Mike the Mad Biologist

One of the advantages the conservative movement has is that it can be very lucrative to be a professional conservative, whereas being a professional liberal is rather difficult. There isn’t the tight integration of think tanks, conservative magazines, cozy book deals, and the occasional faculty sinecure (e.g., torturer John Yoo) on the left. What keeps this beast fed is money. Last week, Politico described the fickle ideological allegiance of one conservative think tank:

The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group’s support in a bitter legislative dispute, then the group’s chairman flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay.

For the $2 million plus, ACU offered a range of services that included: “Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU’s Chairman David Keene and/or other members of the ACU’s board of directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)”

The conservative group’s remarkable demand — black-and-white proof of the longtime Washington practice known as “pay for play” — was contained in a private letter to FedEx , which was provided to POLITICO.

The letter exposes the practice by some political interest groups of taking stands not for reasons of pure principle, as their members and supporters might assume, but also in part because a sponsor is paying big money.

In the three-page letter asking for money on June 30, the conservative group backed FedEx. After FedEx says it rejected the offer, Keene signed onto a two-page July 15 letter backing UPS. Keene did not return a message left on his cell phone.

Maury Lane, FedEx’s director of communications, said: “Clearly, the ACU shopped their beliefs and UPS bought.”

This intellectual prostitution is nothing new, as David Johnson describes when answering the rhetorical question, “[H]ow much of what we think of as “conservatism” itself is actually just paid corporate PR?”:

I have followed this stuff for some time, and I venture to say that most — not all but most — of what I see coming out of the so-called “conservative movement” appears to have been little more than corporate pay-for-play for many years.

I started thinking about this back when the “conservative” position was pro-logging. Remember how they mocked the spotted owl? (The spotted owl is an “indicator species,” or a shorthand way to judge the health of an entire ecosystem.) I wondered why the logging industry was a cause for conservatives, but not the fishing industry, which was greatly harmed by the logging practices advocated by conservatives. The answer turned out to be that a guy who ran a corporation that had made a ton of money looting S&Ls (how come no one remembers the S&L Crisis?) had bought a lumber company and was destroying all the old-growth redwoods was hooked into (i.e. paying) the conservative movement…..And so the “conservative” opinion became that logging old-growth forests was a good thing. Cash payment was the reason for this core pillar of conservative ideology. (The whole thing ended up paying off even more handsomely, probably thanks to more conservative movement backscratching.)

Over the years I have seen one after another example of this use of the so-called “conservative” movement to drive the interests of particular corporations, in exchange for money. We used to see it serving tobacco interests. Now we see it serving oil and coal interests — and right now insurance company interests.

And this isn’t limited to conservative think tanks. Conservative ‘intellectuals’ and leaders shamelessly fleece their own flock:

In fact, of the dozens of organizations for which the Phoenix reviewed recent filings, a great many appear to have very little function other than convincing members of this conservative constituency to send them money (very little of which actually goes to furthering any ideological agenda). On the part of the IRS form where groups are asked to articulate their programmatic achievements, that function is often paraphrased as “educating the public,” to justify their tax-exempt status as charitable entities. Other groups tout as their main (or even sole) achievements the number of times their principals appeared on TV or in newspapers.

In some cases, the groups, and even candidates, appear to be shells existing only to perpetuate the flow of money from contributors to the direct-mail companies.

A notorious example is Washington-based Base Connect (formerly BMW Direct), run by direct-mail veteran Kimberly Bellissimo. The company operates sister companies, which are paid to perform the various parts of running the client’s direct-mail campaign — production, list purchases, printing, fulfillment, and media. Virtually all of the money Base Connect raises for their client is simply paid to these Base Connect companies, which has led to some public suggestions that it’s all a big shell game.

Barely any effort is made to pretend otherwise. Several of Base Connect’s clients, like Freedom’s Defense Fund and Black Republican PAC, exist only as a theoretical construct — just words on the piece of mail. A Base Connect executive, who serves as those organizations’ treasurer, has a standard memo he submits to the FEC, to explain the lack of administrative costs for groups reporting multi-million-dollar operations: “Currently, the committee has neither paid staff nor an office headquarters.” That fact is not at all clear in the materials sent to persuade movement conservatives to fund the groups — the mailings give the impression that there is some actual organization behind the name, doing battle against the apocalyptic horrors of Obama and the Democrats.

(Read the rest of the article to find more examples, including the Gingrich-media complex–if you can stomach it)

There’s been a lot of talk with the release of Unscientific America about how to communicate science to the public. But we have realize that this isn’t an educational problem, but a propaganda one. To combat that, we need organizations–and they will need money–that can competently knock this propaganda down. I’m not sure that’s a role for scientists as much as it is political operatives, since this would go well beyond policy prescriptions. In other words, a scientist could decide to join this effort (and that would be worthwhile), but a scientist could also go to Wall Street (or could have, anyway): this is flat-out political warfare. I’ll have more to say about this later this week hopefully.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 20, 2009

    There’s been a lot of talk with the release of Unscientific America about how to communicate science to the public. But we have realize that this isn’t an educational problem, but a propaganda one. To combat that, we need organizations–and they will need money–that can competently knock this propaganda down. I’m not sure that’s a role for scientists as much as it is political operatives, since this would go well beyond policy prescriptions. In other words, a scientist could decide to join this effort (and that would be worthwhile), but a scientist could also go to Wall Street (or could have, anyway): this is flat-out political warfare.

