It is rare that American high society reaches the sort of ironic self-awareness that it did on Dec. 15, 2009. On that day Wine Spectator, a magazine devoted to fine wines and the blowhards who love them, published its January 2010 issue. On the cover is an old, pasty white man, wearing an outdated navy double-breasted jacket with gold cufflinks and white yachting pants. In his hands is a bottle of presumably rare, mind-bogglingly expensive wine; it is beside the main headline for this issue, "The Crusade Against Counterfeits". And beneath it, to the right, is possibly the most hilarious, revealing caption I've ever seen:
"Billionaire Energy Exec Bill Koch: "I plan to put people in Jail."
Let's parse this. A man who is personally worth over a thousand thousand thousand dollars, who upon further reading is revealed as an oil/energy company executive, literally wants to subject people to years and years of ass rape and restraint chairs for having the gall to sell him a wine which may or may not be fully authenticated, thus irreparably marring his 15,000+ bottle collection and humiliating him in front of his similarly plutocratic friends. This is the point where all the capitalist apologists squirm out the woodowork; "well vonCube", they say, "does not a wealthy man deserve fair compensation for his money, the same as someone less well off?" The right answer seems like it should be Yes, but there's a deeper issue at play here; at what point in one's life does the disconnect between their wealth and their purchases become so yawning that one uses wealth as an extension of their ego, without the slightest thought or restraint? This is a man who probably uses the phrase "the little people" in casual conversation.
How does one get to this point? A quick look at Bill Koch (pronounced Coke, he is very clear on this point. Not cock.) provides some illumination. He was born in 1940 into money; his father, Fred C. Koch, had already founded Koch Industries, and when he inevitably died, as people are wont to do, Bill inherited a good deal of shares in the company along with his brothers, and quickly sold them back for a cool half-billion in 1983. It was around this time when he started collecting the most expensive wines, just because he could; he also realized that he could afford to use the justice system as a personal cudgel of righeousness. As the New Yorker said in its profile of him from 2007,
"Koch may be as compulsive about filing lawsuits as he is about collecting. He waged a twenty-year legal battle against two of his brothers relating to the family business. (The matter was settled in 2001.) He sued the state of Massachusetts over an improperly taxed stock transaction and won a forty-six-million-dollar abatement. When a former girlfriend whom he had installed at a condo in Boston’s Four Seasons hotel refused to leave, Koch took her to housing court and had her evicted. He talks about “dropping a subpoena” on people as if he were lobbing a grenade."
Here we have a person who, if he were $999,999,000 poorer, I would call a dick and would probably be manipulative, petty, borderline sociopathic. But because he has all this oil money, the world wraps itself around his warped brain and legitimizes his every whim, need and rage. Jail is full of people who took on the entrenched, pathological establishment and lost. This isn't propaganda or opinion, it's reality; a secretary who receives eight years for trying to sell Coke's secrects to Pepsi; an environmental protester who torches a federal SUV and receives ten years for arson; a single mother who cashes a bad check, and winds up in front of a conservative judge who decides eight years is just right for fraud. America might be the land of the free, but no margin for error is allowed. You want into the big club, you earn it our way or not at all.
But back to Bill Koch. He approved drilling for oil on Indian and Federal lands, illegally; and when he cashed out of the company, used it against his brothers to squeeze an extra couple mil out of them. He has contributed $1.5 million to the "Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound", which sounds fine and well except that it is fighting to prevent the building of a 130-turbine wind farm which would, gasp, be an eyesore to the plutocrats who live in the area two months out of the year. And now, $15 million and forty thousand bottles of wine in his personal collection later, here he is gracing the cover of Wine Spectator, threatening to throw wine counterfeiters in jail as a result of the subpoenas he spread around wine auctioneers like confetti. He casts a wide net, and while he pulls in some people who are guilty, one wonders how many lives he's ruined himself; through skyrocketing energy prices, predatory energy policy or just plain rudeness.
Today, walking down Antigonish Landing past a new development which edges on a marsh, some wealthy couple from Ottawa built a massive house near the shore of the picturesque harbour, and promptly cut all the trees down between them and the shore because it "ruined their view", seemingly oblivious to the fact that trees are part of the view. This pathology, a total disconnect between your desires and reality, is not confined to America; you find it anywhere there is enough wealth going around.
This, finally, is why the headline is so perfect; a magazine, written for the wealthy, with a wealthy man on the cover, explaining clearly and without reflection that people will be sent to jail, because his needs were not met. Meanwhile Dawn Ball, a female inmate in Muncy, Pennsylvania who cashed a bad check suffers through three months in the hole without a shower or a single piece of clothing because she had the gall to report a sexual assault while in custody*. Something is badly wrong here.
*Anyone with any illusions whatsoever about the American prison system needs to read this: http://www.prisoners.com/ballmu.html. And I checked; as of December 27, 2009 she is still in prison.