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“The New Billionaire Political Bosses”: Political Power Tends To Rise To Where The Money Is

Charles and David Koch should not be blamed for having more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans put together. Nor should they be condemned for their petrochemical empire. As far as I know, they’ve played by the rules and obeyed the laws.

They’re also entitled to their own right-wing political views. It’s a free country.

But in using their vast wealth to change those rules and laws in order to fit their political views, the Koch brothers are undermining our democracy. That’s a betrayal of the most precious thing Americans share.

The Kochs exemplify a new reality that strikes at the heart of America. The vast wealth that has accumulated at the top of the American economy is not itself the problem. The problem is that political power tends to rise to where the money is. And this combination of great wealth with political power leads to greater and greater accumulations and concentrations of both — tilting the playing field in favor of the Kochs and their ilk, and against the rest of us.

America is not yet an oligarchy, but that’s where the Koch’s and a few other billionaires are taking us.

American democracy used to depend on political parties that more or less represented most of us. Political scientists of the 1950s and 1960s marveled at American “pluralism,” by which they meant the capacities of parties and other membership groups to reflect the preferences of the vast majority of citizens.

Then around a quarter century ago, as income and wealth began concentrating at the top, the Republican and Democratic Parties started to morph into mechanisms for extracting money, mostly from wealthy people.

Finally, after the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision in 2010, billionaires began creating their own political mechanisms, separate from the political parties. They started providing big money directly to political candidates of their choice, and creating their own media campaigns to sway public opinion toward their own views.

So far in the 2014 election cycle, “Americans for Prosperity,” the Koch brother’s political front group, has aired more than 17,000 broadcast TV commercials, compared with only 2,100 aired by Republican Party groups.

“Americans for Prosperity” has also been outspending top Democratic super PACs in nearly all of the Senate races Republicans are targeting this year. In seven of the nine races the difference in total spending is at least two-to-one and Democratic super PACs have had virtually no air presence in five of the nine states.

The Kochs have spawned several imitators. Through the end of February, four of the top five contributors to 2014 super-PACs are now giving money to political operations they themselves created, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For example, billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his son, Todd, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, have their own $25 million political operation called “Ending Spending.” The group is now investing heavily in TV ads against Republican Representative Walter Jones in a North Carolina primary (they blame Jones for too often voting with Obama).

Their ad attacking Democratic New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen for supporting Obama’s health-care law has become a template for similar ads funded by the Koch’s “Americans for Prosperity” in Senate races across the country.

When billionaires supplant political parties, candidates are beholden directly to the billionaires. And if and when those candidates win election, the billionaires will be completely in charge.

At this very moment, Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (worth an estimated $37.9 billion) is busy interviewing potential Republican candidates whom he might fund, in what’s being called the “Sheldon Primary.”

“Certainly the ‘Sheldon Primary’ is an important primary for any Republican running for president,” says Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “It goes without saying that anybody running for the Republican nomination would want to have Sheldon at his side.”

The new billionaire political bosses aren’t limited to Republicans. Democratic-leaning billionaires Tom Steyer, a former hedge-fund manager, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have also created their own political groups. But even if the two sides were equal, billionaires squaring off against each other isn’t remotely a democracy.

In his much-talked-about new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” economist Thomas Piketty explains why the rich have become steadily richer while the share of national income going to wages continues to drop. He shows that when wealth is concentrated in relatively few hands, and the income generated by that wealth grows more rapidly than the overall economy – as has been the case in the United States and many other advanced economies for years – the richest receive almost all the income growth.

Logically, this leads to greater and greater concentrations of income and wealth in the future – dynastic fortunes that are handed down from generation to generation, as they were prior to the twentieth century in much of the world.

The trend was reversed temporarily in the twentieth century by the Great Depression, two terrible wars, the development of the modern welfare state, and strong labor unions. But Piketty is justifiably concerned about the future.

A new gilded age is starting to look a lot like the old one. The only way to stop this is through concerted political action. Yet the only large-scale political action we’re witnessing is that of Charles and David Koch, and their billionaire imitators.


