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Thom Hartmann | Are Economic Royalists Leading the US Over a Precipice?

(Image: Twelve)

In his just-published book, The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America – and What We Can Do to Stop It, Thom Hartmann lays out a persuasive and sweeping case that Economic Royalists are driving the United States into a cataclysmic financial breakdown. Was the near meltdown of our economy at the end of the Bush Administration just a prelude to a more crushing collapse?

Given the erosion of the checks and balances normally provided by a representative democracy, Hartmann convincingly answers “Yes.”

Will a progressive revolution prevent the economic downfall from occurring; will a democratizing of the economy arise from the ashes of the nation’s financial ruin?

These are questions Hartmann ponders toward the end of “The Crash of 2016.” He makes a moving plea in the epilogue – a letter written to his yet unborn great-grandchildren – to break the plutocratic grip that decimates democracy.

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The following excerpt from The Crash of 2016 is entitled, “The ALEC Shadow Government”:

For more than a decade, Marc Pocan (now a member of the US House of Representatives) was regularly elected every two years by his constituents in the Seventy-​Eighth District of Wisconsin to represent their interests in the Wisconsin State Assembly. In fact, he won 93 percent of the vote in his first bid back in 1998.

But, Representative Pocan soon learned, in Royalist America, there’s no place for him, or his constituents, in government anymore. Pocan realized this when he attended the annual convention of the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, down in New Orleans back in August 2011.

Established in 1973, ALEC claims on its website that its mission is “to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-​private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government, and general public.”

But Representative Pocan had a different take on ALEC. “Literally, it’s a dating service setting up corporate lobbyists and state legislators,” he told me. “The culmination is the passing of special-​interest legislation.”

Over the past few decades, the job of writing and passing legislation, which used to take place in the halls of state governments across the nation and in Congress by lawmakers who were elected by the people, has been outsourced to – or hijacked by – ALEC.

And contrary to any definitions of democracy we were taught in school, less than half of the policy makers of ALEC are actually elected officials. The majority are very, very wealth corporate interests residing in the top 1 percent who are trying to occupy the thrones once belonging to feudal lords.

State representatives such as Mark Pocan and other members of Congress can join ALEC for an annual membership fee of $50. Currently there are about two thousand members of ALEC who are elected officials and they make up less than 2 percent of the organization’s annual funding, which in 2009 was nearly $7 million.

The majority of policy makers within ALEC are corporate executives and lobbyists, who pay a membership fee of between a few thousand dollars and as much as a couple hundred thousand dollars, depending on how much influence they want within ALEC, plus annual dues. That’s where ALEC gets roughly 98 percent of its funding, along with stand-​alone, hefty corporate, foundation, and personal contributions. For example, at the 2011 convention, BP – fresh from its oil catastrophe in the Gulf – was at the top of the list of donors to ALEC, likely dishing out as much as $100,000. Other donors included ExxonMobil (the most profitable corporation in the history of the world), Shell, Chevron, Wal-​Mart, Visa, and a name Americans have increasingly come to know: Koch Industries.

All that money dished out by all the corporations buys them equal standing in the ALEC “democracy.”

In the same way state and federal governments divide their work into committees (such as the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Congress, or the Public Health and Public Safety Committee in the Wisconsin State Assembly), ALEC also breaks up into committees – or what it calls “task forces.” There are eight of them in total, involving all the same areas congressional committees cover:

• Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development

• Communications and Technology

• Education

• Energy, Environment, and Agriculture

• Health and Human Services

• International Relations

• Public Safety and Elections

• Tax and Fiscal Policy

Within each ALEC “task force,” both elected legislators and corporate lobbyists are represented equally – fifty-​fifty. The two sides sit together and then discuss and mark up what they aim to one day make actual legislation, based in large part on what was taught in earlier workshops.

Walking around an ALEC convention, you’d probably feel like you were at a high school civics fair or a Model UN Conference. There’s a few thousand men and women in suits milling about, attending corporate-funded workshops, all with one central theme: profitization.

From ways corporations can make a profit from our public education system, to ways corporations can skim more and more off the top of Medicare, to ways corporations can avoid pollution regulations – it all comes down to finding new ways to convert the public good and the public trust into the private profit, just as the Goldman Sachs-trained technocrats in Europe are doing.

