The Guardian November 20, 2002


A day at the American Enterprise Institute

by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Didn't have anything good to do earlier this week, so decided to spend the 
day at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). AEI is the granddaddy of 
the big corporate front groups. Their job? Re-engineer the political 
economy to the liking of their corporate paymasters. Last year, AEI took in 
US$23 million from corporations, corporate foundations, and wealthy 
individuals.

Need to undermine the anti-trust 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?

Looked around the audience. There was Bork. There was Kirkpatrick.

They were there to listen to what was supposed to be a debate between two 
right-wingers, 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, memorialised 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 publicised 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 organisation" 
against Israel.

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

Not anti-Semitism.

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?" featuring Gary Gilmer, the vice chairman of 
Household International, a finance company which just last week was slapped 
by a group of state attorneys general for engaging in predatory lending  
basically ripping off the poor with outrageous interest rates and fees.

The company paid US$484 million to settle the case.

Household is one of the largest sub-prime lenders in the country.

While sub-prime 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 that the company would have a sense of humility after being 
so publicly spanked for engaging in such wrongdoing.

But no.

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

Tough state laws that seek to curb predatory lending, like one passed 
recently 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 
Defence of Empires".

Deepak Lal, a professor at the 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, DC-based 
Multinational Monitor

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