January 29, 2003

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A day at the American Enterprise Institute
By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

DIDN'T HAVE ANYTHING good to do earlier this week, so we decided to spend the day at the American Enterprise Institute.

AEI is the granddaddy of the big corporate front groups. The organization's job? Reengineer the political economy to the liking of its corporate paymasters. Last year AEI took in $23 million from corporations, corporate foundations, and wealthy individuals.

Need to undermine the antitrust laws? Hire AEI scholar in residence Robert Bork to spew his ideology.

Need to slander the United Nations?

Hire AEI scholar in residence Jeanne Kirkpatrick to do the dirty work.

AEI, Heritage, and Cato, the big three corporate fronts in our nation's capital, have done immeasurable damage to our democracy, advancing corporatist and extremist right-wing views. We wanted to know: is it the power of their ideas, or is it their power?

After spending a day at AEI, we suspect it's the latter.

In the morning we caught a session titled "Europe: Anti-Semitism Resurgent?"

We looked around the audience. There was Bork. There was Kirkpatrick.

They were there to listen to what was supposed to be a debate between Ruth Wisse of Harvard University and John O'Sullivan of United Press International.

But there was little debate. Everyone agreed that the issue wasn't anti-Semitism, as traditionally defined, but anti-Israel views.

In fact, Wisse and O'Sullivan had now effectively redefined the term anti-Semitism to mean anti-Israel.

We had suspected this but didn't get a confirmation until a questioner in the audience asked Wisse about Billy Graham's 1972 conversation with Richard Nixon, memorialized on the White House tapes, and made public earlier this year by the National Archives.

In the conversation, Graham says to Nixon that "a lot of Jews are great friends of mine."

"They swarm around me and are friendly to me," Graham says. "Because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. They don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country."

And how does he feel?

Graham tells Nixon that the Jews have a "stranglehold" on the country, and "this stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain."

"You believe that?" Nixon says.

"Yes, sir," Graham replies.

"Oh boy," Nixon says. "So do I. I can't ever say that, but I believe it."

So, the questioner wanted to know whether Professor Wisse considered these sentiments, as expressed by Graham and widely publicized earlier this year, to be anti-Semitic.

No, they are not anti-Semitic, Professor Wisse says.

Not anti-Semitic?

No, anti-Semitism exists today in the form of "political organization" against Israel.

Inference: the religious right in this country, as long as they organize politically to support Israel, can say and think whatever they want about Jews.

We went for a walk in the rain, a reality check with nature, and then back in to catch another AEI panel, this one titled "Does Excessive Regulation Threaten Subprime Lending?" and featuring Gary Gilmer, the vice chairman of Household International, a finance company that was recently charged by a group of state attorneys general with engaging in predatory lending – basically ripping off the poor with outrageous interest rates and fees.

The company paid $484 million to settle the case. Household is one of the largest subprime lenders in the country.

While subprime lenders provide credit to borrowers with damaged credit, some of these lenders have engaged in predatory practices whereby consumers – even those with good credit – are targeted to borrow money on disadvantageous terms, including high interest rates, steep bank fees, and payments for undisclosed insurance products.

The high costs serve to increase the consumer's debt burden and reduce the equity in the consumer's home.

You would think the company would have a sense of humility after being so publicly spanked for engaging in such wrongdoing.

But no.

Instead, AEI gave the company's vice chair a forum to attack the same state laws that his company allegedly violated and that led to the $484 million payment.

Tough state laws that seek to curb predatory lending, like one recently passed in Georgia, have the finance industry in a tizzy.

The finance companies say they are refusing to make loans in Georgia, perhaps as part of a drive to get that law and other similar laws repealed.

Maybe it's time to simplify the entire legal morass in this area by bringing back the usury laws – by mandating a simple cap on interest rates.

The usury laws were erased in the early 1980s after a heavy lobbying effort by finance companies like Household.

We raised the possibility of bringing back the usury laws with the AEI panel members, but they unanimously thought it was a bad idea.

We went outside again, to get some fresh air. The rain had turned to a cold drizzle. In anticipation, we returned for the day's final panel, titled "In Defense of Empires."

Deepak Lal, a professor at UCLA, argued that imperialism should not be perceived as a negative phenomenon. Empires provide international order. Empires promote prosperity by integrating separate areas into a common economic space. Empires are good.

After picking up the materials, listening to about 30 minutes of Professor Lal's talk – with no mention of the violence necessary to create and maintain empires – we walked out, back into the rain.

And we thought: maybe it is all harmless to talk this way. It's almost laughable.

Nobody can believe this stuff, can they?

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor (www.multinationalmonitor.org). They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999; www.corporatepredators.org).