Billionaire self-pity and the Koch brothers

The libertarian tycoons explain why they are the true victims of America's political culture

Topics: Wall Street,

Billionaire self-pity and the Koch brothersJane Pederson, center, of Menomonie, Wis., protests in front of the offices of Koch Industries in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. Opponents to the governor's budget are in their tenth day of protests. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)(Credit: AP)

Since the financial crisis of 2008, one of the most revealing spectacles has been the parade of financial elites who petulantly insist that they are the victims of societal hostility:  political officials heap too much blame on them, public policy burdens them so unfairly, the public resents them, and — most amazingly of all — President Obama is a radical egalitarian who is unprecedentedly hostile to business interests.  One particularly illustrative example was the whiny little multi-millionaire hedge fund manager (and CNBC contributor), Anthony Scaramucci, who stood up at an October, 201o, town hall meeting and demanded to know:  ”when are we going to stop whacking at the Wall Street pinata?”

The Weekly Standard now has a very lengthy defense of — including rare interviews with — Charles and David Koch, the libertarian billionaires who fund everything from right-wing economic policy, union-busting, and anti-climate-change advocacy to civil liberties and liberalized social policies — though far more the former goals than the latter.  In this article one finds the purest and most instructive expression of billionaire self-pity that I think I’ve ever seen — one that is as self-absorbed and detached from reality as it destructive.  It’s really worth examining their revealed mindset to see how those who wield the greatest financial power (and thus the greatest political power) think of themselves and those who are outside of their class.

I’m not someone who sees the Koch Brothers as some sort of unique threat.  I mostly regard them as little more than a symbol of the death of democratic values in the U.S. — the way in which the possession of vast financial resources is an absolute prerequisite to making any impact on the national political process, and conversely, how those without such resources are politically inconsequential and impotent (short of their fomenting serious social unrest).  Every political movement needs demons lurking behind every problem — the more hidden and omnipotent the better — and the Koch Brothers now serve the same function for the Left as George Soros long served for the Right:  the bogeymen who motivate the loyalists and on whom everything bad, including political losses, can be blamed. 

There’s no question in my mind that the unrestrained power over the political process and both political parties enjoyed by oligarchs is the single greatest political problem the country faces — the overarching problem — but in the scheme of corporate and oligarchical dominance, the Koch Brothers are a small part of that dynamic.  Nor do I believe that they’re motivated in their political activism by personal profit:  for people with a net worth of $20 billion, there are vastly more efficient ways to convert one’s wealth into greater wealth than spending money to influence public policy; I think they’re True Believers.

That said, this Weekly Standard interview shows how delusional and extreme the Koch Brothers are — though in ways quite representative of other resentful elites.  Let’s begin with this:

Ask Charles Koch what he thinks about Obama and he looks like he’s just bit into a lemon. “He’s a dedicated egalitarian,” Charles said. “I’m not saying he’s a Marxist, but he’s internalized some Marxist models — that is, that business tends to be successful by exploiting its customers and workers.”

David agreed. “He’s the most radical president we’ve ever had as a nation,” he said, “and has done more damage to the free enterprise system and long-term prosperity than any president we’ve ever had.”  David suggested the president’s radicalism was tied to his upbringing. “His father was a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “Obama didn’t really interact with his father face-to-face very much, but was apparently from what I read a great admirer of his father’s points of view. So he had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.”

So Barack Obama is a “dedicated egalitarian” who has “internalized Marxist” ideas in the Kenyan socialist tradition.  Just compare that to actual facts.  From The Huffington Post today:

Despite high unemployment and a largely languishing real estate market, U.S. businesses are more profitable than ever, according to federal figures released on Friday.

U.S. corporate profits hit an all-time high at the end of 2010, with financial firms showing some of the biggest gains, data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis show. Corporations reported an annualized $1.68 trillion in profit in the fourth quarter. The previous record, without being adjusted for inflation, was $1.65 trillion in the third quarter of 2006.

Many of the nation’s preeminent companies have posted massive increases in profits this year. General Electric posted worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, while profits at JPMorgan Chase were up 47 percent to $4.8 billion.

Since Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones has increased more than 50% — from 8,000 to more than 12,000; the wealthiest recieved a massive tax cut; the top marginal tax rate was three times less than during the Eisenhower years and substantially lower than during the Reagan years; income and wealth inequality are so vast and rising that it is easily at Third World levels; meanwhile, “the share of U.S. taxes paid by corporations has fallen from 30 percent of federal revenue in the 1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.”  During this same time period, the unemployment rate has increased from 7.7% to 8.9%; millions of Americans have had their homes foreclosed; and the number of Americans living below the poverty line increased by many millions, the largest number since the statistic has been recorded.  Can you smell Obama’s radical egalitarianism and Marxist anti-business hatred yet?

Then there are those whom Obama has empowered.  His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is a business-revering corporatist who made close to $20 million in 3 short years as an investment banker, while his second, Bill Daley, served for years as JP Morgan’s Midwest Chairman.  His Treasury Secretary is undoubtedly the most loyal and dedicated servant Wall Street has ever had in that position, while Goldman Sachs officials occupy so many key positions in his administration that a former IMF and Salomon Brothers executive condemned what he called “Goldman Sachs’s seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs.”  Obama’s former OMB Director recently left to take a multi-million-dollar position with Citigroup.  From the start, Obama’s economic policies were shaped by the Wall Street-revering neo-liberal Rubinites who did so much to serve corporate America during the Clinton years.  Meanwhile, the President’s choice to head his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness — General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt — heads a corporation that “despite $14.2 billion in worldwide profits – including more than $5 billion from U.S. operations – [] did not owe taxes in 2010″:  an appointment the White House still defends.

