Who Really Speaks for American Business?
Among other truths made completely clear by the showdown in Wisconsin: the outsized role of the Koch brothers in American politics.
Charles and David, the third and fourth richest men in America, first gained notoriety in the fall, when a remarkable expose by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker showed how they'd funded not only the Tea Party but also the hydra-headed campaign to undermine the science of global warming, all in the service of even more profit for their oil and gas business.
But it was in Wisconsin that the down-and-dirty details of their operation began to emerge -- they'd not only funded the election campaigns of the governor and the new GOP legislature, but also an advertising effort attacking the state's teachers. They'd helped pay for buses to ferry in counterprotesters. We were even treated to the sight of new Governor Scott Walker fawning over them in what turned out to be a hoax phone call. The Kochs are right up there now with the great plutocrats of American history, a 21st century version of the robber barons.
The trouble is, they don't care. And they don't really have to care. Their business is privately held and answers to no one. Last week their spokesman said they would "not step back at all …This is a big part of our life's work. We are not going to stop." So those of us who care about things like the climate will need to go on tracking them. But we'll also need to pay attention to their ideological twin, the Pepsi to their Koch. It's the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Unlike the Koch brothers, everyone's heard of them. That's because there's a chamber of commerce in almost every town in America -- they're the local barbers and florists and insurance guys, the folks who arrange the annual chili cook-off or the downtown Christmas lights. You know why Lindbergh's plane was called the "Spirit of St. Louis"? Because it was paid for the by St. Louis Chamber of Commerce.
But that's not the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber is a hard-right ideological operation, which provides massive funding to conservative Republicans, including the new GOP majority in Wisconsin. If you want a sense of just how far right: Glenn Beck held a telethon on their behalf, and donated $10,000 of his money. "They are us," he said -- and an executive of the chamber called in to thank him. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent more money lobbying in 2009 than the next five biggest players combined; they spent more money on politics than either the Republican or Democratic National Committees. They're the biggest elephant in the jungle.
Despite their claim to represent three million American businesses, more than half their budget comes from just 16 companies. They don't have to identify them, but it's pretty easy to guess who they might be, since the chamber has devoted much of its time to thwarting any effort to control carbon emissions. For instance, they filed a brief with the EPA demanding they not fight global warming because "populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations."
And here's the thing: Unlike the Kochs, the chamber has some real vulnerabilities. Though thanks to the Supreme Court they can keep their secret flow of money going, their credibility depends in part on the idea that they're representing all those millions of businesses. That's why we've launched a big nationwide campaign: "The U.S. Chamber Doesn't Speak for Me." Businesses big and small are already joining in -- a thousand in the first week -- making the case that in fact capitalism can adapt to new sources of energy. Capitalism's great virtue, after all, is supposed to be nimbleness and flexibility.
Those of us who work on climate change have spent years trying to figure out why Congress pays no attention to what's clearly the most dangerous issues the earth faces. For years we thought we simply needed to explain the crisis more skillfully. But in the last year the truth is becoming clearer: Hidden in the shadows are the guys with money who pull the strings. We need to illuminate those shadows, with the Kochs and even more with the U.S. Chamber.