Monday, July 21, 2014

Koched up

Jim DiEugenio, a brilliant historian and a friend to this blog, has written a superb piece about the Koch brothers and their malign influence on our current politics. The essay derives from the suppression of the documentary Citizen Koch, which PBS refused to air for fear that that David Koch would withdraw support from the network.

Even if you think you already know the story, I urge you to give DiEugenio's work your attention.
Perhaps as a reaction to his experience with Stalin, Fred Koch became one of the original members of the far-right John Birch Society. In fact, he was on the Executive Committee which met monthly to plan Birch Society strategy. In 1961, Fred Koch sponsored a major Birch Society event in Wichita, introducing the founder of that group, Robert Welch, to a town hall meeting of 2,000 people.

To understand today’s Koch brothers – and why they now say President Barack Obama is a socialist – it’s necessary to recall just how reactionary the John Birch Society was. Some Birchers thought that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent.

Echoing this nonsense, Koch self-published a pamphlet which said, “Communists have infiltrated both the Democrat and Republican parties.” Koch also wrote about the nascent civil rights movement: “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.”
The current mania for libertarianism owes much to the Koch family's predatory influence:
By the late 1960s, Charles Koch was among a group of high-level Birch members infatuated with Robert LeFevre, who created the Freedom School which touted the mystique of the Austrian School of Economics. From his fondness for LeFevre, Charles went on to become the sugar daddy of the Libertarian movement.
Seeking to build a movement that challenges government regulations, Charles and David Koch became major benefactors of the Libertarians, spending millions to fund the libertarian Cato Institute.

In 1980, David Koch also ran for Vice President on a Libertarian ticket headed by attorney Ed Clark. Some reports state that the Kochs spent about $2 million on the 1980 campaign, boosting the Clark/Koch partnership to the highest percentage for a Libertarian ticket ever received.

The platform was considerably outside the mainstream, even to the right of Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, whom they attacked for representing “no change whatsoever from Jimmy Carter and the Democrats.” (, June 2, 2014, “The Truth about the Koch Agenda”.)
This last point is important. Modern Republicans revere Reagan, yet the conservative movement is largely controlled by a family that despised his alleged "moderation."
After 1980, the Kochs decided they personally would not seek political office. Instead, they would advance Libertarian ideas from behind the curtains. According to Doherty, the Kochs came to look at politicians as “actors playing out a script.” The Kochs would concentrate on writing the script’s themes and the words for these actor/politicians to speak.
There's much, much more at the other end of the link.

I've also been reading Bob Woodward's The Price of Power, which tells the story of Barack Obama's struggles on the economic front. Much of the book won't be news to you. Indeed, the big revelation here is that the story you've been told is, more or less, what actually happened.

Obama, for all of his many faults, really did try to stand up to a far right machine that was ready to destroy the economy in order to further the goals of eviscerating Social Security and reducing the tax rates for the wealthy. For that, he deserves praise.

I feel a bit astonished to admit that, at this stage in this presidency, my main problems with Obama concern foreign policy. If Obama failed, he did so by accepting the construction that deficit reduction had to be the goal that trumped all others -- a view which, as Paul Krugman points out, was always based on a delusion.

Yet can we blame Obama? Nearly everyone around the globe -- right and left -- had fallen prey to that same hallucination. Our ill-educated citizenry stupidly thinks that lower taxes equal higher revenue. They also think that Reagan achieved an economic recovery through belt-tightening, even though the exact opposite occurred: He ran up a deficit exceeding all previous deficits combined. Since 2009, there has been enormous populist pressure on Obama to "do something about the debt," because our populace has been brainwashed into thinking that debt reduction equals prosperity.

Boehner, his opposite number, may have grumbled about the president's "arrogant" style and his allegedly shortsighted negotiating methods, but those complaints don't address the real problem. The real problem has always been the far right, funded by the Kochs and fueled by a messianic vision. These people insist on imposing strict libertarianism on a country that does not want it. Even Boehner, I think, despises the insanity within his party, yet he knows that the modern GOP is a party in which one either goes mad or goes away.

