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Business, Opinion, Columnist

Do-Gooder Billionaire May Cause Real Harm This Time

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Posted Sep. 28, 2012, 11:00 pm

Tom Elias / Mirror Columnist

Businesses are shying away from backing Proposition 32, the latest Republican revival of the so-called “paycheck protection” plan for emasculating the political efforts of all labor unions.

This proposition would ban contributions from unions and corporations directly to candidates, but leaves them free to put as much as they like into so-called Super Political Action committees that fund supposedly “independent” ads for candidates and causes. More importantly, it forbids unions from using their members’ dues for political purposes for more than one year after members give their permission.

There are no similar protections for corporate shareholders, many of whom have no way even to know what companies are giving political cash or how much, since many contributions to independent expenditure committees no longer have to be reported.

This notion has lost twice before, in 1996 and 2005, both times by about a 53-47 percent margin, indicating sentiment on the issue may not change much. But maybe this time, with public employee unions at a popularity nadir, it will. That, at least, is what Charlie Munger Jr. hopes.

Munger, the son of the eponymous billionaire investor and Warren Buffett partner and the brother of civil rights attorney and activist Molly Munger (the force behind this fall’s Proposition 38 tax-for-schools initiative) has put tens of millions of dollars given him by his father behind political causes over the last decade.

Charles Munger Jr.’s efforts have done some good. A physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator complex in the San Francisco Peninsula foothills, he was one of the main funders of the 2008 Proposition 11, which took legislative redistricting out of the hands of legislators. He gave $12.16 million to the 2010 initiative that added congressional redistricting to the tasks of the Citizens Redistricting Commission. He spent $700,000 on primary races last spring, aiming to help moderates running against hard-line Republicans.

But his efforts on behalf of Proposition 32 amount to an effort to make the political world safe for corporations and billionaires like himself (even those who did not inherit, but earned their money).

For a clue about who might benefit, it’s only necessary to look at the list of donors to this measure (see: Besides Munger, the list includes the likes of banking heir Howard Ahmanson, producer Jerry Perenchio, venture capitalist William Draper and the Lincoln Club of Orange County, sometimes described as “a group of corporate bigwigs…” This is the third time around for the Lincoln Club on paycheck protection, which began as that club’s brainchild.

Basically, the corporate tycoons and CEOs and wealthy heirs are in this to deprive the lowliest of workers of their political voice. Think DMV clerks, building janitors, restaurant dishwashers. If firefighters and police also lose their voice, that’s alright with these folks, too. And that might actually be OK, but only if the voices of big employers were similarly controlled by letting shareholders veto corporate political expenditures in proportion to the shares they hold either directly or indirectly via pension systems and mutual funds.

A measure that included limits on both those interests would be a fair way to take at least some special interest money out of politics. But a measure dealing with only one side of the political equation is unbalanced, allowing business interests to advertise their arguments – true and false – as much as they like with only a limited response from labor unions which often disagree with them.

Setting up this kind of one-sided political climate could endanger everything from overtime pay to mandatory breaks and sick leave. In the pre-union America of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, none of those things were provided by the vast majority of employers.

That's why Proposition 32 has sometimes been labeled as a sucker punch against workers, with the middle class possibly the next target of the billionaires.

What’s in this for Munger? A former member of the state’s Curriculum Commission, he became disenchanted with state legislators and what he’s told some reporters are their inept education bills. Legislators, mostly Democrats, are too much swayed by the labor unions that often fund their campaigns, he plainly believes.

So he’s done everything he could to remove their job security, via the new redistricting system. That didn’t work, as it appears likely union-backed Democrats this fall will end up with legislative majorities anyway. So now he’s going after the groups that fund them, and never mind the collateral damage.

Of which there could be plenty to almost everyone short of the super-wealthy.

Post a comment


Sep. 28, 2012, 5:41:04 pm

Manny Angelo said...

There is a line from the musical 1776 when Stephen Hopkins, the delegate from Rhode Island learns that he is the tie breaking vote to decide if the Second Continental Congress will debate independence. He says, “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about." The supporters of Prop 32 agree with Hopkins, but only if theirs is the only voice allowed to be heard! This is one conservative Republican who fully agrees with Mr. Elias on this issue. This is not only bad politics, it is the worst form of misuse of direct democracy.

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