The Koch Machine

We’re about to learn a lot more about the Koch (pronounced “Coke”) brothers, despite their best efforts to hide behind the myriad front organizations they use to funnel cash to politicians who’ll do their bidding. “Citizen Koch,” a documentary about their power play in Wisconsin to eliminate bargaining rights of public employees and undermine labor protections generally, begins a limited run in theaters next month after being pushed off the PBS calendar by the Koch brothers, among the biggest contributors to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Another movie, Robert Greenwald’s 2013 “Koch Brothers Exposed,” has been updated with a 2014 edition to show how the industrialists have been further empowered by Supreme Court rulings allowing corporations and individuals to spend unlimited sums in election campaigns. The Kochs have attacked Greenwald’s film relentlessly, right up to the preview this week by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill. You can view it here.

Greenwald reveals how the family’s $100 billion fortune has been amassed through oil and gas pipelines – beginning with father Fred’s business laying pipelines for Josef Stalin in the 1930s – and investments in industries like paper and plastics. Koch Industries is one of the nation’s top 15 polluters, accounting for more than 300 oil spills. It was found guilty by a federal jury of stealing oil from Native American lands. The company has paid more than $100 million in fines.

After spending $122 million trying to defeat President Obama and other Democrats in 2012, the billionaire oilmen are reportedly spending $125 million during this off-year election, flooding different regions with market-tested ads, trying to lay the ground for more gridlock and their own guy in 2016. The unrestrained power of “Citizen Koch” is scary, frankly. If the Kochs go unchecked we are facing the threat of corporate oligarchy. It may already exist in practice.

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That’s why I’m watching both these Koch films (Citizen Koch plays downtown D.C. on June 20) and passing along as much information about them as I can. Here‘s the nationwide schedule for the Citizen Koch showing. Check out the links in this blog, and tell me what you know. Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times recently penned a revealing portrait of the Kochs’ political odyssey over the past few decades. Back in 1980, when David Koch was running for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket, which favored “the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system.” his brother Charles objected to a $2.5 million political expense. Today they spend that much in a week.

Besides more than a hundred million Koch dollars that go to front groups like the ubiquitous Americans for Prosperity, which in turn fronts for numerous Tea Party chapters, hundreds of millions more are leveraged from other right-wing individuals and groups. The Kochs, in effect, are the bagmen for a vast right-wing conspiracy that Greenwald estimates spent $400 million in 2012 alone. This is not including the right-wing think tank echo chamber headed by the Kochs’ own The Cato Institute.

While the media has focused largely on the Kochs’ massive national political machine, the brothers have been even more diabolical at the state level, where they fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to draft model legislation and talking points for state legislators, and canned editorials promoting the legislation that local newspapers snap up to fill column inches.

The result is a rash of bad, even dangerous, legislation – including the “stand your ground” laws that George Zimmerman used as a shield to shoot and kill an unarmed Trayvon Martin. Especially troubling to me is the Kochs’ assault on unions, not only collective bargaining but also pension security. Most recently, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity mounted a targeted strategic campaign to scuttle a Michigan state relief plan for the City of Detroit that would move the city toward solvency while minimizing pension cuts and saving the art library.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asks the right question here: “Who do you want to see suffer?”

http://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/right-wing-group-against-detroit-deal-264606787582

As the New York Times’ David Firestone opined in the paper’s editorial blog:

“Under the circumstances, the proposed state contribution on behalf of vulnerable pensioners is a modest way to make up for Lansing’s decades of abandonment. But it’s too much for the Kochs to stomach. They apparently want city workers and retirees to publicly suffer for the sin of having been union members. They want bondholders and insurance companies at the front of the creditors’ line, and don’t seem to care if the Detroit Institute of Arts has to sell off its paintings and sculptures to put them there.

“As they have in so many other areas of public life, two of the country’s wealthiest citizens are using their good fortune to make life far more difficult for those at the bottom of the ladder.”

The Kochs’ pension shakedown is in keeping with the brothers’ longtime effort to change Social Security insurance into a more Wall Street-friendly investment fund, spending millions to scare Americans into believing Social Security is in peril, when it’s not. They want all pension money invested in the stock market, where the risk is high for individual investors and the reward high for the institutions. The Kochs want a piece of that giant pension pie.

We can’t let the Koch Machine run our country. Arm yourself with information. Spread the word.

Still Keeping Time

Since my last post, I’ve been packing up and preparing to move during another ferocious heat wave scorching the nation. That is the big story from Arizona to Massachusetts. Mother Nature’s frenzy. And that’s another story.

We’re not moving far, but the process of parting with a home and memories accumulated over 22-plus years can be discombobulating, to say the least. I console myself with the fact that this is a new chapter, and there is much to build on. Time marches on, and with it go the flickering vignettes of life, the universe and everything.

Some thoughts on the news of the day, and yesterday:

ImageWho are braver than the firefighters who rush into the flames to save lives and property? They are our most important warriors today in this heat, with wildfires out of control throughout California, Arizona, Colorado, Montana and other states. The 19 firefighters who died fighting a blaze in Arizona this year were the best trained, the most dedicated, the most fearless. My hat is off to the International Association of Fire Fighters and President Harold Schaitberger, who speaks proudly and powerfully about firefighters’ dedication and organization in the public interest.

“The men we lost in those hills lived and served for others, for all of us,” Schaitberger said in tribute during the memorial service for the Arizona “Hotshot” crew. “They chose saving lives and protecting the citizens and country they loved, as their profession.”

They are my heroes. As the Boss says, may their love bring us love:

Perhaps the most outrageous outcome of the Trayvon Martin case, besides a jury of white women actually upholding vigilante injustice against a black teenager under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, is the pronouncement of shooter George Zimmerman after his acquittal that he felt “that it was all God’s plan.” What kind of God plans for the stalking and killing of an unarmed teenager? I am disappointed by the verdict but also dismayed by the sanctimony of those who would judge Trayvon Martin but not the acts of a wannabe cop who clearly initiated the confrontation and set it off. It is sad to think that American justice holds that profiling and prejudice are extenuating circumstances, and the perpetrator can walk.

Edward Snowden, the young consultant who walked away from his contract job with a laptop computer full of information about how the National Security Agency has routinely, and with impunity, collected telephone and email communications from Americans, is now holed up in the Moscow airport, although a deal may be underway to grant him temporary asylum in Russia. I have mixed feelings about his actions, which I think fall short of espionage but certainly should be prosecuted, if he can be apprehended. I’m not sure I want him to be apprehended, however. His target audience is the American people, not some foreign government – although foreign governments, friend and foe, must look askance at the U.S. propensity and ability to track any and all communications. The most important question to resolve: Do we trust our own government enough to allow what clearly is invasive prying into our private lives. We will have to revisit this very important issue later.

The selling of “Obamacare” is a bow to the same ugly dealing that got us this flawed health care “reform” in the first place. Delaying for one year the requirement that employers with 50 or more employees provide health care may help the Democrats weather another election season of Obamacare curses, but it sets back the effort to provide health care for every American. Meanwhile, some provisions of Obamacare actually penalize – and may put out of business – good “multi-employer” health care plans, which pool resources to provide good and affordable care. Eventually, this Obamacare system must grow a “public option” if we are to control costs.

Three cheers for the Economic Policy Institute in creating a new instructional website at http://inequality.is// about the dangerous trend toward economic inequality. It is a telling reminder about what we must do as a nation to fix a broken economic system that is seriously out of kilter. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s avatar provides a professorial tour through the brambles of an economy that was created to be unfair and is hurting not only families, but also the future of our nation. Check it out here:

Malala Yousufzai, the young girl shot in the head by Taliban terrorists last year to prevent her from promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan, made a moving and inspirational speech to the UN Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday. The world is fortunate that such a courageous young woman, wise beyond her years, will dare to challenge ignorance, hypocrisy and violence. Ignore the al Jazeera news crawl and watch her speech to the end:

