Saturday, December 9, 2017

Dark Money

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind The Rise of the Radical Right By Jane Mayer Large Print Edition 765 pages ISBN 978-0-7352-1033-2 $30 US $39 Can Contents: Introduction, Parts 1, 2 and 3, 14 Chapters, an Author’s Note, Notes for each chapter and an Index. Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the co-author of Landslide: the Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988 and Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. She is the author of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. She has won many prizes for her writing and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Recently the New York Public Library named Dark Money as one of the ten best non-fiction books of the year. She spent five years conducting exhaustive interviews, searching public records, private papers and court documents following the well-hidden trail of the billions of dollars spent by the ultra-rich to change the ways Americans thought and voted. Some of her sources refused to be named for fear of reprisals and she, herself, was followed and closely investigated while researching this book. No one would admit who was responsible. For those interested in understanding Donald Trump’s recent election to the post of President, this book is essential. People like Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Dick Cheney are involved in the secretive networks which Mayer uncovers. The prominence of Rex Tillerson’s ExxonMobil is also referred to. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll describes ExxonMobil’s business in Russia. There is no doubt, as one reads Dark Money, that this movement was behind Trump’s win. It is scary and hard to believe the measures which the Koch brothers and their friends take in order to gain political power in an attempt to avoid regulation and taxation. The story begins way back in the 50’s when Fred Koch, the father of four brothers, two of whom, Charles and David, became known as “the Koch brothers”, used the enormous wealth he gained from Koch Enterprises to begin to influence the political system in the US. Koch Enterprises gained much of its early good fortune because of Fred’s willingness to work with Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. When Fred died in 1967, Charles and David bought out their brothers and owned what became the second largest company in America. They owned four thousand miles of pipelines, oil refineries in Alaska, Texas and Minnesota, the Georgia-Pacific lumber and paper company, coal and chemicals, and they were huge traders in commodity futures, among other businesses. The company made the two brothers the sixth and seventh wealthiest men in the world. Each was estimated to be worth $14 billion in 2009. Charles Koch seemed, on the surface, to be simply an ideologue dedicated to the American – Libertarian dream. But when you consider that Koch Industries was the number one producer of toxic waste in the USA in 2012 and that one defense of a company it owned in Texas was that producing smog with their air pollution saved many from skin cancer, you are forced to look a little deeper. The anti-regulation and taxation philosophy behind Koch’s “freedom” rhetoric always ends up producing a financial gain for him at the expense, in most cases, of others. The most shocking revelations, which Mayer documents scrupulously, are the secretive, duplicitous, intentionally false lengths to which the Koch brothers and their supporters go. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case in 2010 was meant to allow citizens to see for themselves whether their political leaders were receiving funds from various corporations. Instead, it did just the opposite. By ruling that any amount of money could be contributed to outside groups who were supporting or opposing political candidates, it overturned a century of restrictions banning corporations and unions from spending all they wanted to elect candidates. The court held that corporations had the same rights as individuals and that as long as the money was given to groups who were technically independent of the campaigns, anyone could give any amount. This opened the doors for Koch’s billionaire friends (some of whom were original members of the John Birch Society) to finance candidates and contribute any amount to fighting their opponents. As Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer and New Yorker writer put it, “it gave rich people more or less free rein to spend as much as they want in support of their favored candidates.” The movement of the mega rich led by Charles and David Koch, “exercised their power from the shadows, meeting in secret, hiding their money trails, and paying others to front for them.” They didn’t want only to win elections. They wanted to change the way Americans thought. They did it by anonymously funding think tanks, university departments, Pacs and Superpacs and other “philanthropic” foundations. Jane Mayer has written a fascinating book about a largely unknown movement in the USA which is responsible for Donald Trump’s victory and the state of America today.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Canada's Company

