Books: Dark Money, Foundation, and the Ministry of Fear

Dark Money, by Jane Mayer

I’m no physicist, but my rough understanding is that dark matter is something that has not been directly observed, but which is believed to exert an influence on the things we can observe, and without this hypothesised dark matter, the model doesn’t quite fit.

It’s an apt metaphor for the role of political donations in the political system – not deeply discussed, difficult to observe in detail, but likely to have an impact (if not a significant one).

It seems that a critical moment for Mayer in her research on political donations was writing a profile of David and Charles Koch (they have two other brothers, but when people say ‘the Koch brothers’, they’re typically referring to David and Charles). After an attempted smear campaign against her, Mayer has published an in-depth book on political donations in American politics – and in particular, conservative political donations.

The book is mostly told through the lens of individuals. In particular, Charles and David. She chronicles their childhoods, their growth and subsequent careers as political donors. She touches on some of the other key donors, in particular networks. She also looks at individuals whose lives have been impacted – there are devastating stories of people who have suffered tremendously, employees who didn’t receive compensation, small people on the losing end of the power of the Koch brothers’ companies.

Through tracing these individual stories, Mayer tells the story of how political donations have come to exert a huge influence on the American political system. As a review in the New York Times notes:

The brothers had spent or raised hundreds of millions of dollars to create majorities in their image. They had succeeded. And not merely at the polls: They had helped to finance and organize an interlocking network of think tanks, academic programs and news media outlets that far exceeded anything the liberal opposition could put together.

It is this conservative ascendancy that Jane Mayer chronicles in “Dark Money.” The book is written in straightforward and largely unemotional prose, but it reads as if conceived in quiet anger. Mayer believes that the Koch brothers and a small number of allied plutocrats have essentially hijacked American democracy, using their money not just to compete with their political adversaries, but to drown them out.

It’s an excellent book, based on what must have been years of in-depth research. I’d highly recommend it, as one of the more detailed accounts of how capital can be used to influence academic and media systems, which in turn can influence democratic votes.

The only area where I thought the book might have been improved, was if it had provided a little more big-picture context. Particularly in historical and political economic terms. Historically, it would be fascinating to know how the influence exerted by some of today’s wealthiest donors compares to the wealth and influence of key actors during the gilded age. In turn, that leads to interesting questions of political economy – is this political use of wealth unprecedented? How has it interacted with other parts of the political system previously?

This is an interesting area, that I’ve seen some fascinating work on (research that suggests elite preferences have much more impact on outcomes, and other research suggesting that people may not vote in their own self interest). It would have been interesting to see at least some links there, from Mayer’s in-depth and valuable research, to a broader conceptual framework.

But it’s worth quoting here a statement (not by Mayer) that Mayer thought was worth including in her book:

The system is controlled by a handful of ultra-wealthy people, most of whom got rich from the system and who will get rich from the system.

Mayer is very careful throughout to allow that the donors may genuinely believe in all the ideas that they’re financing, regardless of what they stand to gain. But it’s important to note, as she does, that:

… it was impossible not to notice that the political policies they embraced benefited their own bottom lines first and foremost.

It’s also interesting with these types of books (written by journalists about very wealthy individuals – for example Virtual MurdochMurdoch’s Pirates and McKnight’s Rupert Murdoch). For example, Mayer carefully words this quote with a qualifier:

” … a lot of people got sick, and there were more birth defects in Saltville than in other parts of the state,” she asserts, although there has been no study proving this or establishing any causal correlation.

But for all those minor flaws, this is an excellent read. Well worth it.

UPDATE: Just a quick note, that given the context that Mayer’s book provides, this article at Vox by Andrew Prokop is an interesting read: The GOP can’t quit Obamacare because of their donors. It’s an interesting read.

Quotes

In his telling, he was almost feverishly bent on finding some overarching system of political theory to bridge his father’s emotional anti-Communism with his own more analytical approach to the world. He also wanted to merge his thinking about business and his interests in engineering and mathematics. “I spent the next two years almost like a hermit, surrounded by books,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 1997. Visitors to his apartment recall him littering almost every surface with abstruse economic and political texts. He later explained that having learned that “there are certain laws that govern the natural world,” he was trying to discover “if the same isn’t true for the societal world.” …

The conservative publication omitted Hayek’s politically inconvenient support for a minimum standard of living for the poor, environmental and workplace safety regulations, and price controls to prevent monopolies from taking undue profits …

In order to alter the direction of America, they realized they would have to “influence the areas where policy ideas percolate from: academia and think tanks.” …

A consequence [of charitable trusts], however, was that the tax code turned many extraordinarily wealth families, intent upon preserving their fortunes, into major forces in America’s civic sector …

Called “The Structure of Social Change,” it approached the manufacture of political change like any other product. As Fink later described it in a talk, it laid outa  three-phase takeover of American politics. The first phase required an “investment” in intellectuals whose ideas would serve as the “raw products.” The second required an investment in think tanks that would turn the ideas into marketable policies. And the third phase required the subsidization of “citizens” groups that would, along with “special interests,” pressure elected officials to implement the policies. It was in essence a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled, and switched on …

