Book Review: Kurt Andersen's 'Evil Geniuses' Shows How Extreme Capitalism Fueled The Climate Crisis
Examining the disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stewart Stevens, the long-time GOP strategist, admitted, “Those of us in the Republican Party built this moment, because the failures of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be traced directly to some of the toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party: ‘government is bad’, ‘establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong’, and ‘science is suspect’.”
In his latest book, “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History”, best-selling author Kurt Andersen digs deeper into the wound and the decades-long effort to keep it festering.
Like the current pandemic, the Republican Party has accelerated the climate crisis with outright science denial and dereliction of duty. Evil Geniuses tells the story of how a radical, fringe group of conservative thinkers, who failed historically during their first attempt in 1964 to go mainstream, ended up reshaping America with one guiding principle: “Maximize profits at any cost”. Unfortunately for us and for generations to come, one of those costs is an increasingly uninhabitable planet.
In Evil Geniuses, Andersen uncovers the villains and retraces each step of their master plan. From Milton Friedman and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell championing a “pro-big business/anti-Federal government” agenda in the 1970s through subsequent financiers - namely Charles and David Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Joseph Coors - perfectly executing the scheme, Andersen details the painful, methodical reversal of decades of American prosperity and innovation. We see every economic and political encroachment on average Amercians that set us on this disastrous course we find ourselves today: historic wealth inequality, a lack of regulations to limit a deteriorating planet, and a Federal government unwilling and unable to help anyone except big business.
Supply-side economics, the debunked theory that has driven Republican economic policy since 1980, suggests lower taxes and weaker regulations allow businesses to grow bigger, consumers to benefit from cheaper products, and employment opportunities to increase. While businesses have grown to extraordinary sizes, thanks to lower taxes and a weakening of antitrust legislation, prices have actually increased (due to less competition) and consumer buying power has decreased because the real wages of nearly all Americans have barely increased over the last 40 years. According to The Congressional Research Service’s report “Real Wage Trends, 1979 to 2018”, the median male income, adjusted for inflation, has decreased 5% since 1979, while males in the 90th percentile of earners have seen their real wages increase by 36% over the same time.
While the past 40 years have been great for the super-rich, they have been terrible for working people and our planet. According to Climate.gov, in January of 1980, carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas warming our planet, made up just 337 parts per million parts of air (ppm). In February of 2020, that number was 414 ppm, more than it has ever been in human history. The Koch Brothers have used their influence as some of the earliest founders and most prolific funders of this hyper-capitalist movement, to push for as few regulations to combat the climate crisis as possible. Andersen details how the climate crisis’ scientific consensus warped into a divisive political controversy on par with attitudes on abortion and gun rights. In an attempt to limit American regulations on the companies causing the climate crisis, the Koch Brothers and their “economic-right” allies launched a decades-long misinformation campaign and provided funding for climate-denying Republicans who vowed never to interfere with fossil fuel companies’ systematic destruction of the planet in order to maximize their short-term profits.
“Evil Geniuses” tells the story of how the hyper-capitalist movement played the long game by focusing on the judicial branch of government to ensure their regulations would stay in place regardless who led the executive or legislative branches of government. The Federalist Society is the breeding ground for big-business/small-government conservatives that want to practice law. Nearly 80% of Federal Judges appointed by the Trump Administration are Federalist Society alumni, including his two Supreme Court picks, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Cavanaugh. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves another seat that Trump and the pro-business supporters of the Republican Party want filled by someone sympathetic to their cause. The Supreme Court holds immense power in deciding how much the Federal government can do about limiting or reversing the effects of human-caused climate change, and it’s almost certain that adding another Federalist Society alumnus to the bench will make the planet-saving effort impossible.
The efforts of the titular evil geniuses stripped employees of their organizing power, enriched only the richest Americans at the expense of everyone else, and empowered corporations to profit off the exploitation of the Earth, robbing future generations of their environment. Along the way, Andersen argues that America lost its thirst for adventure and stopped seeking the next new thing, which the country had defined itself by for the first two centuries of its existence. As we look at how little has really changed with the way we produce electricity and fuel transportation over the last 100 years, it’s obvious that the stagnation of innovation in key industries is a direct cause of the climate crisis we face today.
It’s as unnecessary as it is tragic. As we’ve witnessed, combatting the climate crisis only creates new and better jobs, boosts public health, reinvigorates the economy, and strengthens American leadership on the international stage. But combating the climate crisis is bad for one industry, the fossil fuel industry, and the Koch Brothers’ outsized influence over the Republican Party kept the GOP from doing anything to hurt the industry that made the Kochs billionaires.
COVID-19 has killed over 200,000 Americans. The west and southern coasts are devastated by climate-induced disasters. American wealth inequality is at Great Depression levels. Andersen expects 2020 to be an inflection point in American history. No matter what happens next, people will look back and see our current moment as one that defines the next or possibly final chapter of America. Americans must fight back against the oppression placed upon them by big business and once again seek a new America, one with a brighter future for all Americans. But big business will not go down without a fight, because the one thing they’d hate more than anything would be the loss of complete control over the American people.