Follow the (Really Big) Money

Something I’ve never quite been able to figure out about the powerful individual financial interests behind charter schools is just why those backers are so keen on charters and, correspondingly, so supportive of massive cuts in the funding of public education. One theory is that they stand to profit from the adoption, purchase, and licensing by charter schools of various educational products and services in which they have a stake. And yet that doesn’t seem to fully explain the fervor they exhibit for their cause; something is missing from the equation, no matter the stated desire to address (contestable) claims about an educational system in “crisis.”

Evidently, it’s also a mystery to Michael Massing. Why, the former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review asks in The New York Review of Books, “have so many billionaires concluded that charter schools are the best way to fix the system?” And, just as importantly: “What are the implications of having such a small group with so little expertise in the field of education exercising such influence in it?” Because he doesn’t have the answer, he proposes a way to work toward one: harness digital technology for a new form of journalism that would  “lift the veil off the super-rich and lay bare their power.”

Billionaires, as Massing doesn't need to remind us, are “shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes,” and not just when it comes to education. More than ever before the super-rich are pouring their money into national and state political races, and funding targeted campaigns on discrete issues like regulatory and tax “reform,” climate science, and even foreign diplomacy—all as they manage to shield themselves from scrutiny. Yet journalists, Massing states, “have largely let them get away with it.” His proposal: “[B]roadly based [websites] dedicated to covering the power elite,” at which data on spending by billionaires is collected, collated, and tracked, the information presented in regularly updated tables and charts, and linked to the latest news about which member of the 1 percent is contributing money (and how much) to which cause or politician.

Massing distinguishes his envisioned operation from social-media-enabled grassroots reporting and well-intentioned but undersized watchdogs like Muckety and SourceWatch. He calls for sufficiently funded, nonpartisan organizations with dedicated staff committed not just to breaking the story but also to pursuing it, so that the nexus of wealth and policy is fully exposed as the danger it is to American democracy. There necessarily remain questions about implementation and effectiveness, but for now it represents as good a plan as there is for publicizing information that urgently needs to be publicized.

How urgent is illustrated by one recent example: a New York Times article this week on the influence of billionaires in the 2014 election of Illinois governor Bruce Rauner and the policies he’s pursued since.

It’s a story many more people need to know about, not just residents of Illinois. With its careful tracing of the connections among wealthy donors (some from out of state, not all of them Republicans) and their preferred causes, the story delivers what Massing would like to see more of—but is also in some ways illustrative of the shortcomings he’d like to see addressed. For instance, there’s a sequence of paragraphs buried deep inside the piece that concerns a survey of the wealthy from the Chicago area. Their responses, as the Times reports, were “striking.”

Where merely affluent Americans are more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, the ultrawealthy overwhelmingly leaned right. They are far more likely to raise money for politicians and to have access to them. … Where the general public overwhelmingly supports a high minimum wage, the one percent are broadly opposed. A majority of Americans supported expanding safety-net and retirement programs, while most of the very wealthy opposed them. And while Americans are not enthusiastic about higher taxes generally, they feel strongly that the rich should pay more than they do, and more than everyone else pays.

“Probably the biggest single area of disconnect has to do with social welfare programs,” said Benjamin I. Page, a political scientist at Northwestern University and a co-author of the study. “The other big area has to do with paying for those programs, particularly taxes on high-income and wealthy people.” Illinois, Mr. Page added, is “a case study of the disconnect in action—between what average citizens want the government to do and what it does.”

As important as it is for ordinary Americans to know what billionaires are buying, it’s also important they know that they’re not alone, and thus not powerless, in opposing what the wealthy seek from government. Perhaps an operation such as Massing proposes could also aid in distributing, in a forceful and contextualized way, this kind of information—real studies showing just how much of the 99 percent are in favor of, say, higher taxes on those who can afford it, or a stronger social safety net, or expanded funding for public education, compared to the ultra-rich. There is strength in numbers, and making the numbers clear and obvious might also spur the energy and confidence needed to realize change, or at least spur efforts to make yet more such information easily available.

Not to mention more visible. To learn of this particular study, online readers of the Times would had to have scrolled down through dozens of paragraphs broken up by multiple ads, photos, and informational graphics; print readers would had to have jumped from the first page to the middle of the fourth column on the text-heavy fourteenth page. But that’s not to criticize the Times’s coverage or presentation of the bigger story; indeed, as Massing points out, the Times is one of the few organizations to even attempt such coverage (even if it doesn’t always follow up with necessary “vigor and urgency”). Rather, it’s to note how the constraints under and customs by which traditional journalism continues to operate, even online, can damp down the effectiveness of the information such a story contains. I mention this study mainly as an example of something that on its own is deserving of wider dissemination, and greater discussion in the larger context of the topic at hand.

In any event, if the kind of journalistic platform Massing envisions comes to pass, it would be more than interesting to see what’s unearthed. That includes the elusive answer to why the super-moneyed are so high on privatizing public education; maybe then I could be disabused of my skepticism about genuine altruistic motives. But a more likely explanation may lie in this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Value” (appearing in her new collection), which is also worth keeping in mind as mega-donors exert their largesse in the coming election:

There are old men now who spend their twilight using imponderable wealth to overwhelm the political system. I am sure this is more exciting than keeping a stable of racehorses, or buying that fourth yacht. After a certain point there isn’t much of real interest that can be done with yet more money. But imagine how a great a boost to the aging ego would come with taking a nation’s fate out of its own unworthy hands and shaping it to one’s particular lights.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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