The Circle of Scam

I've long held that what William Goldman said about Hollywood—"Nobody knows anything"—is equally true of Washington. At the same time though, people in politics are particularly adept at finding those who know even less than they do, and scamming them into giving over their political support or their money, or both.

I thought of this when reading the long investigation The Washington Post published the other day on the byzantine network of organizations the Koch brothers have established or funded to funnel their ample resources into politics. There are dozens of groups involved, and money moves back and forth between them in intricate ways. The Post was able to trace $400 million they spent in the last election, but since there were a number of organizations whose money they weren't able to track, the real number is almost certainly higher. As a tax law expert quoted in the article says, "It is a very sophisticated and complicated structure ... It's designed to make it opaque as to where the money is coming from and where the money is going. No layperson thought this up. It would only be worth it if you were spending the kind of dollars the Koch brothers are, because this was not cheap." The Koch brothers no doubt can avail themselves of the most skilled and creative accountants money can buy.

But they sure didn't get much for their money. Barack Obama, you might have noticed, is still the president, and Democrats did quite well overall in 2012. Perhaps there was no way for the Kochs to change that even with a mid-nine-figure investment. But what it appears happened is that these brothers, who are no doubt savvy businessmen, got taken to the cleaners by their consultants (Matt Yglesias had the same thought I did about this).

You see, political consultants don't always have standard rates that they use for all their clients. On one end, this may mean that the firm accepts a smaller profit to do some work for a do-gooder nonprofit. On the other end, it means that for a client the consultant knows has deep pockets, the same services will be marked up, maybe by a little, maybe by a lot. If you were a Republican polling firm and the Kochs came to you asking you to do a poll that you ordinarily charge $50,000 for, maybe you could just bump that up to $75,000. They probably won't notice the difference, after all. And maybe you convince them that they need to conduct six or eight such polls over the course of the year. The direct mail consultants are doing the same thing, and you can bet the media consultants are doing it too, because those guys pull money from clients like nobody's business. And it isn't like the Kochs are going to be going over the contracts line by line, right?

Each individual consultant may only be padding his own bottom line by $50,000 here or $100,000 there, but there are so many people involved and so many millions passing hither and yon that by the time its over, the results at the ballot box may be discouraging but a lot of already successful Republican consultants are thinking it's finally time to get that beach house.

There's another scam going on at the same time, which is that many of these efforts are aimed at recruiting regular people to be the Koch's ground troops, to put a "grassroots" face on what is most assuredly an elite project. The Kochs have sincerely held political beliefs, which by pure coincidence happen to line up perfectly with their economic interests. They'd like it if there were fewer regulations on corporate behavior and lower taxes on the rich, among other things (that isn't to say they don't also have beliefs on non-economic topics like abortion as well, because I'm sure they do). If you can convince a bunch of middle-class folk to go stand outside in their tricorner hats braying about the Founders and the Constitution as they press Congress to lighten the burdens on our nation's beleaguered plutocrats, then it's all worth it.

So the Kochs are getting scammed by their consultants, and they're scamming the people whom those consultants are persuading, and meanwhile there are plenty of other scams around too. Today Rush Limbaugh went on the air and told his millions of listeners that the "polar vortex" is not an actual thing that meteorologists have documented, but something the media made up in order to make the current cold wave not contradict their existing global warming hoax. Does Rush Limbaugh believe this? I doubt it. But treating his audience like a bunch of gullible fools is part of his business model.

You can find regular people who think that if "global warming" were real, that would mean it will never get cold again. But that's not because they're dumb (though they may be). It's because that's what people they trust have been telling them for years. Every winter, whenever there's a cold snap or a big snowfall, a parade of doltish Fox anchors goes on the air hour after hour to say, "So much for global warming! Suck it, Al Gore!" Or as Ted Cruz said today, "It's cold! Al Gore told me this wouldn't happen!" Har, har! And those Republican voters, made ever stupider by the media figures they adore, make sure the people who represent them won't allow anything to be done to address climate change. And you know who benefits from that? Why Charles and David Koch, who are in the oil business. They make money, the consultants make money, Rush Limbaugh makes money, and the only people in the equation who don't make money are the suckers at the bottom.

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