||Who's Buying Whom?
The Milliken Man March on Washington.
(1,502 words; posted Thursday,
Whenever I put in a good word for the global economy--pointing out that
international trade is not the source of all misfortunes, or that low-wage
exporting benefits many poor people--I can count on receiving a pile of
hate mail. Alas, the authors of these letters rarely offer interesting
reasons for their anger or, indeed, reasoned arguments of any kind: They
know that globalization is evil, and that's that.
letters written in response to my July SLATE
column on Chinese trade turned
out to contain something new. Instead of merely telling me that I was a
fool, some of the writers accused me of personal venality, of actually
being paid to defend the interests of multinational corporations and foreign
powers. ("Why don't you get off the gravy train?" asked one.)
To the letter-writers it seems perfectly clear: All honest men can see
the obvious truth that globalization is a terrible thing, and only a capitalist
hireling would deny it. I guess I already knew that many people believed
this, but the latest letters suggested that it might be useful if I told
their writers something about the facts of life.
case you were wondering: I am not a crook. I am not on any corporate boards;
do not get paid to defend capitalism; and have not, to my knowledge, ever
received money from the Chinese government (although I was a bit surprised
by the generosity of those Buddhist monks).
And yet my correspondents are not
entirely wrong about the way the world works. Wealthy men and powerful
organizations do seek to buy the appearance of intellectual legitimacy
for economic doctrines that serve their interests. It is possible
for economic analysts who might otherwise have limited job prospects to
make a comfortable living by professing certain views on the global economy.
It just so happens that support for free trade is not one of those views.
doesn't advocating free trade pay? Too much supply, too little demand.
Unfortunately, there is so much logic and evidence behind the case for
free trade that many smart people are willing to make that case for nothing;
they spoil the market for anyone who might want to make money at it. And
anyway, there isn't that much of a market. The benefits of free trade,
though substantial, are thinly spread, so it isn't in the interest of any
individual to spend a lot of money promoting that cause. Protectionism,
by contrast, tends to impose widely spread costs but to confer benefits
on concentrated interest groups, who therefore have a strong incentive
to lobby for it--and to provide financial support for those who help make
it seem intellectually respectable.
This is not an abstract speculation:
In the United States, at least, it is easy to be specific about who pays
whom to say what about globalization. Presumably, everyone in Washington
is familiar with that picture; but since my correspondents obviously weren't,
let me trace out the basics.
the center of the picture stands an imposing figure--Roger Milliken, the
billionaire textile baron from South Carolina. He is not the Moriarty of
protectionism: He does not orchestrate everything (there is, in particular,
a parallel but mostly distinct anti-globalization network funded by labor
unions rather than industrialists), and even those who benefit from his
largess do not always do his bidding. But Milliken is the biggest player
in this game, and following the money trails that lead back to him is a
pretty good way to understand how this particular piece of the world really
On most issues Milliken is an unabashed
hard-line right-winger, with a reputation as a Republican Party kingmaker.
(His friends have boasted that without Milliken, Ronald Reagan would not
have become president.) Among other things, he gave several hundred thousand
dollars to GOPAC, Newt Gingrich's campaign organization pretending to be
an educational foundation. Milliken has decided, however, that free-market
principles do not extend to the importation of
textiles. He hosts dinners of the so-called No Name club, a group
of right-wing opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement--dinners
enlivened, according to press reports, by uproarious anti-Mexican jokes.
And he has supported opponents of trade liberalization on a truly impressive
scale--giving, for example, some $2 million in soft money to Patrick Buchanan
to fund anti-GATT advertisements.
all that is money politics as usual. More interesting is Milliken's role
in supporting institutions that help create an appearance of intellectual
legitimacy for his cause.