    A-FUCKING-MEN! The notion that everything would be unicorns and motherfucking rainbows if only scientists were better at explaining shit to the public and nicer to religious wackjobs is absurd.

  2. #2 Suzan
    July 20, 2009

    Thanks for always being spot-on (so to speak), Mike.

    I wondered why the logging industry was a cause for conservatives, but not the fishing industry, which was greatly harmed by the logging practices advocated by conservatives. The answer turned out to be that a guy who ran a corporation that had made a ton of money looting S&Ls (how come no one remembers the S&L Crisis?) had bought a lumber company and was destroying all the old-growth redwoods was hooked into (i.e. paying) the conservative movement…..And so the “conservative” opinion became that logging old-growth forests was a good thing. Cash payment was the reason for this core pillar of conservative ideology. (The whole thing ended up paying off even more handsomely, probably thanks to more conservative movement backscratching.)

    . . . And this isn’t limited to conservative think tanks. Conservative ‘intellectuals’ and leaders shamelessly fleece their own flock:

    Nice to know you’re out there protecting us (trying to anyway).

    And I remember (and write about) the S&L Crisis all the time. As a matter of fact, I consider it the dress rehearsal for today’s surprise financial catastrophe brought to us by the same cast of characters (that you so wisely detail the nefarious machinations of).

    S

  3. #3 Hank Roberts
    July 20, 2009

    Thank you.

    A cautionary note from Charles Fort, about science education:

    “… Would we, if we could, educate and sophisticate pigs, geese, cattle? Would it be wise to establish diplomatic relation with the hen…?
    I think we’re property …”

    Experiment — stop acting like property. See what happens. Hmmmm ….

  4. #4 abb3w
    July 20, 2009

    Mike: To combat that, we need organizations–and they will need money–that can competently knock this propaganda down.

    That would be one part of approaching the problem.

    A much more difficult but potentially more fruitful part: working within existing socio-legal constraints, can mechanisms be designed which cut off the flow of money to such intellectual prostitutes?

  5. #5 Edward
    July 20, 2009

    I looked into Frederick Seitz and the “Global Warming Petition” he supported a few years ago. While Seitz was an accomplished scientist, after he retired from academics in the late 1970’s until his death last year, he took large sums of money from corporations. First from the tobacco industry, while he disputed some of the health effects of smoking, and then from the oil industry, while he disputed anthropogenic global warming.

  6. #6 Michael Centanni
    July 21, 2009

    As the chairman of Freedom’s Defense Fund, I take issue with your characterization of our organization. It is true that Freedom’s Defense Fund has no paid staff and no paid office. Freedom’s Defense Fund is an all volunteer organization. This allows us to do more program with little overhead. Would it be better for us to spend several hundred thousand dollars a year on staff and office space? Is that what is necessary to be an effective organization?
    I think not.

    We definately exist other than on paper. In the last election cycle Freedom’s Defense Fund spent approximately $600,000 airing TV commercials regarding the presidential race and several congressional races. In addition Freedom’s Defense Fund sent direct contributions over 20 congressional candidates.

    This year Freedom’s Defense Fund has already spent approximately $200,000 on political ads including three ads which hold Rep Periello of VA to account for his irresponsible votes.

    We feel that Base Connect is doing a great job in raising funds for Freedom’s Defense Fund. And while your concern for the possible misuse of conservative donors’ money is touching you are again wrong in your assertion that Freedom’s Defense Fund or indeed any of Base Connect’s Clients exist to siphon money to “sister” companies of Base Connect.

    Freedom’s Defense Fund uses a completely independent media company for its commercials. I know that Base Connect has no financial interest in any of the printing or mailing companies that are used by Freedom’s Defense Fund.

    If you are truly interested in the science you write about wouldn’t it behoove you to get the facts right?

  7. #7 Todd Zirkle
    July 22, 2009

    Mad Mike –

    As I read it your posts from today they appear to make two points:

    #1 Conservatives are intellectual whores for taking voluntary contributions from like-minded citizens to promote their ideas and;

    #2 That the promotion of ideas to which your subscribe (regarding science) should be an all-out propaganda war which will require organization and money. [I sort of presume that despite your self deprecating self-description as a “Mad Biologist” you regard your own perspective on science as being correct and in need or greater dissemination……. which is fine with me.]

    Pardon me if intrude on your monopoly on free speech. I have my own ideas regarding the issues of the day and I regard your freedom to speak as being as legitimate as my own – why don’t take a look in the mirror and consider extending me, or anyone with whom you disagree, the same courtesy? {Warning: Open minds are subject to outside influences – but I guess you’re safe.}

    Todd Zirkle
    Freedom’s Defense Fund

    PS I’m very angry – I’ve yet to make a nickel off FDF or any other political activity – Where’s mine !! I guess I should joined ACORN where involuntarily contributed billions of other people’s money is sloshing around.

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    July 24, 2009

    I’ll have more to say about this later this week hopefully.

    And here it is Friday already – the unending drumroll of suspense is driving me crazy!

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