Monday, April 23, 2012


Harry Targ

Seventy community activists were intensely engaged in a three hour panel discussion on Saturday, April 21 focused on how millionaires and billionaires have translated their wealth into power in Indiana to attack worker rights, reproductive justice, and public education.

The event was hosted by the Rebuild the American Dream Coalition-Greater Lafayette initiated last summer by activists from labor, women’s reproductive health, civil rights, civil liberties, peace, and environmental movements. Organizers hope to build grassroots strength from the energy, enthusiasm, and anger expressed at the meeting.

The first panelist provided the general context for discussing money and politics. Julia Vaughn, Policy Director, Common Cause, Indiana dated the dramatic increase of  big money in politics to a 1976 Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo, which declared that spending money on elections was a constitutionally protected form of free speech. In the 2010 Citizens United Case, the Court went further declaring that corporations are persons. From these decisions, Vaughn argued, the floodgates were opened for the wealthiest individuals, banks, corporations, and their foundations, to buy elections and public policy.

Vaughn discussed the national influence acquired by the infamous Koch brothers since the Court proclaimed money as speech and corporations as persons. The brothers funded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), organized in the 1970s to prepare for the time when conservative politicians gained power in state legislative and gubernatorial positions. For forty years ALEC has been planning to impose policies that are anti-worker, anti-women, and anti-human rights.

In Indiana ALEC provided incumbent anti-public education rightwing Governor Mitch Daniels, with $400,000 for his reelection bid in 2008. Several state legislators formally associated with ALEC worked vigorously to pass Indiana’s Right-To-Work law in 2012.

ALEC and the Koch brothers are just part of the story, Vaughn said. Other super wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations funded campaigns to privatize public education and weaken or destroy Planned Parenthood. From a Common Cause perspective, she said, a constitutional amendment overturning the Buckley and Citizens United Supreme Court decisions are needed to take money out of politics.

Katie Blair, Director of Activism for Planned Parenthood Indiana, warned of the implacable opposition of 2012 Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence to women’s reproductive health rights. Pence, currently a Hoosier Congressman and a favorite of the influential Tea Party in Indiana, has advocated ending any government support for Planned Parenthood, a position already taken by the Indiana legislature and being challenged in the courts. While Pence’s expected Democratic opponent, John Gregg, is not pro-choice he has committed himself to continue state funding for reproductive health services.

Blair also challenged claims made by those who argue that there are 600 “providers” of accessible women’s health services in the state of Indiana. Blair secured a list of these alleged providers of women’s health services from opponents of Planned Parenthood. She had interns call the ‘providers.” On the list was a prison facility and a deceased doctor. Many of those listed would not take Medicaid recipients as patients.

Blair claimed that large amounts of anti-Planned Parenthood lobbying money came from the Indiana Right to Life advocacy group, which had national organizational ties and the Conference of Catholic Bishops. While she did not link the anti-women’s health justice groups to the Koch Brothers and ALEC, opposition to Planned Parenthood has been on ALEC’s agenda for years.

Pete Rimsans, Executive Director of the Indiana State Building Trades, opened with an admission he had heard from the distinguished Congressman from Indiana, Lee Hamilton. Hamilton admitted that if he received two calls, one from a local constituent and another from a huge financial contributor, he would answer the latter’s call first. For Rimsans, the fact that Hamilton who served the state with dignity would respond first to “big money” over grassroots advocacy illustrates the problem.

Rimsans referred to two kinds of battles in politics today: the “ground war” versus the “air war.” The former represents the only power workers and others, the 99 percent, have; that is their numbers. The “air war” is fought by millionaires and billionaires who have unlimited financial resources to influence the media and candidates from both parties, and in the end the public policies that cause the vast majority of people pain and suffering.

Rimsans reported that in the recent struggle over Right-to-Work, the National Right-to-Work Committee played a significant role. Most statehouse Republicans were recipients of NRTW money. Although anti-worker money and influence in the state had been applied for years before the final legislative victory of reaction in January, their long-term investments insured victory when the Indiana Republicans captured both houses and the governorship in 2010.

The final panelist, Ed Eiler, retiring superintendent, Lafayette School Corporation, projected a power point slide that crisply defined the problem: money=power and greater money=greater power. He suggested there were links between the declining support for quality public education over the last thirty years and sustained campaigns to convince the American people that our political and economic crises, including educational ones, are the result of government. As former President Ronald Reagan put it, “government is the problem, not the solution.”

A propaganda campaign, orchestrated by think tanks and corporate funds, has promoted the argument since the 1970s that markets create economic development, better the human condition, and advance the quality of  education. This campaign, Eiler suggested, challenged the perspective popular since the depression of the 1930s that during periods of economic crisis government must step in to protect and preserve the quality of life of the citizenry.

In addition, Americans, he implied, have believed that they are entitled to certain rights; quality education, access to health care, jobs, and basic public services. However, the top one-tenth of one percent, who dominate public policy today, oppose the idea that government can and should serve human needs. For them, government services mean more taxes, more regulation, and ultimately more fairness in governance and policy and less profit.

Eiler argued that the application of “free market” ideology has been disastrous for education. Campaigns to privatize education, to shift from the provision of education to the distribution of vouchers which parents presumably use to choose the schools they wish to send their children to, create a catastrophe for the poor and working class. Children from economically disadvantaged homes may not have access to schools in the future, as private institutions establish barriers to admission (in part to insure that only children, especially those from advantaged homes, who can score well on tests are admitted).

After weaving the narrative about the connection between money and power, the shift to free market ideologies, and linking these to the privatization of education and its consequences for poor and working class families and their children, he addressed the reasons behind so-called “school reform.” Central to such reform, Eiler showed, was the drive for profit. Corporations create charter schools because they can gain financially from tax credits and other government subsidies. State governments pay charter school corporations to educate the young, while they defund public schools. If charter schools fail, governments still pay private contractors, for example, for rent on the buildings no longer in use.

Eiler carefully presented data showing that major foundations (such as Gates, Broad, Walton) allocate huge amounts of money to lobby politicians and to “educate” the public about school privatization. Hedge fund managers are major advocates for the privatization of education. While progressives may be skeptical of the “public service” provided by the Koch brothers or the Walton Foundation, Eiler argued that virtually every foundation, hedge fund, and research institute involved in educational reform advocacy is motivated to serve the holders of great wealth and their ideology of “free markets.” The long-term implications of the influence of big money, market ideologies, and school privatization for the future of the young are profoundly negative.

In sum, panelists and discussants noted how fundamental the issues being raised were and that great wealth is transforming public policy in the United States, largely at the expense of the vast majority of the people. Also it was clear to the energized audience that the same institutions of wealth have advanced programs to challenge worker rights, reproductive justice, and public education.

Summing up the morning’s discussion, Dream Coalition member Harry Targ referred to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, who wrote that this land “was made for you and me.” He reminded those assembled of the 68th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s call for an Economic Bill of Rights that would guarantee employment with a living wage, adequate housing, and access to medical care, education, and social security. Targ also referred to the fiftieth year anniversary of the writing of the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which called for the creation of a “participatory democracy.”

Following from the 16 months of mobilization from Tahrir Square, to Madison, Columbus, and Indianapolis, to the flowering of Occupy movements around the country, he urged attendees to participate with the new Rebuild the American Dream-Greater Lafayette Coalition to fight the wealthy who are destroying our country.