News & Politics

5 of the Most Cynical Libertarian Stealth Campaigns of 2015

Read the fine print and there's someone trying to make a buck.

David Koch.

Libertarians love to exploit news opportunities to promote their agenda. This year provided some choice opportunities to do just that as Silicon Valley and the Koch brothers ran a few stealth campaigns to privatize and deregulate without the general public or distracted liberals from noticing. Here are some of the most cynical:

Koch brothers exploit criminal justice reform to protect corporate criminals.

People within the prison reform movement had long beenskeptical of the Koch brothers sudden interest in the topic. With crime at record lows, a sympathetic president in the White House, and Black Lives Matter changing the conversation around our criminal justice system, the time was right to finally pull back many of the harsh “tough-on-crime” laws that were passed in the 90's under Bush and Clinton.

So why the interest from the right-wing titans? Most of the media simply chalked it up to ideology, after all, the Kochs were libertarians and libertarians don’t like drug laws and state incarceration, right? But like with much of what the billionaire brothers do, it wasn’t so simple. Lee Fang and Dan Froomkin over at The Intercept dug a little deeper and revealed the Koch’s ideology wasn’t the only thing animating their support for criminal justice reform. Firstly, they continued to buy ads for and donate to candidates like Louisiana's David Vitter who supported some of the harshest and most racist drug laws in the country while allocating minimal resources to justice reform. As Fang notes:

Out of 38 federal lobbyists employed by Koch, only one is registered to work on criminal justice issues.Most work on projects important to Koch Industries’ bottom line, such as rolling back Environmental Protection Agency rules.

This wasn’t the only indication the Koch’s were simply piggy-backing off the movement to advance their corporate interests:

Koch “Alliance” on Criminal Justice Reform Exposed as Trojan Horse

So, while the Kochs and the liberal groups used similar language in their critique of the criminal justice system, when it came down to actual legislation, the Kochs were focused on reducing criminal prosecutions of corporations, not people.

Koch and the House Republicans turned out to be pushing a bill that critics describe as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for white-collar criminals.

Members of Washington’s elite media crave stories about bipartisanship, so groups like the pro-Clinton Center for American Progress garnered positive media attention for finding common ground with the Kochs earlier this year.

The real aim for the Kochs' prison reform was to reduce the liability of white collar criminals, not the largely black, Latino and poor constituency of most prisons. As The Huffington Post reported, the bill being lobbied would make it more difficult to fine executives at corporations liable for financial fraud and environmental pollution. Leftist reformers were predictably upset, with Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, telling the Huffington Post, "there is absolutely no reason for the otherwise laudable criminal justice reform bill to contain any measure to weaken already feeble standards for corporate criminal prosecution.”

Using Black Lives Matter to push Uber in New York City

Back in July, the head of the decidedly libertarian Silicon Valley goliath Uber, trotted out several members of New York’s black clergy class, including a member of Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, to sell the anti-regulation car service as good for black communities. The effort, headed up by Uber PR frontman and former Obama speechwriter David Plouffe was a fairly crass exercise in libertarian piggybacking off Black Lives Matter:

There’s a lot of discussion in this city by some leaders about progressive politics, economic equality and economic opportunity,” David Plouffe, Uber’s chief adviser, said. “What they’re doing is killing over 10,000 jobs.”

The press conference, which included one member of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, came one day after Plouffe met with Sharpton, reportedly to enlist Sharpton to oppose the growth cap. Sharpton, a friend and occasional political ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio, "has questions" about the bill’s impact on the city’s minorities, Crain’s reports.

Things took a turn for the worse when Brooklyn-based bishop Gerald Seabrooks, presumably reading off of Uber’s PR script, made the rather vulgar claim that police killings of black men were somehow a result of “lack of jobs”, jobs that Uber could in theory provide.  “If [Eric] Garner had a job, today he would be alive,” Seabrooks said. “We’re talking economics here. We’re talking jobs.”

The article reads like a perfect parody of what happens when #BlackLivesMatter becomes #BlackLivesMatter™. The amount of cynicism it takes to parlay Eric Garner’s death into a commercial for a car service with a $50 billion market cap is truly a masterclass in marketing pap. The reality is, job status had nothing to do with Garner or any other African-Americans death at the hands of cops.

