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How Right-Wing Billionaires and Business Propaganda Got Us into the Economic Mess of the Century

Holland's new book shows how the corporate Right obscured how they've rigged the "free market" so they always come out on top.

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The second reason Americans seem complacent in the face of this tectonic shift in their economic fortunes is more controversial: the “New Conservative Movement” built a highly influential message machine that’s helped obscure not only the economic history of the last four decades, but the very notion of class itself.

The Lies That Corporate America Tells Us

Let’s return to the early 1970s, when a rattled economic elite became determined to regain control of the U.S. economy. How do you go about achieving that in a democracy?

One way, of course, is to depose the government and replace it with one that’s more to your liking. In the 1930s, a group of businessmen contemplated just that—a military takeover of Washington, D.C., to stop Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dreaded New Deal from being enacted. The plot fell apart when the decorated general the group had tapped to lead the coup turned in the conspirators.

A more subtle approach is to convince a majority of voters that your interests are, in fact, their own. Yet there’s a big problem with this: if you belong to a rarified group, then the notion of aligned interests doesn’t reflect objective reality. And in the early 1970s, the media and academia provided a neutral arbiter of that reality (of sorts).

We’ve all grown accustomed to conservatives’ conspiracy theories about the corporate media having a far-left bias and college professors indoctrinating American youths into Maoism. In the early 1970s, a group of very wealthy conservatives started to invest in what you might call “intellectual infrastructure” ostensibly designed to counter the liberal bias they saw all around them. They funded dozens of corporate-backed think tanks, endowed academic chairs, and created their own dedicated and distinctly conservative media outlets.

Families with names such as Olin, Coors, Scaife, Bradley, and Koch may not be familiar to most Americans, but their efforts have had a profound impact on our economic discourse. Having amassed huge fortunes in business, these families used their foundations to fund the movement that would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and eventually bring about the coronation of George W. Bush in 2000.

In 1973, brewer Joseph Coors kicked in $250,000 for seed money to start the now highly influential Heritage Foundation (with the help of the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and DeVos foundations). In 1977, Charles Koch, an oil billionaire, started the libertarian CATO Institute. Richard Mellon Scaife, a wealthy right-wing philanthropist who would later fund the shady “Arkansas Project” that almost brought down Bill Clinton’s presidency, bought the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review  in 1970. The American Enterprise Institute, which was founded as the American Enterprise Association in the 1930s and remained relatively obscure through the 1960s, was transformed into an ideological powerhouse when it added a research faculty in 1972. The Hoover Institution, founded by Herbert himself in 1928, saw a huge increase in funding in the 1960s and would be transformed during the 1980s into the Washington advocacy organization that it is today.

In 1982, billionaire and right-wing messianic leader Sun Myung Moon started the  Washington Times  as an antidote to the “liberal”  Washington Post . The paper, which promoted competition in the free market over all other human virtues, would be subsidized by the "Moonies” to a tune of $1.7 billion during the next 20 years. In 2000, United Press International, a venerable but declining newswire, was bought up by Moon’s media conglomerate, World News Communications.

With generous financing from that same group of conservative foundations, the Federalist Society was founded in 1982 by former attorney general Ed Meese, controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, and Ted Olsen—who years later would win the infamous  Bush v. Gore  case before the Supreme Court in 2000 and then go on to serve as Bush’s solicitor general. The Federalist Society continues to have a major impact on our legal community.

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