Billionaires’ front groups attack workers, public schools, and young voters
14 min read
This is class war–part 2
In January, a small group of Indiana schoolteachers encountered their governor, Mitch Daniels, in a hallway of the state capitol. They were part of an outpouring of Hoosiers who had come to Indianapolis that day to protest Daniels’ almost-gleeful political attack on the pay and even the worthiness of public employees. Having the chance, this scrappy group dared to confront his eminence. Why, they asked, was he demonizing and so drastically under-cutting those who educate Indiana’s children?
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“You teachers are all making too much money,” the governor snapped. He then lectured them with a prepackaged factoid: “You are all making 22 percent more than the taxpayers who are paying your salaries.”
Hmmm, too much? Let’s see–classroom teachers in Indiana earn a middle-class paycheck that averages $47,255 a year for handling a daily workload that would break the back (and haughtiness) of any pompous and pampered governor. Yet they are being belittled and their compensation is being slashed by this peacock of a public employee who sucks up more than twice what teachers get in annual salary, plus gold-plated benefits, assorted perks of office, and a barn full of personal staffers to help him make it through his day. Someone needs to buy Mitch a mirror.
Who are these evil teachers who teach your children, these evil policemen who protect them, these evil firemen who pull them from burning buildings? When did we all become evil? —-Chuck Canterbury, national president Fraternal Order of Police
Daniels is one of a flock of far right-wing governors who seem to have flown out of the same dark political hellhole in the past couple of years. Now ruling from the highest roosts of power in more than a dozen states, all of them are pushing vituperative measures designed to disempower and downsize not only public employees and unions, but also the entire workaday majority of their states –the middle class itself. Among other assaults, they are canceling collective bargaining contracts, suppressing union rights, arbitrarily eliminating hundreds of thousands of both public and private-sector jobs, turning over schools and other public functions to low-paying corporations, doing away with minimum wage protections, and cutting unemployment benefits and worker pensions (while simultaneously giving new tax cuts to corporations and millionaires).
Curiously, the governors all seem to have the same playbook. Not only are their agendas alike and the content of their proposals remarkably similar, but they’re also parroting the same scripted rationale for their extremist actions: “The sky is falling on our Great State of [Blank], but luckily I was elected by the good voters of [Blank] to do the people’s will, so I am taking these bold steps to balance [Blank’s] budget.”
What a crock! First, none of them campaigned on what they’re now doing. Second, poll after poll shows that the public supports the workers, not the megalomaniacal governors. And, third, gutting the fundamental workplace rights of wage earners has nothing to do with balancing budgets.
Indeed, if a budgetary fix was really their goal, the governors could easily achieve it by setting up dunking tanks on their capitol grounds, putting their own ample butts on the dunking boards, and charging a dollar a pop for anyone wanting to dunk them. The lines would stretch for miles, and budget deficits could be quickly wiped out, one dunk at a time.
Goons in Gucci’s
So where does this sudden, multi-state offensive against the hard-won rights, protections, and democratic power of America’s wage earners come from? From the top–from a relative handful of arrogantly rich, right-wing families and corporate chieftains who have long been dedicated to disarming labor, repealing the New Deal, and returning America to the glory days when robber barons ruled. These particular moneyed elites have not idly dreamed of going back to the future, they’ve been investing hundreds of millions of dollars during the past four decades to assemble a shadowy network of hired political thugs to get them there.
[HISTORICAL FLASHBACK: In the fierce labor wars of the last century, industrial barons employed Pinkertons and other goons to bloody the heads of laborers or simply gun down those struggling for a share of economic and political power. It was brutal, but organized workers persevered and eventually gained a share of economic and political power. From their sweat and blood, America’s middle class flowered.]
Today, the bands of nouveau corporate royalists (with coats of arms bearing such names as Coors, DeVos, Koch, Scaife, and Walton) are determined to take back those middle-class gains of yesteryear. They are working to achieve this through a coordinated, long-term campaign to (1) crush the ability of working people to unionize, (2) bust America’s middle-class wage structure, (3) eliminate job security, and (4) emasculate government as a force capable of controlling corporate avarice and arrogance.