In 1990, Milliken supplied crucial
seed money to the Economic Strategy Institute, a think tank headed by former
Reagan administration official Clyde Prestowitz; thereafter, he contributed
more than 10 percent of ESI's budget. (Other major contributions came from
the auto and steel industries.) He also supplied one-third of the budget
of the Manufacturing Policy Program of Pat Choate, who ended up as Ross
Perot's running mate in 1996 but first became famous for his book Agents
of Influence, about the alleged influence-buying practices of foreign
governments and corporations. And Milliken is the most important contributor
to the United States Business and Industrial Council, a lobbying group
that was originally formed to oppose the New Deal but which in recent years
has devoted its energies to opposing free trade. (The council was described
in some reports as Buchanan's "brains trust.")
direct lobbying efforts have been relatively unsuccessful: Buchanan never
got anywhere near the presidency, and both NAFTA and GATT passed Congress.
However, his longer-run efforts to influence the climate of opinion have
had considerable effect. The institutions and individuals he supports--call
them Milliken Men--have helped legitimize a point of view that still commands
virtually no support among professional economists, and which was regarded,
even a decade ago, as politically beyond the pale. Particularly impressive
is the way that the influence of the Milliken Men cuts across the usual
political lines. For example, guests of honor at the party held to celebrate
ESI's founding included not only Milliken himself but also Bob Dole, Newt
Gingrich, and Richard Gephardt. And Alan Tonelson, of the U.S. Business
and Industrial Council's Educational Foundation, is simultaneously writing
position papers on foreign policy for the harshly conservative Cato Institute
and supplying factoids for presidential hopeful Gephardt's speeches on
It's a classic example of what crusading
journalist William Greider, in his book Who Will Tell the People?,
called "deep lobbying": Rather than simply using their money
to buy influence directly, special interests pursue the longer-term strategy
of funding plausible-sounding people and institutions that supply intellectual
rationales for the policies they want. We're not talking conspiracy theory
here: It's all quite legal, and more or less aboveboard. While Milliken
himself shuns publicity, his role in backing these institutions has been
fairly well reported. It is strange, however, that when Greider himself
turned his attention from money politics to the global economy, he ended
up relying for technical advice mainly on--you guessed it--Milliken's protégé
everyone who matters presumably knows all about who backs the Milliken
Men and why, why does their advice still get taken? The answer, I believe,
is an odd but very Washingtonian combination of cynicism and credulity.
Of course the Milliken Men get funded because their views happen to be
convenient for certain interest groups--but doesn't everyone? And regardless
of who supports them, these guys have a lot of expertise to offer, don't
Both the cynicism and the credulity
reflect ignorance about the world beyond the Beltway. Most economists do
not get paid to express particular views. Try to get a job at Harvard,
or even at the University of Chicago, merely by singing the praises of
free markets; you will learn the hard way that the currency of academic
success is creativity, not ideological correctness. (It might actually
be a good thing if academic economists spent more time educating the world
about familiar truths and less time chasing the latest intellectual trend.)
And the Milliken Men do not, in fact, have a lot of expertise to offer.
On the contrary, looking closely at their work--or confronting them over
some issue--quickly reveals these particular hired guns as The Gang That
Couldn't Think Straight. After all, a policy advocate of whatever persuasion
ought to be able to make a case for his position without relying on calculations
that count the same benefits twice, or forgetting that foreign exchange
must either be spent on imports or invested abroad, that it can't just
disappear. And he should be able to look up standard statistics without
reading from the wrong column. Yet the Milliken Men--even the classy-looking
operation at ESI--have repeatedly failed these
simple tests. A Milliken Man, in short, isn't a real expert; he
just plays one on television.
I don't think that Washington realizes
how bad a bargain it gets when it takes advice from the men and institutions
Milliken has supported. Still, few insiders will be shocked to hear that
supposed progressives receive much of their funding from wealthy reactionaries,
or even that supposed experts are actually making it up as they go along.
But who will tell the people?
Still think the Milliken Men are experts? Click here.
& Co. site features a "Leadership"
page that mentions "the company's progressive and innovative business
strategies." A Pat Buchanan campaign page includes an essay by Milliken
I Support Pat." Mother Jones' Secret
GOPAC Donors details Milliken's relationship with Newt Gingrich.
Facts warehouses links related to the agreement, and an MIT page
posts the full
text of the treaty.
Illustrations by Robert Neubecker.