In a recent Salon piece, writer Thomas Frank argues that the main failure in these economic standoffs/negotiations was Obama's. Frank says "right-wing obstructionism could have been fought." He structures his argument around a forecast of how Obama's presidential museum will frame this period in history.
Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight.
As much as I dislike Obama, I cannot agree with this assessment, at least not fully.

The forces of irrationality are too powerful; The Crazy is too well-funded. Had Obama been a much more passionate president, had he spoken with a tongue of divine fire, he still could not have talked down this foe.

To prove the point, consider the role of Eric Cantor, the leader of the Crazy Faction throughout the period Woodward chronicles. He seemed willing to take this country into default -- to drive the locomotive right over the half-completed trestle, laughing maniacally while the train plummeted toward the rocks. Yet in the end, Cantor wasn't crazy enough to please the conservative movement.

Something unnerving is abroad in this land. It's an evil force which no Democratic president can successfully confront.

The people say that they want bipartisanship, but the Kochs want nothing of the kind. They want libertarianism or apocalypse.
Who was it who put together the so-called "Catfood Commission" dedicated to wanting to destroy Social Security? Who was it who kept trying to put Social Security on the table to "negotiate" with the Republicans? Who was it who took his marching orders from billionaire Social Security hater Peter J. Peterson? Hint: It wasn't the Kochs or their machine.

Obama is just as bad if not worse because he still hides behind the "D" when he is nothing of the kind. For all your criticism of Obama, you still think he is "better" than the batshit crazy fascists on "the other side."

You still believe this even though they have identical goals in destroying the public sector for private gain. It's just that the fake Democrats like Obama "sound reasonable." In that sense they are MORE dangerous because they seem more benign.

It's disgusting the two parties are shells of what they were 40 or 50 years ago, when there were meaningful differences between the two and they operated in a spirit of cooperation.
Good article, and I generally agree.

However, I would still argue that Obama could have been stronger, and gotten more done, in the first 9-12 months of his presidency. But he and his advisers clung to their fantasy self-image of him as the all-wise Great Conciliator. He didn't want to be the leader of the Democratic Party. He preferred to be above the fray, even selling out the Democrats to achieve some mythical Grand Bargain.

Spike Lee had him pegged early on. Remember? The Magic Negro.

I say that if he had been tough and deliberate, he could have won more battles before he reached the end of the leash the RW eventually put on him.
Breaking this into two parts due to the undocumented 4096 character limit for comments.

Blaming the right wing for Obama's apparent fecklessness is just naive, Joseph. Obama hasn't accomplished anything "progressive" because he never wanted to in the first place, not because he was somehow overwhelmed by the forces of reaction. He's been a corporate tool for his entire political career - anybody who took the time to examine his backers in Illinois already knew that.

I find this sentence to particularly disingenuous:

"Obama, for all of his many faults, really did try to stand up to a far right machine that was ready to destroy the economy in order to further the goals of eviscerating Social Security and reducing the tax rates for the wealthy."

Let's not forget that Obama, on his own initiative (to the extent that the words "Obama" and "initiative" can be used correctly in the same sentence), organized the infamous Peterson "Catfood Commission" and proposed chained CPI. Have you really forgotten this little gem from the 2010 State of the Union:

" But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. (Applause.) So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year.

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. "

Continuation of the previous comment:

That was followed very shortly by:

" More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will continue to skyrocket. That's why I've called for a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad. (Applause.) This can't be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline.

Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans. (Applause.) And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s."