These latter-day royalists are employing a more sophisticated thuggery than brute force (though don’t think they wouldn’t resort to it). Instead, their goons are more likely to be in Gucci’s than brogans, using dollars and computers rather than clubs and guns. They have been recruiting, financing, training, deploying, and coordinating thousands of political operatives to work through hundreds of front groups, law firms, think tanks, PACs, lobbying offices, media and PR consortiums, faux academic centers, astroturf campaigns, and–of course–compliant politicians.
Among the compliant is our covey of hyperactive governors, all carrying basically the same anti-worker, anti-democratic policy ideas. Their unified agenda wasn’t produced by telepathy or freakish happenstance, but by AFC, ALEC, IFL, SPN,* and other obscure organizational acronyms unknown to 99 percent of Americans. But Daniels of Indiana, Walker of Wisconsin, Kasich of Ohio, Scott of Florida, and the rest of the covey have these organizations on speed dial. Behind the non-descript acronyms are aggressive and insidious right-wing wonk shops that have been set up and richly financed by the corporatists to prepare and hand-deliver pro-corporate programs to compliant governors and key legislators. Once delivered, the organizations work (usually clandestinely) to get the programs enacted. Let’s peek inside a couple of these acronyms.
Forget children, AFC is an astroturf organization spreading the gospel of public education privatization. It is a creature of Michigan’s multi-billionaire DeVos family–daddy Richard founded Amway, ranks 62nd among the richest Americans, and owns the Orlando Magic basketball team.
AFC is ramrodded by Betsy DeVos, whose right-wing bona fides are rock solid. Raised in the wealthy, ueber-conservative Prince family (her brother is Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, the infamous private war corporation), she married Dick (son of Richard) and has been a major donor/fundraiser for the GOP, for religious-right political groups, and for a national web of school privatizers. Also, she and the larger DeVos klan are longtime co-conspirators in and co-funders of the Koch brothers’ plutocratic political network. [Bonus tidbit: The DeVoses reportedly helped finance the Citizens United case that the Supreme Court used last year to unleash secret, unlimited corporate money on our elections.] Betsy is unabashed about using the family’s vast fortune for, as she puts it, “buying influence” in government. In 1997 she bluntly declared, “We expect a return on our investment.”
Eradication of public schools is her passion, and AFC is her machine. It’s essentially a front group that funnels big money from a cadre of like-minded rich people into other front groups across the country. In turn, these groups funnel AFC’s money into local privatization campaigns. Last year, for example, just one political action committee registered by AFC in Indiana amassed $4.6 million from only 13 donors–none from Indiana. The list included Alice and Jim Walton (two billionaire Walmart heirs), a trio of super-rich global speculators (who, interestingly, say they base their risky gambles on poker strategies), a multi-millionaire operator of a national chain of for-profit charter schools, and Betsy herself. Very little of the money stayed in Indiana–more than $4 million was flung out to pro- privatization front groups and candidates running campaigns in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin. This shell game is repeated in campaigns around the country, with the same core group of gabillionaires putting up the cash.
While you are not likely to have heard of Betsy DeVos, chances are she and her deep-pocket cohorts are behind efforts to privatize schools right where you live. By running money through their maze of shell organizations, they keep their own identities secret. Voters in the six states that got cash last year from the Indiana PAC, for example, might see that a group with the sweet-sounding name of the American Federation for Children is running campaign ads and funding candidates in their area–but there’s no disclosure that Amway, Walmart, a trio of poker-guided speculators, and a charter school profiteer are the real source of the effort to undermine their public school system
In campaign after campaign, the ‘local’ demand for privatization turns out to be little more than AFC money creating the illusion of grassroots support (in fact, the steady infusion of millions of dollars from DeVos, the Waltons, et al. is often the only thing propping up many of the so-called ‘school choice’ organizations at the local, state, and national levels). AFC will gush money into state initiatives, legislative lobbying campaigns, and political races, especially in the crucial couple of weeks before a vote. The money buys glossy (and often nastily negative) media, creating the impression that there’s a groundswell for taking public schools private. “Flooding the zone” is the phrase that AFC’s cynical political operatives use to describe this astroturf tactic. Polls consistently show strong public opposition to using tax dollars to fund private and parochial schools, but a little thing like that doesn’t deter DeVos and her tiny band of rich ideologues. Through their stealth campaigns, they have helped elect governors who are on board their corporatization crusade. In April, for example, Gov. Mitch Daniels rammed a sweeping, DeVos-backed voucher bill into law. This radical movement is out to eradicate public education (one group funded by DeVos, Koch, and company even calls itself the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, proudly proclaiming that it supports “ending gov- ernment involvement in education”).