The fight for Fairness at Patriot goes on in the face of a bankruptcy court ruling that gave Patriot Coal carte blanche to drastically cut benefits for retired and active coal miners, most of whom worked at Peabody and Arch Coal and never worked a day at Patriot. I was on hand to witness the nearly 5,000 miners and supporters who gathered in a football field in Fairmont, W.Va. on July 9 to protest the ruling and the corporate swindle authored by Peabody and Arch, which dumped their retiree obligations into a company, Patriot, created to fail. Police arrested 30 miners and supporters during the peaceful protest. The next rally is outside Arch Coal headquarters in St. Louis on July 30. It won’t stop there.

A recent Washington Post article nonchalantly laid out the Koch brothers’ media War Room, KochFacts.org, a media attack machine that challenges every report, and spins every issue their way. With the Koch brothers reportedly planning to buy some of America’s great newspapers as part of a deal with the Chicago Tribune Co., this commentary by Robert Reich is worth repeating: “Suppose a small group of extremely wealthy people sought to systematically destroy the U.S. government by (1) finding and bankrolling new candidates pledged to shrinking and dismembering it; (2) intimidating or bribing many current senators and representatives to block all proposed legislation, prevent the appointment of presidential nominees, eliminate funds to implement and enforce laws, and threaten to default on the nation’s debt; (3) taking over state governments in order to redistrict, gerrymander, require voter IDs, purge voter rolls, and otherwise suppress the votes of the majority in federal elections; (4) running a vast PR campaign designed to convince the American public of certain big lies, such as climate change isn’t occurring, and (5) buying up the media so the public cannot know the truth. Would you call this treason?”

koch-bros-voodoo-dollYes, I would call it treason. Nothing is more destructive to our democracy than the ability of the mega-rich to buy candidates and laws – not only through the well-heeled lobbying firms on Washington’s K Street, but also with slick model legislation writing at the state legislative level through ALEC, an anti-democratic organization funded by Koch and their billionaire ilk to subvert local lawmaking. As long as we have a Supreme Court that rules that corporations are people, and can spend whatever they want to influence public policy, we are at the mercy of Big Money. They are leviathans in the political arena and we are armed with little more than a slingshot. We must create new laws to protect ourselves against corporate tyranny.

Those are some heavy issues weighing on my brow this month, and I’m sure many of these and more have crossed your mind. But we’re up against enormous personal challenges every day, and it’s not easy to focus on things that are once removed from our personal sphere, things we care about in principle, but not necessarily in action. That’s another issue for another day.

Today’s bon mot: Don’t overexert yourself. And drink plenty of water.

We Need Robin Hood

A new report underlines the basic problem with the post-Great Recession American economy: the rich are getting richer while everyone else is falling further behind.

The study by the Pew Research Center finds that the average net worth of the top 7 percent of the U.S. population increased 28 percent in the first two years of the recovery.  The wealth of the other 93 percent declined.

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From 2009 to 2011, the average net worth of the richest 8 million households jumped from an estimated $2.7 million to $3.2 million, according to The Washington Post report on the Pew study. For the 111 million households that make up the bottom 93 percent, average net worth fell 4 percent, from $140,000 to an estimated $134,000.

Sadly, this is not a recent phenomenon. The divide between the rich and the poor has been yawning progressively – or should we say, regressively – since the early 1970s.  A study last September by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington noted that the median annual earnings of a full-time, male worker in the United States in 2011, at $48,202, were smaller than in 1973.

Between 1983 and 2010, 74 percent of the gains in wealth in the United States went to the richest 5 percent, while the bottom 60 percent suffered a decline, the EPI calculated. Any way you figure it, the middle class is getting screwed.

Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, offers a concise six-point plan to reverse the slide of the middle class and to build shared prosperity for the entire nation. It is not a soft scrub, by any means:

  • Award tax cuts to companies that link the pay of their hourly workers to profits and productivity, and that keep the total pay of their top 5 executives within 20 times the pay of their median worker. And impose higher taxes on companies that don’t.
  • Raise the minimum wage to half the average wage.
  • Increase public investment in education, including early-childhood — especially in the poor and middle-class communities that now lack decent schools.
  • Eliminate college loans and allow all students to repay the cost of their higher education with a 10 percent surcharge on the first 10 years of income from full-time employment.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Add tax brackets at the top of the income tax scale, increasing the top marginal tax rate to what it was before 1981 – at least 70 percent.

The first and last of these proposals are key. We must use the progressive income tax system to level the playing field, to give the 93 percent a chance to get back in the game. The rich must pay more. But the rich have means, so we must beware. We must recognize the vicious nature of the reactionary campaign by corporate forces already underway. Consider this fractured fairy tale:

It should be simple math: the 99 percent should prevail against the 1 percent in a democracy, right? But our democracy is skewed by big money; corporations have bought politicians for years, with few fingerprints. Not just the inside-game glad-handing and lobbying, but also with well-funded public relations campaigns, trying to shape the message to hide the greedy corporate agenda.

The Koch brothers, authors of much of the disinformation during the last election cycles, reportedly now may buy the Tribune Company to help push their right-wing agenda – adding to the noise of Rupert Murdoch’s Faux News and Wall Street Journal editorial page.

While we fight this uphill battle against the anti-democratic forces that grease the palms of too many political leaders in the United States today, we can be cheered by an ongoing global campaign to rectify the inequality through a “Robin Hood Tax,” a levy on transactions of stocks, bonds and derivatives first proposed by the National Nurses Union and their international allies.

ImageWith 1,000 demonstrators calling for reform in the streets outside the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington last weekend, finance ministers from the EU were reporting on their negotiations to impose a financial transaction tax. The proposal: a tiny 0.1 percent tax on stock and bond trades and 0.01 percent tax on derivatives trades. The return would be  an estimated $750 million to $1 billion over 10 years to plow back into their economies and create jobs through public works and other stimulus programs.

A Robin Hood Tax on transactions would be a small price to pay by the global financial giants that created the Great Recession in the first place with their risky speculation schemes. But it’s just a beginning.

Perhaps we cannot resurrect Robin and his merry men to shake up the power brokers in Washington, where money rules most ignominiously. But we can recreate the spirit of appropriating from the greedy, of which there are many nowadays. Let’s insist on policies and reforms that close the great divide between the rich and the rest of us.

Playing the ‘Freedom’ Card

The effort by the lame-duck Republican legislature in Michigan to ram through a so-called “right-to-work’ law is a subversion of democracy, pure and simple. What they could not accomplish through the electoral process, these Republicans intend to do with a blatant power play. It should not stand.

We should cheer the arrival Tuesday morning of hundreds of thousands of workers in the streets of Lansing to protest this dirty deed. They can help peel back the layers of deceit to show this legislative attack for what it is – payback to unions for helping Obama and other progressives win in November, and a defiant call to arms on behalf of their corporate underwriters, the sponsors of their lost election.

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Protestors rally Dec. 6 at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mi., before police turned them back with pepper spray. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio).

Thus far, however, the lesson in Michigan for those who disagree is “Duck!” Tens of thousands of protesters mustered force on Dec. 6, the same day the bill was introduced. They were pepper-sprayed by the police as the state senate held its voting session behind locked doors. No hearing. No discussion. No justice.

There have been other modern-day subversions of democracy by state legislatures, such as Pennsylvania’s 1996 lame-duck passage of electric utility deregulation, pushed through by future energy czar Tom Ridge. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s single-minded assault on public service unions in 2010 certainly qualifies as a major political attack on the public interest.

But Michigan’s “right-to-work” scam really takes the cake. Even a superficial look shows the “underhand” behind this attack on unions – the powerful Koch brothers and their moneyed consort, the corporate-sponsored National Right to Work Foundation, and the right-wing ALEC legislative lobby, doing the dirty work on the assembly floors.

And this is occurring only a month after Obama soundly defeated Mitt Romney and the same corporate ideal – by 8 points in Michigan, led by an overwhelming 15-point majority among union households.

