Friday, September 23, 2011

Michele Bachmann's crony capitalism

This is what true opposition to crony capitalism looks like
Suddenly, cries of "crony capitalism!" are all the rage in the Republican primary field. While the provenance is a bit murky, Michele Bachmann's use of the term to pillory Rick Perry's association with Merck Pharmaceuticals seems to have started a Republican embrace of the term. Since then, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, David Vitter, and others have joined the bandwagon.

Crony capitalism has a long history in America, and Republicans are skilled practitioners of it. Bachmann's embrace of the term stings, and not just because of the obvious hypocrisy. Republican presidential candidates accusations of crony capitalism has gotten more media attention than the thousands who have gathered on Wall Street this week to truly protest crony capitalism.

The anti-corporate left has been vigorously opposing the increasing entwined political and business class for a very long time. Corporate media and corporate politicians have fastidiously avoided covering their protests and have consistently expanded their agenda of deregulation and corporate welfare. And now, after all this time, it's Michele Bachmann who grabs headlines with it? It burns, it burns!

Bachmann's latest j'accuse, branding President Obama a crony capitalist because a large investor in wireless startup LightSquared bundled contributions for Obama in 2008, is quite a case study. Philip Falcone, billionaire investor and hedge fund manager, is the investor in question. LightSquared is a 4G wireless startup that's had some trouble with the FCC because of possible interference between their network and GPS devices. Bachmann accuses Obama of leaning on the FCC to approve LightSquared's application, the FCC, the White House, and LightSquared all deny it. But the affair is much more than an "investor buys influence by donating to one party" story. It's a twisted narrative that starts and ends in Minnesota.

Philip Falcone's roots in Minnesota run deep. He grew up in Chisholm and became a star hockey player in high school who parlayed that into a scholarship at Harvard. He grew up poor, but has acquired  immense wealth through investing and his hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners. He's a minority owner in the Minnesota Wild hockey team, and continues to donate to Minnesota political interests, including the Republican Party of Minnesota and Senator Norm Coleman. He made a big chunk of his money by shorting subprime mortgage bonds in 2007. And he's had a few run-ins with regulators. The SEC investigated Falcone over accusations a $113 million loan he received from Harbinger wasn't properly reported, and that Harbinger gave preferential treatment to some investors who wanted to withdraw funds during the financial meltdown. He sounds like just the kind of job creator that Republicans would want to protect from the grasping hands of financial regulators.

Falcone, like most Wall Street folks, has hedged his bets by spreading campaign donations widely among politicians of both major parties, though he is a "registered Republican." The recipient of his largesse? Everybody from President Obama to George W. Bush, from Norm Coleman to the Pro-Growth Action Team PAC. That's how crony capitalism works, it is a bipartisan enterprise where those who do business with the government seek to influence it.

Back to Minnesota, if there's one industry where Michele Bachmann should know about crony capitalism, it's the financial industry. She's carried more water for them on the Hill than Gunga Din, for God sake. A centerpiece of her "pro-growth" agenda is the repeal of the very tepid Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Not surprisingly, the financial industry is lining up to support Bachmann's presidential bid, an extension of their long-standing patronage of Bachmann's House campaigns.

It is the epitome of crony capitalism to deregulate very industry that's responsible for plunging us into a deep recession. It's even more jarring when you consider that of all the parts of this economy, it has been Wall Street that's received the most public assistance and is raking in record profits while Main Street suffers. Why do you think thousands have camped out on Wall Street this week to protest?

While it's offensive and ridiculous that Bachmann has gotten media traction with her "crony capitalism" charges, it's also an opportunity that progressives should seize. Cronyism is indeed rife in D.C., and that's a big reason for the American public's distrust of government. If we can't do a better job of articulating how the system is broken than a corporate shill like Bachmann, we're doomed to be ruled by people like her.

Follow me on Twitter @aaronklemz

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user David Shankbone)

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