What do you do after a week's worth of embarrassing revelations about your craven effort to slash the pensions of unsuspecting middle-class retirees? If you are a billionaire former Enron trader, you manufacture a self-congratulatory spectacle by offering a bit of pocket change to low-income kids - and you get to rest assured that the national media will suddenly ignore your pension-looting ways and dutifully portray you as a benevolent hero.
Such is the breathtakingly cynical P.R. strategy of John Arnold. After a week of revelations about his scheme to help Wall Street and the conservative movement loot public pensions, the former Enron trader made headlines yesterday by handing over a rounding error of his billion-dollar fortune to the federal Head Start program ostensibly to help float it through the government shutdown.
Frankly, after issuing my big report on Arnold last week and then doing a follow-up yesterday on his expansion into California, I thought I was done writing about this guy for a while. But this news requires one more short follow-up.
Think about it: On the merits, Arnold's simultaneous support for Head Start and for pension-cutting initiatives sends a truly bizarre message. Evidently, he wants to help impoverished children and yet make sure there are more impoverished retirees.
But, then, this isn't really about any kind of coherent message. This is about an investment in a distraction, and as investments go, it is a solid one. For a mere $10 million of his $2.8 billion fortune, Arnold was treated to a wave of celebratory press coverage -- the kind that obediently omitted the fact that his donation was perfectly timed to divert attention from news of his ever-expanding effort to relegate retirees into poverty by slashing their pension income. And here's the best part for Arnold: He got all that press despite the fact that his relatively tiny expenditure may not even end up being an actual donation. As Politico notes, it may end up just being a temporary loan paid back in full - and with interest accrued in positive P.R.
Of course, from the robber barons a century ago to today's billionaires, America has a rich tradition of this kind of thing. Indeed, among the plutocrats, it is a long-standing rite of passage to exploit, rip off or otherwise abuse millions of people, and then use the plundered cash to finance small, well-timed gifts -- the kind that cast one as a selflessly benevolent saint. It is also a tradition in the establishment media to decontextualize such gifts from the overall P.R. strategy, cast the expenditures as sheer selflessness and omit any reference to the ugly behavior the charity is designed to hide.
In this kind of scheme, though, there's typically some sort of waiting period to let the media at least pretend to forget the nasty acts being covered up. That's what makes Arnold's Head Start donation so newsy -- coming mere days after Matt Taibbi's stunning Rolling Stone report about Arnold's pension scheme, the gift is just such a blatant misdirect, especially since it wasn't made in any kind of anonymous or quiet way. On the contrary, Arnold made sure to have himself peppered throughout the stories about it, thus guaranteeing his name would be right next to all those photos of smiling kids. You see, it isn't Enron billionaire John Arnold as a great vampire squid pointing a blood funnel at America's pensions. It is humble philanthropist John Arnold as the compassionate savior of low-income children!
No doubt, many people will end up believing that story thanks to the decontextualized coverage about Arnold's Head Start loan. Many will never know that if Arnold really cared about combating poverty, he probably wouldn't be financing state-based initiatives to cut pensioners' retirement income and then give that money to Wall Street millionaires. Many won't know this because in wealth-worshiping America, a billionaire's pocket change can always suppress an ugly story and replace it with hagiography.