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Think Cranks

Paul Krugman has a nice shoutout to my "Crankocracy" TRB on his blog and points out that crankocrats long ago seized control of conservative think tanks. This is an important point I wish I'd included. "[W]hat the money of rich cranks does," Krugman observes, "is ensure that bad ideas never go away—indeed, they can gain strength even as they fail in practice again and again."

Quite so. Krugman writes that even the cranks themselves end up suffering from the bad ideas they promote, but that they're too cussedly ideological to recognize this. That's true. But it's also true that part of the problem is that after they put their foundations on a right-wing course they're apt to die, causing their cranky impulses to outlive them. The life story of John Olin, benefactor of the wingnut Olin Foundation, is instructive.

Olin was born in 1892, the son of a rich ammunition manufacturer. In 1913 he graduated from Cornell with a chemistry degree and went to work for his father designing shotgun shells. In 1944 he succeeded his father as president, and nine years later he set up the John M. Olin Foundation. From 1953 to 1973 the Olin Foundation was an unexceptional philanthropic group that supported Cornell, a PBS station in St. Louis, and the Episcopal Church. "He did not in these years give his foundation a well-defined focus," writes the conservative journalist John J. Miller in a 2003 pamphlet about the history of the Olin and Bradley foundations. (I rely on this pamphlet, Strategic Investment In Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America, for all my information about Olin.) "Nor did he attach particular importance or urgency to his charitable efforts." Indeed, Miller quotes Leslie Lenkowsky saying, "nothing about John M. Olin's early life, or even most of his career, suggested that he would play such a historically significant role" in altering "the nation's public philosophy." (Lenkowsky is a neocon poobah who is now professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University.)

So what happened? Two things.

1.) In April 1969, black militants took over Cornell's Willard Straight Hall (named, as it happens, for this magazine's founding publisher). In that time and place such an action would have been unexceptional, but these student protesters were actually armed, and an AP photographer snapped a Pulitzer-winning news photo of three of them proudly hoisting rifles. (The guy in the middle, Eric Evans, also had a bandolier.) Even for the 1960s, this was pretty shocking. According to the Cornell alumni magazine, it was the "first-ever armed occupation of a building on an American campus," and I'm hard-pressed to think of a second. In addition to waving guns around, the protesters damaged property and manhandled some visiting parents. But the main thing is, they waved guns around. At least a few of them should have been expelled. But the university's president, clearly terrified of the racial powderkeg he was sitting atop, didn't punish anyone. (Two months later he resigned.) One of the occupiers, Thomas Wade Jones, went on the radio, threatened several faculty members by name, and said Cornell had "three hours to live." He would (of course) go on to become chairman and chief executive officer of Salomon Smith Barney Asset Management, president and chief operating officer of TIAA-CREF, and a Cornell trustee. When last heard from he was running a private equity firm in Stamford. Viva la revolucion

Olin didn't live to see Jones become a major player in the financial world, but he saw everything else. Perhaps because his work experience made him uniquely appreciative of what shotgun shells could do, the incident shook him to his core, and he became a philanthropic right-wing crank. Let's take a moment to thank those gun-waving militants for their own historic role in altering "the nation's public philosophy." If not for them, the Olin Foundation might have kept on underwriting Sesame Street. Instead it bankrolled the rise of America's hard right. Way to go, kids!

2.) In January 1977, Henry Ford II quit the Ford Foundation's board of trustees because he thought it insufficiently supportive of capitalism. From this episode Olin drew the lesson that he shouldn't let successive generations decide how to spend his money in ways he might not have approved of. Instead, he arranged for the Olin Foundation to spend down all of its assets and eventually go out of business. To do this it had to spend a whole lot of money really fast.

The well finally ran dry in 2005, outliving John Olin by 23 years. But during those 23 years when the Olin Foundation was spending money like a drunken sailor, a lot in America changed. An economy that had steadily produced greater income equality started steadily producing greater income inequality. A Republican party that had once embraced thrift let the budget deficit balloon out of control not once, but twice. (In between, a Democrat, Bill Clinton, balanced the budget.) Instead of smashing up university property young people went to work for Wall Street banks and set about smashing up the world economy. Would John Olin, had he lived to 2005, have taken notice of what a mess the right was making of things and turned off his funding firehose? Probably not. But the way things played out, that was never even a possibility.

The crankocrats Lynde and Harry Bradley had a company, Allen-Bradley, that made engine parts. (Here I am once again relying on Miller's pamphlet.) They begat the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation. In a sense that was John Olin's creation (and therefore the gun-toting Cornell occupiers' creation) too.

Lynde died in 1942, and although he was a Republican (like just about every other corporate bigshot) nobody has a clue what his politics were. His brother Harry supported Barry Goldwater and was a strong anticommunist, but he died in 1965, when the modern conservative movement was still in diapers. For 20 years after Harry's death the foundation (originally created in Lynde's name as a tax dodge) funded uncontroversial things like the Red Cross and the USO (though it also sent an annual check to Stanford's Hoover Institution, a practice commenced during Harry's lifetime). Then, in 1985, Rockwell International bought Allen-Bradley and the foundation was suddenly awash in money. The board's chairman and vice-chairman decided to hire someone to run the foundation on a more ambitious scale.

The guy they picked worked for the Olin Foundation.

The rest is history.