This was originally written in 2008 but it is just as true today. Because of a recent particularly irritating radio advertisement by Petro-Canada about preventing fuel line freezing which says “we’re Canadian too” (the owners weren’t Canadian when this was written), I have chosen to publish it now. I have documentary evidence to back it up stashed in four places. (Paranoia strikes deep). On Petro-Canada’s website recently there was a description of the Terra Nova spill. It is this kind of statement which causes regulatory agencies to criticize Petro-Canada for being so secretive. It is this same attitude which causes objective observers to be “turned away” from their operations. Petro-Canada behaved similarly at the Petro-Canada pipeline terminal in Ottawa a few years ago where I worked from 1998 until 2001, a few miles from Parliament Hill. The man I replaced died of lung cancer, I had brain surgery to remove a tumour. Both my predecessor and I came from Esso next door on Merivale Road, where we seldom breathed vapour. Both of us protested to Petro-Canada management about the gasoline vapours we were forced to breathe to do our jobs but they refused to upgrade their manifold valves on the pipeline. When the man was dying, they installed a fume hood, issued respirators to the men, scheduled yearly blood checks and hired me. Before that, there was no protection. After that, the company checked once a year. Esso and Shell’s terminals had installed remote switching systems years before. They used outdoor, electric valves. Breathing vapour wasn’t a problem for the workers there. Petro-Canada’s old, manual valves leaked gasoline onto the floor of the building where the workers did their jobs. There was no doubt that they leaked vapour. At the time, there were warnings about benzene on the Petro-Canada website. Standards, allowable parts per million of benzene to air, had been established for years. Benzene is listed as “carcinogenic” and “tumorigenic” in Petro-Canada’s own literature. Its toxicity is compared with radiation overexposures. The readings in the tender shack, where we worked, were far over the allowable limit. At the same time as the company was meeting appropriate standards on paper, Petro-Canada’s employees were told, in no uncertain terms, that the upgrading of the valves would result in lost Ottawa jobs. “You were issued a respirator, wear it” I was told. At the same time the Olympic Torch Relay and all the good things Petro-Canada was doing for communities and charities were trumpeted far and wide. Petro-Canada’s claims then, sounded similar to the company’s statements about oil spills off the east coast, now. Put a good face on it, make it sound like everything’s under control, play it down to the media and the public and the regulators. Meanwhile, don’t spend a penny on anything which isn’t forced by legislation. Then, delay that as long as possible. On the surface, it’s a wise business decision. In the end, it could cost people’s lives and ruin the reputation of the company. I, like most Canadians, didn’t know the history of Petro-Canada, so the mistaken assumption that “Canada’s company” would protect its employees and the environment was automatic. I believe that the Terra Nova spill, maybe 1700 litres, is a precursor to another Exxon Valdez. We don’t know the real amount of the spill and never will. There are all kinds of emergency procedures and spill clean-up plans that go along with offshore rigs and platforms. The companies report to their regulators but, really, they monitor themselves. There were emergency plans for the Exxon Valdez too. And there were lots of warnings about benzene exposure at the Ottawa terminal. It was all on paper. All superficial and useless. Petro-Canada was created in the mid-seventies with 1.5 billion taxpayers’ dollars, sustained by the government through thick and thin until private industry took over in 1991. Maybe its beginnings doomed it from the start. Peter Foster’s book, Self Serve: How Petro-Canada Drained Canadians Dry, contends that. Was I naive to expect that Petro-Canada would have higher standards than Esso? Was it simplistic and dumb to believe that Petro-Canada was meeting, at least, minimum Canadian legal standards? It looks naive now and Petro-Canada’s statements about offshore spills sound familiar. Petro-Canada’s problem is their lack of a really big disaster. They haven’t learned their lesson yet, like Esso and Shell have, from their disasters. The big boys know that meeting, even surpassing, health and safety and environmental standards is cheaper in the end. Unfortunately, it will probably not be Petro-Canada who will have to clean up the mess. It will be the Canadian taxpayer, again. It’s in the cards, just watch. John Strohmeyer’s, Severe Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska, should be required reading for everyone on the coasts, especially in the North. The Exxon Valdez happened in 1989 in Alaska. It couldn’t happen, but, like the Titanic disaster, it did. The government regulators, the media and the public get their information from the company. Without environmental and labour control, the company will do what it wants. From the point of view of one who has worked in the lowest end of the upstream and downstream of the oil industry, on rigs in the North Sea and Alberta, and as a yardman at the Esso and Petro-Canada pipeline terminals in Ottawa, it is obvious that Petro-Canada can’t be left to regulate itself. Another disaster on the east or west coasts? In the north? It’s inevitable. Some oil companies are regularly found non-compliant by courts and regulatory bodies with environmental, safety, fire and labour laws. Fines for non-compliance are costs of doing business. It’s in their budgets. The Canadian public, which created and paid for it, doesn’t owe Petro-Canada anything. It is certainly under no obligation to give the company the benefit of the doubt. Has Petro-Canada made the improvements and upgrades? It deserves watching and that radio ad is still irritating.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Canadian View