That's not the voice of the people's advocate. It's not even the voice of a weak, dithering incompetent (which is probably the nicest thing I could say about the President). When it comes to Social Security, "pay as you go" translates to:

1) maintain the regressive cap on FICA taxation (speaking as someone who personally benefits from that cap),
2) reduce the benefits that workers have paid for over decades, either through outright cuts or through rigging the CPI, and
3) essentially defaulting on the trillions of dollars of debt obligations the Federal government has already incurred by borrowing against the FICA trust over the last few decades.

That's not the voice of passive bipartisanship - that's the voice of a man aggressively seeking to strip retirement security from millions of American workers, probably to set the stage for eventual privatization.

As for the Koch brothers, yes they're attempting to pervert public policy to their own economic advantage at the expense of hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens (many of whom are already in dire economic straits). Yes, they want to eviscerate what few economic and political protections ordinary citizens have.

This does not make them a unique force of evil in American politics. It makes them typical of their class. They're not particularly worse than the Silicon Valley whiz kids who seek to legalize age discrimination, who collude illegally to depress wages, who push for increased H1B visas as millions of US STEM workers are unemployed or underemployed, and who conduct mass surveillance and psychological experimentation on millions of unconsenting Americans. They're certainly not worse than the Obama-backing investment houses who tanked the real economy and have continued to push the agenda of wage reduction, offshoring, and disemployment throughout this recession.

The rhetoric is all haka. Trust me, the Kochs (and our other kleptocratic overlords) couldn't be happier with Obama in the White House. That "socialist" BS is just for the rubes.
The present state of inertia is very satisfying to politicos of both mainstream parties, who can swim in comfortable seas of campaign funds.

Both parties can engage in fundraising campaigns indulging in hysterical fear-mongering of what the other side will do if you don't dig deep, and neither side is expected to actually accomplish anything. The Republicans can claim that their heroic efforts have narrowly preserved us from the spectre of a red flag flying over the White House; the Democrats can claim that we'd live in a middle class paradise if not for those obstructionistic Republicans, and the citizens sigh and turn just a little bit more cynical day by day.
a Kucinich would have taken the battle to the Kochs.
and fought for single payer and to
imprison the banksters.
and broken up the big banks.
and not exonerated the Cheney crime team.
and not surged in Afghanistan, for nothing as it turns out.
or drone bombed across the Mideast and beyond, killing thousands of innocents.
that is, if he could have got Pelosi out of the way.
and worked with Ron (not the sellout Rand) Paul to get her and Boehner out of the way.
the public on both sides is afraid of the ultimate confrontation and the Gazans and Syrians must pay, that we not be polarized to war in the streets and final settlement of the issues here.
The final settlement is but delayed, the blood will flow the more because of that.
What does "all other deficits combined" mean? Annual ones, in 2014 dollars?
b: The phrase was commonly used during Reagan's second term, so I will presume that the calculation was made in the dollars of that time.

Others: I think you should read Woodward's book before giving yet another version of The Recitation. It was clear that both the Republicans and Obama White House were fighting viciously over what they considered matters of principle. A lot of people lost a lot of sleep. Both Obama and Boehner reached points where they will willing to sacrifice their positions (as President, as Speaker) in order to insist on non-negotiable items.

And yet many citizens who didn't follow the details of those battles presume that they were simply going through the motions.
Woodward. Is. A. Tool.
I should add that Michael has it right. Obama's Grand Bargain included things that most Dems would consider unthinkable. Yet he was still a damnable socialists to his Republican opponents. I can't see any way past this problem.

Some years back, I would have said "Maybe we should let the libertarians have their way. Maybe the only way to discredit their philosophy is to let it run its course." But if even Dubya could not kill conservatism...
Michael, in part you are right. But his Obama-era books have been valuable.
The other day there was a birthday party outside my window, for some child. Very noisy. Leaving the flat I looked through a window on the opposite side of the building, and in through the window of the building next door, wherein was a large piece of cloth hanging on the wall decorated with an inverted pentagram. Red on black, very rock and roll.

Sound or Satan? Noise or necromancy? Who is the better neighbour?
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