By: Robert Reich, the Robert Reich Blog, March 25, 2014




March 29, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Only A Suggestion”: Joe Ricketts Demands Massive Taxpayer Subsidies For Baseball Stadium

This week, the New York Times reported that Joe Ricketts, a right-wing billionaire and founder of TD Ameritrade, is soliciting multi-million dollar ad proposals to attack President Obama. One such proposal, leaked to the paper, was a $10 million, racially-charged campaign entitled “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End his Spending for Good.” The proposal, which center on Rev. Jeremiah Wright, suggests hiring an “extremely literate conservative African-American” to break down Obama’s image as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.”

Ricketts moved quickly to publicly reject the plan after it leaked. His spokesman said it “reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion.” (The statement seems somewhat disingenuous as the Ricketts had already given “preliminary approval” for the $10 million concept after seeing a separate ad about Jeremiah Wright.) Nevertheless, Ricketts’ spokesman confirmed his intention spend money attacking Obama through an organization he controls called “Ending Spending Political Action Fund.”

There is one area, however, where Ricketts is much more open to government spending. He’s seeking a massive government subsidy for the Chicago Cubs, which he owns with his family, to renovate Wrigley Field. Here is the deal the Ricketts family is seeking, via Crain’s Chicago Business:

That means $300 million is needed for the ballpark proper.

Half would come from the team, presumably in increased revenue from more signage inside Wrigley and retail and other entertainment in what amounts to a game-day carnival on Waveland Avenue on Wrigley’s north side and Sheffield Avenue to the east.

And half would come from $150 million or so in bonds to be retired with increased revenue from the existing city and Cook County amusement taxes on ticket sales. Specifically, debt service would get the first 6 percent in growth above a base level of around $15 million a year now.

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

The team also wants a 50 percent cut of any increase in amusement tax revenue growth above 6 percent. And unlike the bonds, which would be retired in 30 or 35 years, that would be forever.

So Joe Ricketts and his family not only want a $150 million subsidy directly from taxpayers but also a large chunk of tax revenue from the city in perpetuity. In other words, taxes from the City of Chicago would no longer go to roads, schools and police officers but also into Joe Ricketts pocket. Without this taxpayer welfare, the family will presumably let Cubs, which they acquired in a highly competitive bidding process in 2009, play in a stadium that is falling into disrepair.

Ricketts negotiating position seems completely at odds with his public stated political views. In a video posted by another organization he controls, Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Ricketts says “I think it’s a crime for our elected officials to borrow money today, to spend money today and push the repayment of that loan out into the future on people who are not even born yet.” Of course, that’s what he is attempting force the taxpayers of Chicago to do for the benefit of his team and his family.

At the same time, Joe Ricketts has plenty of disposable income available to attack Obama. A Ricketts spokesperson said future attacks on Obama would “be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy.” Joe Ricketts, however, may want to focus on the fiscal policy of his baseball team. In 2011, the Cubs were “one of nine franchises in violation of MLB’s debt service rules.”

By: Judd Legum and Josh Israel, Think Progress, May 19, 2012

May 20, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fighting The Last War”: The Right’s Peculiar Obsession With Jeremiah Wright

It’s often said that generals have an unfortunate tendency to fight the last war. Judging by a leaked “super PAC” ad campaign apparently being contemplated against President Obama, some Republican political strategists have the same problem. After nearly four years of an Obama presidency, they’re still fixated on Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

According to a report in Thursday morning’s New York Times, a super PAC called the Ending Spending Action Fund was contemplating a proposal for an ad campaign timed to hit during the Democratic National Convention which would focus on Wright. (In light of the publicity around the proposal, the group has reportedly decided against the ad campaign.)

According to the Times‘s Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg:

The plan, which is awaiting approval, calls for running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign.

“The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way,” says the proposal, which was overseen by Fred Davis and commissioned by Joe Ricketts, the founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade. Mr. Ricketts is increasingly putting his fortune to work in conservative politics.

Even if the ads will never run, the proposal reflects a fantasy that has been nurtured in some more fervent conservative circles—that Wright was the ace never played against Obama, that if only Sen. John McCain had run a Wright-centric campaign four years ago, we’d be enduring, err, enjoying a McCain-Palin administration right now. Given both the broader 2008 context (a crashing economy) and the nature of Obama’s appeal (post-partisan and optimistic), it’s dubious whether a fear-mongering, arguably race-baiting ad campaign that painted issue No. 1 as something other than the economy would have gotten any traction.