The vast majority of America’s 310 million people adamantly supports public education, but DeVos intends to overwhelm those millions with her millions of dollars, strategically using untraceable money to pervert public policy to her will, one campaign at a time. Last year she launched the AFC Action Fund to focus on state legislative races across the country, with the intention of surreptitiously stacking legislatures with school privatizers.
“With nearly 2,000 members” explains a brochure of this secretive organization, “ALEC is the nation’s largest nonpartisan, individual membership association of state legislators.” Maybe your very own local lawmaker is one of them–but you won’t get that information from ALEC, which hides its list of legislators from public view.
Nonpartisan? Its website lists 22 legislators from around the country who serve as board members and officers of this tax-exempt legislative service organization. All are Republican. In fact, only token numbers of Democrats are allowed in the club, and all inductees are individually vetted to make sure they will adhere to ALEC’s corporate dogma.
Which brings us to the organization’s pose as an association of legislators. The “exchange” in ALEC’s name is not between lawmakers, but between lawmakers and such behind-the-scenes powers as Altria, AT&T, Bayer, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, Intuit, Johnson & Johnson, Koch Industries, Kraft Foods, Peabody Energy, Pfizer, Reynolds American, State Farm Insurance, UPS, and Walmart. These giants form ALEC’s “private enterprise board,” and they are among the self-interested corporations that put up its money and shape its agenda.
State reps pay only a token $50 a year to be members of ALEC, while at least 82 percent of the $6 million yearly budget comes from corporations (ALEC demurely refuses to name its donors, much less report how much each gives, nor will it disclose how it spends the money).
What do corporations get for their tax-deductible donations? A greased skid for sliding their wish list into the laws of multiple states. ALEC is something of a speed dating service. It holds three national conferences a year, plus convening issue-specific policy sessions in 20 to 30 state capitols annually. These are cozy sessions that conveniently gather groups of legislators to meet in private with corporate executives. The two groups schmooze together and develop bills to help extend corporate power over workers, consumers, environmentalists, and others–then the lawmakers go back home to pass the corporations’ bills.
ALEC is the ultimate back room for corporate-legislative collusion. Its promotional brochure describes it as a dynamic partnership “that will define the American political landscape of the 21st century.”
That’s no empty threat. ALEC’s tête-à-têtes result in about 1,000 bills being introduced across America every legislative session, and an ALEC official proudly adds, “We usually pass about 200 bills a year.” And what pieces of work they are! For example:
Even before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took office this January, ALEC agents were handing him model bills for clubbing teachers and other public employees. Pushing ALEC’s attack from inside the legislature were Wisconsin state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the rancorous, union-busting majority leader who was ALEC’s state chairman last year, and state Rep. Robin Vos, the house budget slasher who heads ALEC’s state organization this year. Likewise, governors in Indiana, Maine, Michigan, and Ohio have backed anti-union legislation this year that closely resembles ALEC’s ‘model’ bills.
In 2009, ALEC drew up the Voter ID Act to ban university students from using their college-issued ID’s as proof of residency for voting. Seven states have adopted this model law, which is intended to bar eligible students from the voting booth. These kids must be disenfranchised, New Hampshire’s house speaker bluntly said in February, because they’re “voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.” This model bill has been introduced in 18 other states this year in a rather obvious ploy to hold down the student vote in the 2012 presidential election.
