Political Animal


April 04, 2013 1:33 PM Moneybag False Equivalency

By Ed Kilgore

Yesterday Politico had a big feature story on Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire who is very opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline and has intervened in the Massachusetts Democratic Senate race to run ads against Rep. Steven Lynch, who favors Keystone.

At Hullabaloo, David Atkins smells a false-equivalency rat:

The story spends a lot of time with fretting and gnashing of teeth about how this one individual will make the horrible, horrible “mistake” of shifting Democrats too far to the left, just as the Koch brothers have shifted Republicans to the right—as if that somehow hasn’t been a successful strategy for Charles and David Koch, or as if one liberal billionaire’s efforts amount to much of anything against the entire weight of the conservative establish and fossil fuel industry money….
I’m certainly no fan of capricious billionaires dictating policy. But as long as we’re going to have a system that’s entirely bought and paid for by rich people, there’s nothing wrong with rich people who have a moral compass on something besides social issues getting into the game. Treating Koch Brother money to protect their ill-gotten riches as functionally equivalent to a philanthropist concerned about the future of the planet is moral insanity.

The authors of the article, Andrew Restuccia and Kenneth Vogel, do quote Steyer making the same distinction, and disclaiming any financial interest in renewable energy or another other industry that might benefit from the policies he promotes. But yeah, the overall tenor of the piece suggests crazy billionaires are now in danger of ruining both parties.

It does raise an interesting but difficult issue, though, about the motives of moneybag gazillionaires accepting the Supreme Court’s invitation to run wild in our political system. Is it possible to separate financial and “ideological” motives? Consider Sheldon Adelson. He claims his heavy involvement in right-wing Republican politics of late is motivated by his desire for more strongly pro-Israeli (or more accurately, more strongly pro-Netanyahu) policies in Washington. There’s no reason to doubt that’s a factor, since he’s actually been more involved in right-wing Israeli politics than in the presidential ambitions of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. But he’s also got a long history of hostility to unions in his various businesses, and has a strong bottom-line interest in heading off federal investigations of his casino enterprises. So where does the idealism end and the pure money-grubbing start? Hard to say.

Even for the Kochs, the fact that the politicians and policies they promote would undeniably and massively benefit their businesses doesn’t entirely rule out “disinterested” motives. Best I can tell, like many other wealthy men, they read Ayn Rand under the covers after bedtime as adolescents, and never grew up.

That may be a distinction without a difference when it comes to people who embrace a “high-minded” ideology based on the virtue of selfishness. And in general, I’d be a lot happier if we could confine the political influence of gazillionaires to distributing cranky pamphlets like the Hunt Brothers and Robert Welch used to do.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on April 04, 2013 1:55 PM:

    I beg to differ, Ed, when you say about the young Koch brothers, "...they read Ayn Rand under the covers after bedtime as adolescents, and never grew up."

    I'd bet anything that Ayn Rand's books were given as gifts by Koch Sr, and they were encouraged to masturbate as frequently as they liked while reading them.

  • c u n d gulag on April 04, 2013 1:56 PM:

    Sorry about mentioning your name twice.

    I must have figure that two "Ed's" are better than one.

  • c u n d gulag on April 04, 2013 2:04 PM:

    Oh, and left or right, this, THIS, is why we need to tax top income at around 90%.

    Neither side's money-bags should be trying to influence elections with boatloads of money.

    Let the rich spend their excess money on finding CPA's to look for loopholes, and Tax Attorney's to defend them.

  • brainchild on April 04, 2013 3:10 PM:

    The problem here is possibilities for conflicts of interest. The reason conflict of interest rules include even the "appearance" of impropriety is that even the person him- or herself cannot know all of their own motives when making decisions in cases where personal interests and professional/moral/social obligations come into contact.

    It's not that someone's personal interests and the general welfare cannot coincide sometimes, leading a wealthy person to use their funds for things that happen to benefit us all. But I expect such cases are actually rare in the real world. Therefore, I am still strongly in favor of taking all big money out of politics to the maximum extent achievable.

  • boatboy_srq on April 04, 2013 4:08 PM:

    Let me see if I have this right: Billionaire Reichwing crackpots pour cash into the campaign coffers of the folks who want to wreck the economy, trash the safety net, end public oversight of everything and encourage polluters and hypermoralists, and that's unfortunate; billionaire progressives pour cash into campaigns for stuff that will advance progressive objectives and that's somehow over the top. Riiiiight.

    We're in a post-Citizens United world. Like it or not we have to get used to it. And stuff like this is about to become the norm.