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Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right - book review

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Published : June 23rd, 2019
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Book Review, by Peter McKenzie-Brown

I could have reported on this book at our last meeting on politics. A key subtheme, though, is climate change and the efforts of the super-rich in America to downplay its importance. The book is about 500 pages in length, including references and the index – long, but a terrific read. Jane Mayer is a thoughtful journalist, and has researched her topic well.

She focuses on a group of fabulously wealthy industrialists led by Charles and David Koch. Her general theme is that they took over the Republican Party and corrupted US politics for the benefit of the super-rich and to the detriment of the rest of the world. Put another way, US democracy has been systematically undermined by a small group of extremely wealthy people driven by greed and self-interest. In effect, they have subjected US politics to corporate capture.

She published the first edition in 2016. My copy, which I bought last winter, is the fourteenth paperback printing.

One of the most startling statistics from the 2016 US presidential election was campaign spending of some $6.8 billion – double the spending in 2012. An estimated $1 billion of this amount came from a few shadowy billionaires backing the Republican Party, equalling the total raised by the millions of individual donations from private citizens.

Central to her examination are the lives and careers of Charles and David Koch, commonly known as the Koch brothers, who expanded their father’s primary businesses of oil pipelines and refineries by diversifying into lumber and paper, coal, chemicals, commodities and futures trading, turning Koch Industries into the second-largest private company in America.

While their individual wealth would give them huge power on their own, the Koch brothers have intensified their political influence by joining forces with a select group of like-minded political allies, many of whom are also part of the multibillionaire club. While the Kochs may disagree with their peers on a range of political issues, the glue that binds them all together is antipathy towards government regulation and taxation, especially when it directly affects their own personal wealth.

Their ultimate goal, Mayer argues, is to remake America along the lines of their radical free-market beliefs. The Kochs and their allies have bankrolled myriad political vehicles to achieve their objectives, often giving them innocent-sounding names like ‘Citizens for a Sound Economy’ and ‘Americans for Prosperity.’ The organizations – which appear to be mere public relations outfits masquerading as think-tanks or civil action groups – have developed seemingly common-sense rationales to entrench their anti-tax, anti-government and anti-regulation message into the public consciousness.

In US tax law, ‘philanthropic’ activity is a tax-deductible expense. If a US citizen wants to donate $1 million to a ‘charity’ of their choosing, they can then deduct the entire amount from their tax bill. The definition of philanthropic activity is so broad that in effect it becomes a choice between paying taxes or donating to a cause, creating what Mayer describes as ‘weaponized philanthropy’.

Over the past century these groups, run with little transparency or accountability, have multiplied almost beyond belief. By 2013, there were over 100,000 private foundations in the USA with assets of over $800 billion. The 2010 Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision to remove restrictions on political spending by private individuals sent the amount of money being pumped into US politics into the stratosphere.

Mayer’s achievement: a thorough and compelling case study of how US democratic life is being delegitimized and undermined by the ideology of a tiny proportion of its society, and their wanton disregard for the environment. While the book is primarily political, Mayer often returns to the issue of climate change. Her main section on the topic, which is about 40 pages long, includes ten pages on corporate denunciation of climate change science – notwithstanding the fact that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.

The Koch brothers are fabulously wealthy (about $43bn each, according to a Forbes list of the world’s billionaires). They have long used part of their wealth to support think-tanks. They have close connections with like-minded billionaires. Memorably, Mayer dubs this network the “Kochtopus.”


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Peter McKenzie Brown is the vice president of a resource company. He has written several volumes of history, and has worked in the corporate and academic worlds. He is British by birth, American by upbringing and Canadian by choice. Disclaimer : Although the writer is a director and officer of Stratabound, the thoughts and views herein are his only and not those of Stratabound. He is not registered in any jurisdiction as a broker or investment adviser, so nothing herein should be construed as advice on whether to buy, sell or hold shares of Stratabound or any other company mentioned herein.
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