COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

Well, you don’t believe you’re on the eve

P.F. Sloan penned the lyrics and music in 1965, made famous by Barry McGuire as an iconic “protest” song that may still illuminate our current conditions, just as it did in the height of youthful disillusionment with “the establishment” so many years ago. “Eve of Destruction” was a doomsayer’s toe tapper that drew up from the younger generation’s bowels a growl of dismay. What were Sloan, McGuire and the longhairs of the day so upset about?

The period that Sloan was writing about included the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis and the closest we’ve come to nuclear war (that we know of), black people being lynched by mobs in the Deep South, and of course the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Things didn’t seem to be going according to plan, shall we say.

These days, the harbingers of doom no longer include hippies or even youth. The “protest” movement that may be growing in our country now is known for its natty fashion sense and belief in free markets. There won’t be any marches on Washington, at least not like the days when hundreds of thousands of civil rights marchers filled the National Mall. No, the march of today’s counterculture movement doesn’t end in a park. It winds its way to the offices of lobbyists and politicians. It acts a great deal behind the scenes, and uses the educated, articulate voices of “think tank” gurus to make the points.

Daniel Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a nonprofit economics and policy research organization that promotes “libertarian” philosophies, i.e., small government, free markets and individual rights. I heard him speak recently about how the United States could avoid “becoming the next Greece.”

As he described the lengthening list of ills that our country has inflicted upon itself, Mitchell acknowledged that neither party has a consistent track record of doing the “right thing” to keep our gross domestic product growing faster than our government spending rate. And both parties have occasions of acting to slow government spending and increasing the ability of capitalism to improve our lives and livelihoods. In that sense, the Cato Institute does seem to represent a nonpartisan view of our national and international state of affairs.

But as he continued to describe the litany of calamity that will befall us under current conditions, I asked myself, “Gee, I wonder who pays Mitchell’s salary? Can’t be cheap.” So I did a little looking on the Web, and I found the 2011 annual report for the Cato Institute. They brought in about $33 million in revenue last year, spent about $22 million and showed net assets of $63 million. Well, it looks like they practice what they preach, spending less than they earn. And they earn a lot.

The Cato Institute doesn’t list its individual benefactors or corporations that provide the funding, but their board of directors includes David and Charles Koch. The Kochs founded the Cato Institute and have contributed millions to it. Combined, the Koch brothers are worth roughly $50 billion. Their company, Koch Industries, generates about $100 billion in annual revenue and is the second-largest private company in the United States. Other like-minded, wealthy individuals undoubtedly make up the financial support for the Cato Institute, along with corporations, the sale of Cato Institute books and the speaking fees that Cato scholars receive for their expert punditry.

Whether or not one subscribes to the shiny and attractive ideals of small government, free markets and individual liberty, one has to follow the money, the economics of any given viewpoint to be able to evaluate the veracity of the opinion. The money behind Mitchell’s capacity to publicly opine comes from business people who want to affect policy at the federal and state level toward outcomes that they believe are in the collective best interests. It also doesn’t hurt that those same people benefit personally and financially from the promoted policies and research results that the Cato Institute generates.

If I could find an organization that espouses the three major tenets of the Libertarian movement, and pursues those values as a matter of principle, rather than principal, I would likely join it. But as soon as someone tells me how things ought to be, and I find they are being paid to tell me such things in a prescribed way, I have the same reaction as I used to when in church as a boy. The collection plate would come by, and we would all be expected to offer our coins and bills, in exchange for the pleasure of being told that we were hopeless sinners who could not save ourselves. Not without belonging to this particular church or that, paying our dues along the way, of course.

So if someone is earning their living by preaching, whether for God or free markets, I have to find out who’s paying them to tell me this stuff, and I immediately discount the value of the sermon by 84 percent. Because a broken clock is still correct twice a day. After that, I add points if I can find other impassioned advocates of the sermon’s lesson who had to work late last night to be able to afford to take time off today to tell me about it, and charge nothing for the advice.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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