Stillwater News Press

Opinion

March 27, 2014

GENE LYONS: Behind the American oligarchy

STILLWATER, Okla. — Let's put it this way: If the Koch Brothers were Russians, we'd call them oligarchs, grasping barbarians exercising crude political power.

But this is America, where tycoons can buy respectability by throwing money at their wives’ favorite ballet companies and museums. Also by funding “think tanks” staffed by “resident scholars” keen to enhance the boss’s fondest delusion: that great wealth invariably conveys great wisdom.

Hence “Americans for Prosperity,” the group funded by billionaire brothers David H. and Charles G. Koch that's spending untold millions in 2014 on TV commercials attacking the Affordable Care Act as a government boondoggle that “just doesn't work.”

Elsewhere, however, big business hasn't been looking entirely benign of late. Consider a couple of episodes currently in the news: General Motors and Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electrical utility.

As so often happens with corporate malfeasance, the details can be hard to believe. Documents turned over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by General Motors show that company engineers knew about problems with an ignition switch in Chevy Cobalts as long ago as 2001.

That it could be a fatal flaw wasn’t immediately recognized.

The problem appears to have been a defective part manufactured by a GM supplier. Sometimes triggered by a too-heavy keychain swinging from the ignition, it caused the engine to shut off while driving – resulting in immediate loss of power steering, power brakes, and the failure of the vehicle’s air bags to deploy.

Nevertheless, GM did nothing, while company lawyers fought off or stonewalled lawsuits alleging product liability.

Twenty-three fatal accidents and 26 deaths later, GM finally issued a recall notice for 1.6 million vehicles last month. The company’s recently appointed CEO Mary Barra has been doing public penance and vowing to do everything possible to restore consumer confidence in the GM brand, which will definitely take some doing.

Which brings us to the Tea Party paradise of North Carolina and Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill into the Dan River – spreading as many as 82,000 tons of toxic sludge along 70 miles of scenic river bottom. According to the Associated Press, “coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals highly toxic to humans and wildlife.”

In addition to the “accidental” spill, caused by a collapsed corrugated pipe seemingly uninspected since 1986, environmental activists photographed Duke employees pumping an estimated 61 million gallons of coal ash-contaminated water into the Cape Fear River further east.

Previously, GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, a 29-year Duke Energy employee (and recipient of some $1.1 million in Duke-sponsored campaign donations),  had scorned the Feds as an impediment to efficient business practices, and made a great show of turning down EPA grant money. Meanwhile, arguing strenuously against stricter regulation of coal ash has been an industry front group called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) financed by – you guessed it – those well-known philanthropists David and Charles Koch.

Americans for Prosperity, indeed.

Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.

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