Arizona’s infamous anti-Latino immigration law was crafted at an ALEC conference. The state senate leader who sponsored the bill was in the meeting, as was an eager executive from Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison operation that stands to get a nice business boost from Arizona’s law.
Numerous state bills have been filed to kill, dilute, or withdraw from Obama’s universal healthcare reform. Many bear remarkably similar wording, perhaps because they were drawn from a special report churned out by the ‘nonpartisan’ ALEC, entitled “The State Legislators Guide to Repealing ObamaCare.”
One of ALEC’s specialties is developing state laws to stop citizens from interfering with corporate whim. For example, when various communities began outlawing the use of genetically altered seeds in their area, ALEC rushed out a model bill to remove local control of seeds–11 states have passed it. Also with such climate-change deniers as Koch and Exxon funding ALEC and sitting on its board, you can guess why this corporate policy front has produced more than 800 draft measures against regulating global warming emissions–and, at least six states are considering bills nearly identical to ALEC’s draft resolution for “state withdrawal from regional climate initiatives.”
The big lie
Something unconscionable is at work here, something that is shameful, unworthy of our people, and directly contradictory to our country’s founding ideals. The richest, most powerful, most privileged people in our land–in cahoots with a horde of the least principled, most venal political opportunists in civic life– are intentionally savaging the well-being of America’s majority and aggressively suppressing the democratic rights that make America America. And for what? Solely for themselves, for the aggrandizement of their own wealth and power.
To pull off this grand political larceny, the narcissistic right has manufactured a huge lie that has largely been accepted as truth not only by the GOP and tea partiers, but also by the mass media, nearly all of the mainline pundit class, and too many fraidy-cat Democratic leaders, including the one in the oval office. The lie is that extreme budgetary measures (they call them “coura- geous”) simply must be imposed now, this instant, in order to slay the looming deficit monster that is gorging itself on government spending at all levels.
“In the name of your grandbabies,” they cry, “teachers must be fired, rights smothered, pensions abrogated, Medicare tossed aside, little kids cut off from Head Start, and the bright promise of America’s shared prosperity dimmed. We have no choice but to slash and burn.”
No choice? One hedge fund hustler pocketed $2.4 million last year. Not for the year–$2.4 million AN HOUR. Yet he and his ilk pay a much lower tax rate than you and I do. In recent years, huge corporations like GE, ExxonMobil, and Bank of America have pocketed billions of dollars in profit, yet paid not a dime in federal income taxes. Indeed, far from paying taxes, these three have even been handed millions of dollars in “refunds” from our public treasury in some of their profitable years. Sliding through loopholes created by their lobbyists, two-thirds of corporations in the US pay no income taxes to help cover the priceless benefits they get from our national government.
America does not face a deficit crisis–we face a multi-billion dollar annual tax dodge by the most elite of moneyed elites. The money our society needs is right there–in the coffers of flagrantly rich Fortune 500 corporations and Wall Street banks, in the personal accounts of absurdly wealthy CEOs and fast-buck speculators. America is hardly a poor country. It’s the richest in the history of the world, and it ought to have the very best public education program in the world, the most advanced infrastructure network, and the finest system of health care for all.
Yet our ‘leaders’ only talk of what they can’t do, of what must be cut, of how the middle class and the poor must sacrifice, of how Americans must adapt to the new normal of diminished expectations and shriveled democratic power. The ugly truth is that these despicable governors and lawmakers are willingly trashing teachers and butchering our public budgets simply to spare the privileged and plutocratic few from paying what they owe to sustain a just, democratic, and truly prosperous society. This is ridiculous. Let’s tax the super-rich! We the People must join together, stand up, push back, and shift the focus in this fight from hardworking teachers to these disgusting deadbeats and their political puppets.
*AFC: American Federation for Children; ALEC: American Legislative Exchange Council; IFL: Institute for Liberty; SPN: State Policy Network.