We were snowed in as usual. The cabin fever began to grow. There was barely room for all of us and the animals. Nothing could be left out in this cold. The wind shrieked and howled while the snow buried our houses with us in them. The digging started right away, of course. Those of us who were nearest the door were given shovels and plows whether we wanted them or not. Granny sat by the wood stove. She was blind but she was knitting. There would be a long scarf for the children by the time we tunnelled to daylight. Children howled and shrieked with joy as they buzzed through the crowded residence. Families and extended families with their neighbours and their extended families sheltered in the humble abode. Gramps saw it once. One time, so they say, before he passed away, Gramps emerged from the snow tunnel the day before the winter snows descended again. He looked upon the homestead that day, without snow on it and never spoke another word. Caribou jerky hung from the ceiling. Wood stoves kept the stew stewing. We took it in shifts. We hoped, in our modest way, to make it out before the snows came again. We aimed to see what Gramps saw. Farmyard beasts mated in the back, among the hanging furs. Birds sat in the rafters and dropped droppings as we dug for many days. Once, it became lighter and we thought we had reached the end in record time. We were wrong, of course. A cave-in deprived many of consciousness. Lively Irish fiddle music replaced lively Scottish fiddle music which replaced lively French fiddle music. Then they reversed. Stew and beer awaited those who participated in the digging. It wasn’t an occupation which promoted good health, but as our neighbour, Mr Clark said, “Up, up and away! ” Children were born, old ones passed along, the population’s size expanded and shrunk. The digging went on, but it was slow work. We were sure to reach the end by the return of the snowstorms, but what then? Did we always have to do this? Is this what life was about? It was in this frame of mind that I’d become separated from the main group. I don’t know how it happened. I wandered through a shiny crystal tunnel. I was lost. The temperature was all right but I had no food or water. A mysterious tugging kept me walking on without fear. Then it was over as soon as it had begun. I emerged into a warm field full of sunshine and trees and grass and birds. A small man dressed in green sat with his back up against a towering oak tree. He was fingering a flute, trying out different notes by covering different holes. I sat down in front of him and watched. His bushy grey eyebrows flickered as he stared at his fingers in concentration. He blew a few notes, wrinkled his nose and placed the flute in an inside jacket pocket. From this he withdrew a deerstalker pipe and tobacco. When he had lit up and enjoyed the smoke, he smiled and looked at me. ”Well now, how are you and the Canadians you know?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I felt good right then, at that moment. But how was I really? And the Canadians I knew? This flashed through my mind in a nanosecond, but the little man’s eyes showed that he was waiting for me to catch up. It seemed that he was reading my mind. I only had to think something and he would chuckle to himself. It made me examine every thought. “Fine” I said. “Fine? Fine?” he chuckled, drew a good draught on his pipe. When I looked into his eyes I could only think of the digging. Stew, beer and digging. It wasn’t a happy fate that awaited Canadians. The reality of it struck me in the face like a cold mackerel. “Well, you seem to have caught me unawares, so I’ll grant you the wish you desire” said the little man dressed in green. He produced a wand and stood at the ready. He rolled his eyes, checked a pocket watch in his vest, tapped his toe, sighed and looked impatient. I could think only of the digging as I made my wish. The little man doffed his green fedora, pocketed his pipe and disappeared with a smile and a twinkle of the eye. I found myself walking along the crystal corridors again, pulled onward by an unknown force. Sounds of the digging greeted me as I joined the digging assembly line to the envious oohs and ahhs of my coworkers. They were admiring my brand new shovel. More stew, beer and digging. It began to look dubious that we would reach the end of the snow tunnel before the snows returned. We dug harder and faster to make it through. Then, just when things were darkest, we began to see a little light. As we dug toward the surface, there were hoots of jubilation among the grunts of work. The sun appeared as we emerged a year after the last snowstorm, but a snow cloud quickly hid its warmth and light. We realized, as we looked upon the homestead, that big lump of snow, that the snowstorms had returned. We were late by a few days. We resolved to beat the snowstorms next year as we filed back into the tunnel.