services and dilution of British culture? Clearly they do seem to have found a mother load of electoral support however I believe it is more profoundly driven than a concern with too much immigration. I fear there is a much deeper malaise in British society, one which is connected to global as well as national trends where fears about immigration are symptoms not causes. Trends which are making life more and more uncertain for millions of people.

For something  over thirty years now there has been a process of growing inequality in the UK. Thomas Piketty’s recent book charts what he sees as a global process concentrating wealth and income in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. This has largely been at the expense of the middle classes whose living standards have at best stagnated over this period of time.

One of the processes which is seen to have contributed to this concentration is the development of the “winner take all” model in more and more areas of life, and the growth of the “super managers” particularly in the financial sectors of the economy. In  the 1970’s the top 1% of earners captured 10% of national income in the US, now their take is around a third.

It is, of course, this highly paid cadre of super intelligent financiers who developed the sophisticated financial instruments which were intended to diversify away risks on securitised loans. Collateralised Debt Obligations, Credit Default Swaps and such like. For those of us that did woodwork the clue was in the names of these instruments – “debt” and “default”. At bottom if you lend money to people who cannot afford to pay it back the wheels are going to come off however complicated the financial alchemy is you build upon that foundation.

When the wheels did come off in 2007/08 the groups who had to pay the price were the taxpayers, by that I mean the PAYE tax payers and more specifically the ones without an army of lawyers and accountants between them and the inland revenue. Western economies were brought to their knees, hundreds of billions of pounds had to be provided to bail out financial institutions and the term austerity was elevated to a policy reigning back the welfare state that had done so much to improve equality over the 20th century. Contrition amongst those who were most responsible was thin, accountability virtually non existent. No sooner had the crisis been stemmed than bankers were telling us that we needed to “move on”. “Moving on” meant getting back to annual bonuses equivalent to the lifetime earning of those on the average wage.

Even as it became clear that the people who had created these financial weapons of mass destruction had failed to consider the “black swan” risks that might be associated with them, and those that had allowed them to be applied at scale had very little understanding of what they were or how they worked, the level of public outrage appeared strangely muted.

Since the credit crunch scandal after scandal has come to light as we discover that LIBOR, Forex and Gold markets were rigged. Unnecessary insurance products sold to millions of people, sophisticated interest rate swaps sold to businesses which were then driven into liquidation by the rising costs of the products and in some instances, it is claimed, bought at distressed values by the very banks that sold them the swaps. Banks were even found to be laundering the money of drug barons!

Even after all this the impetus for re-regulation of the banks is being undermined by arguments about the need to protect one of our most important industries, we must not kill the golden goose. Beggar-my-neighbour tax reductions for corporations and those on ultra high salaries we are told will reward talent, inspire innovation and attract jobs to the UK. Whilst it is rarely challenged in the popular press it should not be assumed that the population miss the fact that whilst rich people need more money to be motivated poor people need less. And it is strange that lower taxes should inspire companies to come to Britain when they arrange their affairs so that they don’t even pay them.

One might think that the public are suffering from shock fatigue. You worry that if financial analysts were found to be discerning the trends in the markets from the entrails of freshly sacrificed babies it would generate no more than a weary shake of the head. The stoicism with which the cuts to the welfare state have been accepted must have surprised even George Osbourne. The limited challenge that has been mounted to date should not, however, be seen as acceptance. These issues are moving the tectonic plates of public opinion. On the surface little may appear to be happening but deeper there are strains building which will at some point be released.

Ukip have created a fault line. They speak to the pain that the population are experiencing now and the deep unease that they feels about the future. For the elderly it is the fact that their savings are being eroded by effectively negative real interest rates, for the middle aged the date they can retire is receding, for those who work in the public sector redundancy looms, for those in the private sector their terms and conditions worsening with zero hour contracts,  all are finding their incomes declining in real terms, and young people if they can get a job certainly cannot get a house in large parts of the country.

To change my metaphor, there is a lot of tinder lying around and Ukip are providing a spark. Furthermore I think the major parties should not assume that the first past the post voting system for the 2015 general election will douse the Ukip torch. People are hurting and want out and Ukip seem to be offering them a route. Ironically they are tapping in to precisely what Nick Clegg tapped into 4 years ago.

This is not just an issue in the UK. It might seem strange to put UKIP, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and sundry proto fascist and extreme left groups on the continent together but they are all expressions of growing frustration with the way the economy is being shaped and the social and political consequences of this. The catalyst may be immigration but as I have argued the causes are far more pervasive and deeply rooted. Unless these are addressed closing our borders will provide a temporary and unedifying distraction. To be clear Ukip does not have the answer indeed they are not even addressing the right question.

Technology and globalisation are setting life defining challenges for us. Some argue that these are forces which it is pointless, indeed counterproductive, to try to shape. They accept they can often cause “dislocation” but go on to argue that the evidence from the industrial revolution and the developing economies is that eventually everyone is better off. Unfortunately, there are increasing signs that innovation is not always tied to productivity increases nor grow to the increase in new quality jobs.

One example,  I accept crude, of the future we may face is provided by Citigroup. They have advised clients to structure their investment portfolios around the growing consumer power of the super rich. They think “…the world is dividing into two blocks – the Plutonomy and the rest.” They see the economy as an hourglass with a smaller and smaller number of super rich consumers of luxury items,  (yachts and jets) at the top. And for a the rest…? The future is Poundland.

This picture of the future is not good for anyone. What we lack are politicians that have the nerve to articulate a different vision. One which challenges some very powerful vested interests and indeed at times contradicts some of the bar room certainties of public opinion. To be clear, I believe, a future which needs to remain committed to a free market system with private property rights and inequality of rewards. However, inequality within bounds that are rationally debated. The clock is ticking for a considered and structured response to these issues the alternatives are in no ones interest.

Back to where I started, what on earth can be said in favour of people voting for Ukip?  Grasping a positive from this it shows that, despite regulations and laws being made which seem to be tailored in the interests of the minority, despite the obscene salary levels being paid to an industry that nearly destroyed the western economy, despite the frailties and venality of some of todays politicians some people still have faith in democracy.  From what I have said it will be clear that I think the faith in Ukip is totally misplaced however the recourse to democracy when you are hurting is something we must strive to support.