The rightwing piggy-backing of prison reform 

Since the rise of Black Lives Matter movement in August of last year, the parallel issue of prison reform has also become increasingly popular among pundits and policy-makers. While the prison reform movement has lots of earnest actors who see our prison state as both immoral and unsustainable, Koch-backed initiatives to privatize prisons further have often been overlooked by a left desperate for political and financial support. In their masterful 10-part series, Smoke and Mirrors for Truth Out documenting the way “market-focused” initiatives have overtaken the reform movement, long-time reformers Kay Whitlock and Nancy A. Heitzeg, thoroughly detail the way rightwing ideologues and big investors see dollar signs in overhauling our criminal justice system under the guise of racial justice:

[Previous reforms took] place against a decades-long backdrop of increased privatization of U.S. jails, prisons, and detention centers,  a profit-producing phenomenon pushed aggressively by the Right and corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The Geo Group who stood to profit generously from the shift.  The result?  The prison industrial complex, an interlocking network of public and private interests that profit politically and economically from the expansion of systems of policing, punishment, and surveillance – and their privatization.

Prison privatization spread rapidly, beginning in the 1980s.  It gained a special foothold and momentum in Texas  and Florida, where, believing that a proper role for state government was to enable the proliferation of faith-based prison programs, officials granted preferential/most-favored status to a series of faith-based prison initiatives run by their allies in the Christian evangelical Right.

When liberals hear "prison reform" they think a reduction of the total number of prisoners, a reduction of sentence length, and a repeal of the harsh laws that put people in prison in the first place. When the right hears "prison reform" they think privatizing, religious indoctrination, and outsourcing. Similar to the problem with education "reform", radical right-wing notions are smuggled into much of the discussion around prison reform with left-wing activists either too underfunded or distracted to take much notice.

Core reforms needed to actually have an impact, because they upset the corporate establishment, are not being discussed in earnest, Heitzeg and Whitlock note. There is no Koch brothers funding for public education over incarceration, specific efforts to end racial police profiling, racial and class biases that are foundational to the criminal legal system, addresses systemic violence in our prisons, and real, democratic accountability of our prison system. What's being focused on amounts to either token reform (like California's prisoner shell game) or pro-privatization reformed like a refocus on "wall-less prisons" that use technology to monitor parolees and more private prisons.

Exploiting the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to sell charter school agitprop

Charter school boosters and their libertarian allies love nothing more than using the flood narrative of Katrina to sell a mythology of New Orleans "turned around" public education system. It generally goes like this: before Katrina was nothing but education Sodom and Gomorrah and after the hurricane struck their sins were washed away and in came the technocratic neoliberal saviors. Op-eds praising the phantom turn-around were everywhere, the most notable of which being Kristen McQueary who took to the pages of Chicago Tribune to actually wish for a "real storm" to hit Chicago so their school system could be saved like New Orleans. One op-ed, in particular, by Johnathan Alter at The Daily Beast, made one of the more remarkable admissions of anyone in the charter school movement.

One finding in particular has stuck in the public consciousness—that charter public schools (and yes, charters are public schools, despite propaganda from unions and their supporters suggesting otherwise) perform no better overall than traditional public schools. This is accurate, but not especially relevant, because many small, inexperienced groups that lack the know-how to run schools have opened charters in recent years.

Buried in Alter's 10 year Katrina celebration is a rather startling admission: charter schools aren't any better than non-charter schools. But he dismisses this rather relevant fact by saying it's because anyone off the street can open a charter school. Which, is one of the major reasons people opposed charter schools.But never mind, Alter has a corporate narrative to sew and contradictory evidence to wave away. For a complete list of neoliberals and libertarians celebrating the destruction of New Orleans check out this recap from September. 

Koch Brothers ramp up efforts to privatize public parks.

In July, pro-privatization and Koch-backed ideological hatchet man Reed Watson co-wrote an op-ed in The New York Times ostensibly calling for no more national parks because of a backlog of maintenance. While a seeming neutral sounding position, the real goal is to ultimately privatize the parks outright. By constantly reinforcing narrative the government can’t handle maintaining National Parks the idea that private interests should swoop in and save them - much like they did with school and pension “reform” - logically follows. Watson runs the euphemistically named “Property and Environment Research Center which bills itself as “a property rights and environmental organization” is really an ideological front group funded by Koch-supported Donors Trust, which has been called the “dark money ATM of the right.” As Think Progress’s Claire Moser notes:

In addition to arguing for no new national parks, PERC’s op-ed also calls for an end to one of America’s best parks programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF is a budget-neutral program that uses funds from offshore oil and gas development fees to fund federal, state and local outdoor projects across the country. The program has been used to support some of America’s most iconic national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, and has helped create tens of thousands of outdoor projects such as local parks and baseball diamonds in all 50 states.

Once again, the Kochs and their wealthy ideological confederates have smuggled in a far-right trope into the mainstream discourse by laundering it through a network of elaborate, objective-sounding nonprofits and think tanks. PERC is basically a wholly-owned subsidiary of a consortium of oil and gas interests but you wouldn’t know this reading their description in The New York Times as “a property rights and environmental organization.”

Adam Johnson is a contributing writer for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc