Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ron Johnson's "charity", "Citizen Koch" shows why government is needed

The activities of the Trump Foundation and the Clinton Foundation have gathered quite a few headlines over the last year, partly due to the donors that gave to those organizations, and whether those donors gained undue influence (especially Clinton), and partly due to questions about what their "charity" was spending money on, and whether it was a front for something else (generally Trump). Well today, we found out that a Wisconsin politician facing the voters next month also has a tax-free Foundation with some odd financial details.

That news came as part of an excellent article from Amanda Marcotte from describing how Sen. Ron Johnson used his family's “charitable trust” to serve as a holding place for over $1.5 million in stock he owned when he was elected to the Senate in 2010. In addition, Marcotte notes that very little of the funds in the Johnson family’s Grammie Jean Foundation have actually gone to charitable services- just enough is parceled out each year (generally between 4-9% of the charity's funds), allowing the charity to stay eligible for tax-exempt status under IRS standards, while earning enough interest to basically keep that $1.5 million balance.

And some of those charitable gifts don’t exactly serve the poor. For example, in 2013 Marcotte points out that the Grammie Jean Foundation gave $20,000 to the Oshkosh Opera House, and only $1,500 to programs and organizations geared toward helping the poor. And in 2012, the money given out by Johnson’s charity was overwhelmingly sent out of Wisconsin- generally to churches and organizations in Minnesota, where Ron Johnson grew up and went to college.

Marcotte ends the article by pointing out the absurdity of Johnson’s belief that charity can replace government as a social stabilizer, because the scope of charities can be limited to satisfy the societal wants of the benefactor, and not the serve the people as a whole.
Talking up the power of charity is all well and good, but a look at the charitable giving of people like Johnson suggests it is no replacement for government welfare programs. In 2012, the Grammie Jean Foundation gave almost as much money to dogs as it did to people struggling to pull themselves out of poverty.

And, as noted, the foundation gave exponentially more money in 2013 to an opera house in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, than it did to anti-poverty programs.

That’s the nature of charitable giving: It’s directed not by actual need so much as by the interests and the concerns of the people who write the checks. Maybe they like dogs or opera houses. Maybe dogs and opera houses have more social value in their circles than less glamorous anti-poverty programs.

None of this is to say that the Johnson family foundation is doing anything illegal — Salon’s investigation turned up no evidence of conspicuous wrongdoing — or that it is unique. A lot of families park money in foundations so they can give away the interest and look generous, without actually reaching too deeply into their own pockets. Johnson’s case is largely notable because of the political benefit it offered him, by allowing him to hold his personal wealth in the foundation for years, instead of putting it in private accounts that would have to be included in his Senate disclosure forms.

More importantly, this all shows that Johnson’s claim that charity can do what the federal government cannot is flat-out wrong. Rich people doling out a few four-figure checks to whatever causes strike their fancy is not evil or wrong, but it’s also not going to solve any social problems. It will not feed the hungry, house the homeless, provide education to young people in underserved communities, find jobs for the unemployed or deliver healthcare to the uninsured. It simply doesn’t work that way.
A similar danger in assuming that private benefactors can step in and take up the slack for cuts in taxpayer funding for higher education or public broadcasting. The big-picture societal needs or exposure to new ideas at those institutions can be diminished at the whims of a few rich oligarchs that can push or pull resources in directions that they want. A great example of this was when PBS stations decided not to air the Wisconsin-heavy documentary Citizen Koch in 2013.

The details behind the decision of PBS to spike the Citizen Koch project were outlined 3 ½ years by journalist Jane Mayer (who went on to publish the Koch-centric Dark Money, a great book if you can stomach all the sleaziness). Mayer talked to Citzen Koch filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal about the conflicts they had with Independent Television Service (ITVS), a part of PBS that pays for and broadcasts independent films that are supposed to “take creative risks, advance issues and represent points of view not usually seen on public or commercial television.”

What Lessin and Deal found out is that public broadcasting is feeling pressures similar to what commercial media feels, when it comes to dealing with corporations and rich a-holes.
Lessin and Deal took notes on their phone conversations with ITVS officials, which show that they were pushed to drop the Koch name from the title and to place less emphasis on the brothers’ political influence. On December 7th, the filmmakers’ notes indicate, Lois Vossen, the vice-president and senior series producer at ITVS, warned Lessin and Deal that the title “Citizen Koch” was “extraordinarily problematic.” Vossen’s job is to select films for “Independent Lens” and then pitch the programs to PBS. She told Lessin and Deal that the new title would make it exceedingly hard for her to champion the film at PBS, saying, “I would say I feel as though I would have both hands tied behind my back, and probably duct tape over my mouth.” (Vossen, reached for comment, said that she was just getting off a plane and would try to call back. She never did.)

The messages from ITVS officials grew confusing. Aguilar again praised the film as “great,” and said, “I think you’ve preserved the anger of the film, which I love.” Other officials, though, kept urging the filmmakers to change the title, add negative material about Democrats, and delete an opening sequence that showed Sarah Palin speaking at a rally sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ main advocacy group. Several times, Lessin and Deal asked ITVS officials if Koch’s trusteeship at WNET was a factor. During the phone meeting on December 7th, Vossen said, “I can absolutely assure you that ITVS does not want your film to be buried.” She said of the title, “I think you understand why it’s problematic. . . . We live in a world where we have to be aware that people with power have power.”

During a conference call on January 14th, Jim Sommers, the senior vice-president of content for ITVS, acknowledged to Lessin and Deal that, after Gibney’s film aired, there was “one station that gave us a lot of push-back about it.” Was the station in New York? He said, “Ha, ha, ha, that might be it.” According to the television producer, “They kept using words like ‘balance,’ but what they really meant was ‘Get rid of the Koch story line.’ “…

Ruby Lerner, the president and the executive director of Creative Capital, which helped fund Lessin and Deal’s Katrina film, said that she regards the “self-censorship” practiced by public-television officials to be “a scarier thing” than the overt kind: “They seem to be putting themselves in the Koch brothers’ shoes and trying not to offend them.” Even on public television, she argued, patronage buys influence. “It raises issues about what public television means,” she said. “They are in the middle of so much funding pressure.”
And guess who has voted to defund public broadcasting during his time in the U.S. Senate? That would be RON JOHNSON, “the Kochs’ model legislator.” Funny how these things all come around, isn’t it?

See, “limited-government conservatism" theorizes that there are enough kind people that might take up the slack to help others, and therefore reduce the need for the government to be involved in taking care of such needs. But in reality, private funds come with many strings attached, and few people of means will give their money out without having a few demands go with them, and those might not have any societal value whatsoever (even worse, they might restrict things that might be of societal value, like honest research in science).

If you believe in any kind of overall public good, and don’t want this country to be left at the commands of a few rich people (many of whom have done little to nothing to earn their preferred position in society), then you need a robust PUBLIC SECTOR that has to be responsive for all of the people that are part of the society, and not just for a small group that wants to control the rest of us. (mo)Ron Johnson’s lame attempt at a family charity and his belief in putting one over on the Wisconsinites who pay his salary is yet another reason he needs to be removed on November 8, and replaced by a true servant of the public in Russ Feingold.

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