And, like attentive students, state lawmakers sit quietly and are spoon-​fed by faux, corporate-​funded climate change “scientists,” speakers who twist the words of Jefferson and other Founders to unintelligibility, and free-​market “economists.”

“They literally referred to the legislators as the football team,” Pocan said, “and the corporate lobbyists making presentations were our coaches. Those were their words.”

It’s the ultimate culmination of the Powell Memo.

As Pocan put it, the legislators were “being given their game plans” before they were shuffled off to the next phase of the ALEC convention – the “task force” meetings.

“You need a majority vote from each group for something to advance,” Pocan told me, referring to the corporations on the ALEC task forces. “So not only do they write the legislation but then they vote on the legislation for it to move forward.”

Once the ALEC task force approves legislation, it’s then handed off to the legislators to take back home and introduce in their respective state governments.

Florida State Representative Rachel Burgin didn’t even bother to remove the ALEC mission statement from the top of the “model legislation” that she introduced in the Florida House of Representatives back in February 2012. Right below the header of her bill, “urging Congress to cut the federal corporate tax rate,” were the words “Whereas it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council . . . “

She realized her mistake the next day and immediately withdrew the bill.

ALEC, however, makes no secret of its legislation-​writing wing, bragging on its website, “ALEC’s Task Forces have considered, written and approved hundreds of model bills on a wide range of issues, model legislation that will frame the debate today and far into the future. Each year, close to 1,000 bills, based at least in part on ALEC Model Legislation, are introduced in the states. Of these, an average of 20 percent become law.”

But in states where Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature as well as the governor’s mansion, such as Wisconsin, the success rate is much higher.

I asked Representative Pocan how much of the legislation he’s seeing introduced in the state legislature in Wisconsin is coming out of ALEC.

“The vast majority,” he said. “All the attacks on collective-​bargaining rights, all the changes to pension law, all of the cuts and ‘reforms’ to education, all of these are part and parcel of workshops and task forces that I’ve been to.”

Nine different states have passed ALEC-​written legislation to reject efforts to bring transparency to our elections by requiring shareholders to approve corporate election spending. Those states include Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire,

North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Coincidentally, ALEC’s leading corporate contributors have funneled more than $16 million into state political campaigns since 2001.

The group Common Cause identified several pieces of legislation that are virtual carbon copies of model ALEC legislation (minus the mission statement), introduced by at least nineteen members of the Republican-​controlled Minnesota state legislature, giving tax breaks to tobacco companies, striking down greenhouse-gas-emissions regulations, and taking away the rights of people to vote.

After the ALEC members in the Minnesota legislature passed four bills that would have given corporations more protections from lawsuits, Democratic governor Mark Dayton vetoed them and then called out his state’s Republican legislators for copying ALEC’s “boot camp manual.”

“I’ve found that Minnesotans do not want their laws written by the lobbyists of big corporations,” he said.

“Since these Republican bills so closely follow ALEC’s instructions on tort reform and since ALEC’s opinion on these subjects are evidently more important to Republican legislators than mine, their fellow DFL legislators or the Minnesota Supreme Court’s, perhaps they would share with us all of the other ALEC boot camp manuals so we can know in advance what to expect from them for the rest of the session.”

The democracy-​stealing agenda of ALEC is most evident in the spate of voter ID laws that have been passed in Republican-​controlled state legislatures around the nation. These new laws, virtual carbon copies of ALEC’s model legislation, will disproportionately affect low-​income, minority, elderly, and college-​age voters (people who usually vote for Democrats). According to a Brennan Center for Justice study, as many as five million people will be disenfranchised by voter ID laws.

Ironically, ALEC’s founder was conservative strategist Paul Weyrich, who, according to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, is a “giant of the Conservative movement.”

Weyrich was instrumental in organizing this corporate takeover of our democracy, funding the politically powerful “Moral Majority” as well as the right-​wing think tank the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, Weyrich revealed a key conservative strategy and the game plan for ALEC thirty years later, saying in a speech, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Kick more voters off the rolls, and let corporations have more of an influence in who wins them—that’s ALEC’s strategy.

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Excerpted from the book The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America- and What We Can Do to Stop It by Thom Hartmann. Copyright © 2013 by Thom Hartmann. Reprinted by permission of Twelve. All rights reserved.

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