It is comforting to hear, just last week, that Obama opposes “right to work for less.” But we need more of this drumbeat on behalf of simple economic justice. One presidential pronouncement is not enough.

“Right to Work” is a Big Lie that sounds good until you examine it closely. There is real economic mischief hiding behind an abstract and fractured concept of “freedom.”  Here’s what Michigan Gov. Rich Snyder said: “This is all about taking care of the hard-working workers in Michigan, being pro-worker and giving them freedom to make choices.”

It is this kind of fractured logic and double-speak that politicians use when they intend to operate against the interest of the people they should be representing. And because of this easy-to-swallow fabrication a majority of Michiganders – 55 percent – say they are in favor of “right to work.” It’s about freedom, right?

No, it’s not. It’s about restricting your rights to organize – your freedom to make something better of your life.

As the Detroit Free Press stated in an editorial Dec. 9, “Snyder’s right-to-work legislation is an attempt to institutionalize Republicans’ current political advantage. Everything else is window dressing, and most of these diversionary talking points are demonstrably false.

“The argument that right-to-work status makes states more competitive or prosperous is refuted by a mountain of evidence that shows right-to-work states trailing their union-friendly counterparts in key metrics like per capita wealth, poverty rates and health insurance coverage,” the Free Press pointed out.

The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2011 Occupational Employment and Wages Estimates[25], shows median hourly wages of all 22 Right to Work States (RTW) and all 28 Collective-Bargaining States (CBS) as follows:

Occupation Median wages in Right-to-work states Median wages in Collective-bargaining states Difference
All occupations $15.31/hour $16.89/hour -$1.58/hour (-9.4%)
Middle school teacher $49,306/year $55,863/year -$6557/year (-11.7%)
Computer support specialist $46,306/year $50,641/year -$4335/year (-8.6%)

So-called “right-to-work” laws make it illegal for employees and employers to negotiate a contract that requires all employees who benefit to pay their fair share of the costs of negotiating it. These laws are designed to undermine unions’ bargaining strength. If workers are allowed to opt out, collective bargaining doesn’t work so well.

Currently, 23 states have such laws, including Indiana, which succumbed to the same one-party ALEC rule earlier this year.

According to research from the Economic Policy Institute, right to work produces “lower wages for union and non-union workers by an average of $1,500 a year and decrease the likelihood employees will get health insurance or pensions through their jobs. By lowering compensation, they have the indirect effect of undermining consumer spending, which threatens economic growth. For every $1 million in wage cuts to workers, $850,000 less is spent in the economy, which translates into a loss of six jobs.”

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That’s the problem with the right-wing “freedom” recipe. It does not give power to the individual. You are free to what? Get along? To be truly free, you must have the right to organize. We don’t have that today, despite the best efforts of FDR to create a National Labor Relations Act in 1935. We do not have this basic freedom of association, to choose a representative in the workplace, because legislators have continually eroded those rights, palms greased with corporate largesse.

The NLRA was first sullied in 1947 by the anti-union Taft Hartley Act, which was forced through by another Republican Congress, over the veto of President Harry S Truman. The Taft-Harley Act specifically authorized states to prohibit unions from negotiating “closed shops,” where everyone paid their fair share. Many southern states rushed to outlaw “fair share,” and for years those states have suffered the consequences – lower wages, lower income, more poverty.

President Obama may never have to exercise a veto over a National Right to Work Law, which was one of the corporate planks embraced by Mitt Romney in his 2012 campaign, but he will get a chance to weigh in on the subject Monday, Dec. 11, when he visits an auto plant in Michigan.

Let’s listen to what he says. I’m hoping for a strong statement against “right to work” and for the right to organize. Perhaps even a call for national card-check legislation, where a majority can rule in the workplace before the company mounts the inevitable anti-union broadside, protected by our weak labor laws.

It’s long overdue to swing the ball the other way, to balance the playing field for workers against the powerful corporations that run their lives. That would be the mark of real freedom, the freedom to organize.