And if there was one test of its members’ concentrated financial power over the machinery of American democracy, it was this minority’s ability to stave off government action on climate change as science and the rest of the world were moving in the opposite direction … For most of the world’s population the costs of inaction on climate change were far greater than those of action. But for the fossil fuel industry, as Mann put it, “it’s like the switch from whale oil in the nineteenth century. They’re fighting to maintain the status quo, no matter how dumb.” …

But an effort by the congressman’s staff to reach the angry constituents revealed that the letters were forgeries, sent on behalf of a coal industry trade group by Bonner and Associates, a Washington-based public relations firm …

A political minority, responding to the interests of its extreme sponsors, had succeeded in rendering the most powerful democracy in the world dysfunctional …

It was one more indication that an invisible wealth primary was shaping the discourse and the field long before the rest of the country had the chance to vote …

 

Mayer also examines the progressive side of politics, noting both the presence of political donors, but she is also willing to draw contrasts, rather than falling into false equivalence bias. One progressive operative recounts:

“I remember meeting at a restaurant in California with some of the major Democratic operatives and funders, Margery Tabankin, Stanley Sheinbaum and Gary David Goldberg. I was telling them that they needed to figure out a way to fund books on the left. But books aren’t sexy. They weren’t interested. They didn’t think that in the political culture it mattered. The Democrats were hostage to star personalities and electoral politics.” …

That year, the Clintons were in the headlines for campaign-finance scandals ranging from virtually renting the Lincoln Bedroom to big donors to taking contributions from a dubious Democratic bundler who later pleaded guilty to raising some of the money from China.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

It’s been so many years since I read some of the Foundation series that I can’t remember which ones I read, or whether I’d read the original novel.

Foundation tells the story of a collapsing empire, and psychologist (Hari Seldon), able to predict its collapse through the laws of psychology. In an attempt to shorten the period of disarray that will ensure (from thirty-thousand to just a thousand years), he sets in motion his own plans.

The approach felt in some ways reminiscent to Cixin Li’s Three Body Problem. In each, the driving force isn’t really the characters or their motivations, but the unfolding of a set of fascinating science fiction questions.

In Asimov’s, this is handled by having the story tell three separate points in time, each a stage where Hari Seldon’s carefully planned society must defeat external or internal threats to survive. Asimov’s writing and handling felt better than Li’s – more depth, and a little more believability to the characters. Well worth a read, if you enjoy sci-fi.

The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

The Ministry of Fear tells the story of Arthur Rowe, a man with a deep sense of pity – so intense that he struggles with others’ suffering. When we first encounter Arthur he is visiting a church fete, a welcome relief from the gloom of London during the Blitz. It’s there that he accidentally receives the cake that sets of a series of surreal and bizarre chases.

The style is so surrealist that at points I wondered if Greene had decided to forgo a coherent plot as part of a broader theme, but the different pieces are explained in a coherent way in the last third of the novel. I won’t say more here [SPOILER ALERT – you can read more on the plot below]. 

What makes the novel excellent is Greene’s beautiful writing, which can make even a lazy Sunday church fete feel poignant, or transform a set of bombed out Blitz ruins into something far more significant.

Throughout, he has a very surreal atmosphere, which only recedes in the last third of the novel. He also toys with the question of pity and cruelty – what does pity drive us to do, and what does it mean for our humanity? It’s well worth a read if you enjoy Greene, although it’s not quite as good as his best stuff.

[SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE]

The plot that emerges clearly in the last third of the novel is that Rowe has stumbled onto a German intelligence attempt to get classified information out of the UK. In searching for more information, he goes through a bizarre sequence of events including being framed for a murder at a seance, surviving two bomb blasts (one dropped, the other planted), trying to cash a cheque from a widower during the funeral, and ending up in an asylum after losing his memory.

Throughout, we learn that Rowe’s sense of pity is so intense that he murdered his wife, who suffered from a painful, incurable disease. This hangs over Rowe, and Greene returns to it throughout the novel.

In the final scenes, Rowe is told that he is a murder, bringing that weight back into his life after the amnesia had lifted it from him. His parter-to-be is desperate that he not know, and so he sets out to deceive her for a lifetime; while she will carry the secret that she thinks he has forgotten.

Quotes

That attempt failed. A bomb that hit your house destroyed the cake and everything – and probably saved your life. But they didn’t like the way you followed the case up. They tried to frighten you into hiding – but for some reason that was not enough. Of course they meant to blow you to pieces, but when they found out you’d lost your memory, that was good enough …

He was bewildered: he didn’t know what to do. He was learning the lesson most people learn very young, that things never work out in the expected way. This wasn’t an exciting adventure, and he wasn’t a hero, and it was even possible that this was not a tragedy …

It was a Ministry as large as life to which all who loved belonged. If one loved one feared … He was pledging both of them to a lifetime of lies, but only he knew that … They sat for a long while without moving and without speaking; they were on the edge of their ordeal, like two explorers who see at last from the summit of the range the enormous dangerous plain. They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much. They would never know what it was not to be afraid of being found out.

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