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Some of these trends pre-date Obama, but few have been retarded during his presidency, while many have accelerated.   Whether one finds this state of affairs desirable or not, no rational person can describe them as the by-product of a Marxist, business-hating egalitarian.  Quite the opposite.  The political power of America’s richest has never been greater, and the level of their responsibility and collective burden has never been less.  Meanwhile, for ordinary Americans, the remaining remnants of their financial security and middle class comforts rapidly erodes.  It’s true that the U.S. Government has little regard for the free market:  they intervene constantly in the free market on behalf of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful business interests; it’s crony capitalism, corporatism:  government run by corporations (or, as Dick Durbin said of the Congress in which he serves:  ”the banks own the place”).

For billionaires to see themselves as the True Victims, to complain that the President and the Government are waging some sort of war against them in the name of radical egalitarianism, is so removed from reality — universes away — that’s it’s hard to put into words.  And the fiscal recklessness that the Kochs and their comrades tirelessly point to was a direct by-product of the last decade’s rule by the Republican Party which they fund:  from unfunded, endless wars to a never-ending expansion of the privatized National Security and Surveillance States to the financial crisis that exploded during the Bush presidency.  But whatever else is true, there are many victims of fiscal policy in America:  the wealthiest business interests and billionaires like the Koch Brothers are the few who are not among them. 

Then, quite relatedly, we have a slew of complaints that the Koch Brothers are being so terribly persecuted by all the protests and criticisms directed at them.  Just behold this carousel of whiny self-victimhood:

Koch’s secretary said that an editor for a left-wing website, the Buffalo Beast, had telephoned the governor posing as David Koch and recorded the conversation. And Walker had fallen for it! He’d had a 20-minute conversation with this bozo, not once questioning the caller’s identity. . . .

Anger washed over David like a red tide. He’d been victimized by some punk with a political agenda. “It’s really identity theft,” he told me a month later, during an interview at Koch Industries’ headquarters. “And I think it’s extremely dishonest to misrepresent yourself. I think there’s a question of integrity. And the person who would do that has got to be an incredibly dishonest person.”

David found the whole affair disturbing. “One additional thing that really bothered me,” he said, “was that the press attacked me rather than the guy who impersonated me! And I was criticized as someone who’s got a death grip on the governor and his policies. And that I control him — I mean, that’s insane!” . . .

As the media campaign intensified, demonstrators started showing up at the Koch campus in Wichita. A left-wing blogger ambushed David when he traveled to Washington to see the 112th Congress sworn in. The liberal group Common Cause organized a protest at the most recent Koch fundraising seminar in Palm Springs. The lefties outside the hotel unfurled a white banner with the words “Koch Kills” printed in red. Drops of blood fell from each letter. “These people were very, very extreme,” David said, “and I think very dangerous” . . . “But that was pretty shocking, to see what we’re up against, or what the country’s up against: to have an element like this.”

Oh, my:  journalists were more interested in discussing the fact that the Wisconsin Governor spent a full 20 minutes briefing a billionaire donor in the middle of his career-defining political crisis than they were analyzing the journalistic ethics of an obscure Internet muckraker.  And what a travesty that the Koch Brothers — after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to shape American politics and advocate for policies that will affect the lives of tens of millions of people — have to endure scrutiny, and questions, and protests, and criticisms, and anger!  Does the unfairness never end for them?  

As anyone who writes about politics can tell you, having vitriol and slander regularly heaped on you is part of the price one pays for the benefit of having a platform; only the most self-absorbed complain and see it as some sort of unique cross to bear.  But the Koch brothers go far beyond mere writing about political issues.  They single-handedly fund advocacy groups and covert campaigns on a wide variety of highly controversial issues that adversely impact huge numbers of people.  That they expect to be able to do that without any vigorous response or opposition or anger is just reflective of their oozing sense of entitlement:  the same syndrome that leads them to perversely believe that the True Victims in America’s political culture are its wealthiest and most powerful.

This strain of delusional self-victimization is not uncommon.  One commonly finds those who are the strongest and most powerful convincing themselves that they are the oppressed and the marginalized.  Many Americans believe that — as they invade, bomb and occupy countless Muslim countries — that they are the ones being victimized by the Muslim world, while many Israelis and their loyalists believe that the nuclear-armed, constantly invading, occupying and bombing nation is the real victim of aggression and militarism in the Middle East.  In Imperial Ambitions, Noam Chomsky described this inverted sense of victimhood in the foreign policy context this way:

In one of his many speeches, to U.S. troops in Vietnam, [Lyndon] Johnson said plaintively, “There are three billion people in the world and we have only two hundred million of them. We are outnumbered fifteen to one. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.” That is a constant refrain of imperialism. You have your jackboot on someone’s neck and they’re about to destroy you.

The same is true with any form of oppression. And it’s psychologically understandable. If you’re crushing and destroying someone, you have to have a reason for it, and it can’t be, “I’m a murderous monster.” It has to be self-defense. “I’m protecting myself against them. Look what they’re doing to me.” Oppression gets psychologically inverted; the oppressor is the victim who is defending himself.

This is exactly the psychological affliction that leads Wall Street plunderers and tycoons and billionaires to see themselves as the victims of the resentful lower-classes and the “radical egalitarians” who run the U.S. Government.  Even as they get richer and everyone else gets poorer, even as the very few remaining restraints on their political power are abolished, even as the disparities in wealth and power grow ever-larger, they become increasingly convinced that everything is stacked against them, that there is a grand conspiracy to deprive them of what is rightfully theirs.  All of this could be confined to a fascinating, abstract psychological study if not for the fact that the people who think this way exercise the most political power and continue to exercise more and more.

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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