Bill Koch Antoinette?

Terrance Heath

What do Marie Antoinette and one Bill Koch have in common? If you’d asked me that a few days ago, I’d have answered “Not much.” That is, until yesterday, when I about Bill Koch’s private Western town.

highway66037 - printThere’s a new town in Colorado. It has about 50 buildings, including a saloon, a church, a jail, a firehouse, a livery and a train station. Soon, it will have a mansion on a hill so the town’s founder can look down on his creation.

But don’t expect to move here — or even to visit.

This town is billionaire Bill Koch’s fascination with the Old West rendered in bricks and mortar. It sits on a 420-acre meadow on his Bear Ranch below the Raggeds Wilderness Area in Gunnison County. It’s an unpopulated, faux Western town that might boggle the mind of anyone who ever had a playhouse. Its full-size buildings come with polished brass and carved-mahogany details and are fronted with board sidewalks and underpinned by a water-treatment system. A locked gate with guards screens who comes and goes.

Koch’s project manager has told county officials that the enclave in the middle of the 6,400-acre Bear Ranch won’t ever be open to the public. It is simply for Koch’s amusement and for that of his family and friends — and historians. It is the ultimate repository for his huge collection of Western memorabilia.

Yeah. This is a guy who really needs another tax break. Koch’s “own private Dodge City” reminded me of something I once read about Marie Antoinette.

Maybe Marie Antoinette never actually said, “Let them eat cake,” but the young queen was infamous for spending extravagantly, while remaining oblivious to the grinding poverty her subjects suffered in the run-up to the French Revolution. Her extravagant dress and and expensive jewels became fodder for public comment and ridicule. But  anger at Antoinette probably spiked when the public got word that the queen had an entire Viennese village built on the grounds of  Versailles, at considerable expense to French citizens. 

hameau_bridgeThe Petit Hameau (The Little Hamlet), or “Le Hameau de la Reine,” was situated in the English-style gardens of the Petit Trianon. Created in 1783, the Petit Hameau was a mock farm area, complete with farmhouse, dairy, and poultry yard – all areas traditionally associated with women.

When visiting this ersatz farm, Marie Antoinette and her attendants would dress as shepherdesses, and play at milking the cows and tending other docile animals. The farmhouse interior was more opulent, featuring all of the luxuries expected by the Queen and her ladies.

The Petit Hameau was part of the landscape of the “natural” English garden, but it was also a reflection of France’s cultural values on the eve of the Revolution. This artificial nature retreat mirrored the moral values associated with natural simplicity and virtue.

…The innocence and simplicity of Marie Antoinette’s amusements did not, however, redeem her in the eyes of those who noted the expenses of her endeavors.  And even more than the money spent on the Petit Hameau, the many hours the Queen spent there in the company of other women, outside the sight and supervision of her husband, gave rise to rumors that were not innocent at all.

C’mon. Bill Koch strutting about his very own western town and playing “Gunsmoke,” isn’t that different than Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid. 

There are differences, of course. We don’t have royalty here. Not in the strictest sense, at least. But Koch’s wealth does pretty much place him among the top one percent. Let’s put it this way, his net worth of $4 billion makes him no. 81 on Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest people in the U.S. That kinda makes Mitt Romney’s paltry $230 million net worth — which puts him among the wealthiest .001 percent — look like chump change.

Koch is spending his own money, whereas Antoinette either dipped into the French treasury or was perceived as doing so. On the other hand, given what we know about tax cuts, and about the wealth transfer that the Bush tax cuts kicked in to high gear, it’s worth considering how much of the money that went in to building Koch’s private town might have been spent on job creation — beyond, of course, the construction crew needed to build it, the servants needed to staff it (probably temp workers, earning minimum wage — if they’re lucky), and the security guard to keep everyone out.

Why should we cut Social Security and Medicaid, so Bill Koch get another tax cut and build another empty town? Why should we starve our public schools so that Bill Koch can spend his next tax break to build an empty schoolhouse in his empty town? Why should we neglect our own infrastructure to that Bill Koch can use his next tax cut to maintain the sidewalks and water system in his empty town?

I could go on, but by now you get the point. These are questions worth asking, especially for anyone running against a ticket whose answer to all of these questions and more is “Yes.”

Mitt Romney’s newest economic agenda wouldn’t just shred the safety net. It would obliterated the safety net.  Matt Hubbard, and economic adviser to the Romney campaign, called Mitt Romney’s newest economic agenda “a  narrative of the policy agenda and life under a Romney presidency.” When it comes to middle- and working-class Americans, the poor and the near-poor, Hubbard’s words are particularly prescient.

We’re back to numbers there. So let’s try to return to narrative. If Romney cut Medicaid entirely — took it from the $407 billion its projected to cost in 2016 and moved it to zero — his numbers wouldn’t work. If he then excised out all spending on food stamps — taking them from a projected $80 billion in 2016 to nothing — he still wouldn’t be there.

Romney won’t do that, of course. His cuts presumably will be distributed among many, many more programs. But that thought experiment gives you a sense of the size of the cuts he will need to make. And the reality is that he’s not got many painless places to make them. The largest spending program left to him is Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, children, and the disabled. Retirement costs for federal employees are a large pot of money, but we can’t break all those promises. Transportation infrastructure is expensive, but we will continue to need to repair our roads. And so on.

Yesterday, Bob Borosage wove an alternate narrative of life under a Romney presidency out of nine things Mitt Romney believes, reflected in his new economic agenda. It’s a narrative of life in an America where rich no longer have “too little money.”

It’s a narrative of life in an America where:

  • the wealthy no longer have “too little money”
  • “those blessed by being born to the wealthy few should inherit the earth”
  • the world is “the oyster of corporations seeking tax havens”
  • Wall Street is “free to gamble with other people’s money, and you rubes are on your own”
  • the military no longer has “too little money,” where elderly workers no longer have “too much security and leisure”
  • “our schools, water systems, roads and bridges, subways and trains, nutrition programs for children, Coast Guard and FBI” no longer get “too much money” and “do with much less”
  • and “children must play the hand that fate dealt them. If they are the heirs to the rich, they live charmed lives. If they are born to the poor, they must rise above it “

But perhaps the best summary I’ve heard of Romney’s budget comes from Republican columnist Frum.

Compassionate conservatism has been dead for a long time. Romney’s Detroit speech cremated the remains. As a man, Romney remains far and away the most capable of the presidential candidates seeking the Republican nomination. But he has now finally eliminated the policy differences separating him from the radical congressional wing.

This summer, during the debate over raising the debt ceiling, Republicans used a clip from The Town, a movie staring Ben Affleck, to rally their caucus to support John Boehner’s debt plan … and “hurt some people.” In September, New Jersey governor promised wealthy attendees at a Koch-sponsored seminar that “pain will be inflicted” if or when conservatives implement their economic agenda.

Just asking.

 

 

 

 

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