What Can You Do with $900 Million?
I’ve been on the road with limited Internet access for the past week or so, which accounts for the long time between blog posts, but I have kept up with the news via TV and Twitter. One of the big stories — at least before the massive snowstorm that paralyzed parts of Long Island and New England — was the pledge by the Koch Brothers to spend $900 million to influence the 2016 election. This tweet, in particular, got me thinking.
In their efforts to defend their investments in the oil and gas industry, lower corporate taxes, and end unions, the minimum wage, and other efforts to strengthen the power of their workers, the Koch Brothers hearken back to an earlier century of businessmen known as the Robber Barons. Heavily invested in railroads and energy, the Robber Barons influenced government at all levels to green-light their pet projects and police restive laborers. Even so, some of the most enduring public institutions — libraries, universities, parks, and museums — grew out of the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefeller family, Henry Ford, and other members of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century business elite.
Many of the branches of the New York Public Library that I visit regularly and relied on for my Cybils work are “Carnegie libraries,” first funded by the steel magnate who started out in the United States as a poor immigrant from Scotland. Carnegie supported libraries and schools so that other immigrants and children growing up in poverty could have the same chances he did. He and other entrepreneurs recognized that in a growing nation, we needed all hands on deck, that everyone had the potential to contribute and philanthropy should be directed to unlocking the potential of all young people regardless of their circumstances of birth.
Led by the Koch Brothers and despite their rhetoric of “freedom” and “opportunity,” today’s robber barons have no such aims. The $900 million they seek to spend on elections is an exercise in raw self-interest — lowering their own taxes at the expense of those who already have so little (one of their principal platforms is to eliminate the earned income tax credit, which offsets regressive payroll taxes), destroying unions and minimum wage laws, and increasing the production of dirty fuels while quashing competitors who seek to develop clean energy solutions. The Koch Brothers claim to be Libertarians, saying that government should get out of the way so that the free market can flourish and benefit everyone, but theirs is a paternalistic strain of libertarianism that supports the policing of working-class behavior through restrictions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and freedom of expression. Contributions from the Koch Brothers and other members of the conservative business elite have gone to efforts to ban books, end ethnic studies programs, and rewrite the social studies curriculum to downplay protest and promote patriotism. Freedom, it seems, is only for those with the money and power. The rest of us have to shut up and behave.
Given these ideological beliefs, it’s no wonder that the Koch Brothers have directed their considerable wealth to influencing elections rather than to funding libraries and other public facilities. Yes, their names appear on one of the opera houses in Lincoln Center in New York City, but the opera house is a place that they and their friends enjoy personally. Ten blocks to the south of Lincoln Center is the Columbus Branch of the New York Public Library, a place I visit frequently but the Koch Brothers and their friends will not. And while vast election spending may benefit the media outlets that receive the money (owned by other conservatives and Koch Brother allies like Rupert Murdoch), they do nothing to benefit the economy overall. Media propaganda does not create jobs, and when we watch it, we all become less critical and more easily manipulated, especially when that propaganda drowns out or silences other speech.
I have long wanted to write a piece about money in politics and how it has corrupted the democratic process. Upon hearing of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (now reinforced by the 2014 McCutcheon ruling), my husband proclaimed that democracy in the United States is over. I would add that we have become a cautionary tale for other democratic countries, that as soon as they allow private money to fund elections, the resulting “arms race” can only lead to plutocracy, government by the very wealthy. At that point, all of us are dependent on the benevolence of those wealthy people. And if the Koch Brothers are any indication, that is not a good place to be.
I came to your blog to read about Portugal, but I am enjoying your other writings, too.
I happen to have grown up and lived most of my life in, or within 60 miles of, Pittsburgh, so I am very familiar with the Carnegie Libraries. I drive 45 minutes (each way) every few weeks to pick up books, audio books, and videos I’ve reserved at the library from which I acquired my first library card at age 8.
There is a library in the small town where I live and several closer than 45-min. away, but by driving to one of the libraries affiliated with the huge metropolitan Carnegie system, I have a much large choice of materials and a library I love to browse. I could have books delivered to my local library, but there is not much to browse in that building —and of course, that is the pleasure of a library, to discover books I would not have known to search for online.
As much as I thought I knew about Carnegie, I recently discovered that he built and opened his first library in the mill town where most of his workers lived.
I can’t imagine something like that ever crossing the Koch brothers’ minds.
The late Molly Ivins (1944-2007) wrote: “One function of the income gap is that the people at the top of the heap have a hard time even seeing those at the bottom. They practically need a telescope. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt probably didn’t waste a lot of time thinking about the people who built their pyramids, either. OK, so it’s not that bad yet — but it’s getting that bad.”
I’m not sure when she wrote that, but it was at least 10 years ago.
Is it that bad yet?
Thank you for your kind words and support for reading and libraries, C.J. I’m afraid we’re in a darker place right now in the sense that wealth has become increasingly concentrated and class lines hardened. In the nineteenth century, a penniless immigrant like Carnegie could become wealthy, or his children or grandchildren could do so. People like the Koch brothers, the Prince/DeVos family, and Donald Trump — our current rulers — inherited their wealth and rule on behalf of their fellow heirs of great fortunes. It may well be that the opportunities for ordinary people in the United States lie in other places and not here.