This is reinforced by the fact that Wright was not the invisible man that rabid conservatives seem to think he was. Neither his rhetoric nor his relationship with Obama was a particular secret. He got wall-to-wall media coverage to the point where Obama gave a high profile speech addressing his inflammatory, unacceptable rhetoric. Within two days the speech had been clicked on 1.6 million times on YouTube, making it the most popular video on the site. And in late October an independent GOP group spent millions running Wright-centric ads in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, all states which Obama ended up winning. To suggest that the American people didn’t know about Wright is to suggest that the American people are fools.

But really that’s what the really obsessive Obama-haters seem to think: The American people aren’t smart enough to see Obama for what he is. They seem to view Wright as the magical prism which will finally allow the main stream of American voters to see Obama the same way they do—as, in the words of Colorado GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, “in his heart … not an American.” (Coffman, who made the comment in the context of avowing ignorance of whether the president was actually born here, was later forced to retract his statement.)

Of course we’re not discussing whether the McCain campaign should have focused on Wright four years ago. The question today is whether the running of a flight of Wright-focused ads would help Mitt Romney in November or merely scratch an itch peculiar to an especially obsessive subsection of the conservative coalition.

The Romney campaign came up with their answer to that question, issuing a statement today saying that they “repudiate any efforts” at character assassination. Team Romney understands something that Wright-aholics seem blinded to: If there was ever a time to play the Jeremiah Wright card it was in 2008. Obama’s no longer an ill-defined figure in the eyes of the American public—we’ve lived with the man for four years now. People will vote for him based on his policies and how he’s handled the office, not on some wild-eyed conspiracy theory about his secret un-American-ness.

And to the extent the proposed ad tries to connect the dots that the histrionic reverend is responsible for a radical president with a fundamentally different view of America, it stretches credulity. As MSNBC’s “First Read” noted this morning, “While we know that there are conservatives who want to portray Obama as a socialist tied to people who hate America, his actual record over the past four years—championing legislation that once had GOP support (stimulus, health-care reform, even cap-and-trade) and killing Osama bin Laden—doesn’t back-up the conspiratorial narrative portrayed in this plan.” (Indeed the surest way to bring an end to the free market system as America knows it would have been to let matters run their course: No TARP so the financial system would collapse; no bailout for the auto industry; no oversight of Wall Street, ensuring that self-absorbed barons of finance would rinse and repeat.)

The proposed ads will not air, cooler heads apparently having prevailed. If Ricketts had pulled the trigger on this plan, he would ironically be playing out one conservative talking point scenario: What is bad for America (specifically in regard to degradation of political discourse) would have proved to be good for Obama (as swing voters roll their eyes at the GOP’s apparent over-the-top obsession with irrelevancies).


By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, May 17, 2012

May 18, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Exhibit A For What’s Wrong In America”: Race-Baiting Campaign Proposed Against Obama

The good news about the proposed Joe Ricketts race-baiting campaign targeting Barack Obama is that it got flushed out before it had a chance to become a reality. And now it never will.

This is exhibit A of all that is wrong with politics.

When the Supreme Court rules that anyone can say anything—often anonymously—with unlimited money, then they will.

There was once a time in our politics when candidates and parties could be held responsible for what they did and said. Because they were the ones doing and saying it. And you’d generally have adults somewhere around the table who, if presented with a plan like the one given to Ricketts, would have said: “Not just no, but hell no. Burn every copy of this document.”

God bless whoever leaked the document to The New York Times. I’ve never met Ricketts, and for all I know, he may ultimately have had the sense to kill the plan. But the fact that he was even considering it tells me all I need to know about the guy.

This is madness. Of course it’s too early to know, but if things keep going the way are, Mitt Romney has a very good chance to win the election in November. And can you imagine the distraction this campaign would have been if launched in the fall?

It’s not hard to figure out the winning strategy for Romney.

It’s the economy, not Jeremiah Wright, stupid.

Whether you like or agree with Barack Obama, or voted for or against him, the one thing I presumed most of us agree on is that with the 2008 election, we thought we had put the issue of race in American campaigns behind us.

Campaign watchdog Fred Wertheimer sums it up pretty well: “In the case of tax-exempt groups, citizens have absolutely no idea what’s going on here. They have no way of knowing how groups are trying to influence their votes.”

Thanks to a leaked report to The New York Times, we know about this one. But just think about all the other plans out there that won’t be leaked.


BY: Mark McKinnon, The Daily Beast, May 17, 2012

May 18, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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