Bloomberg’s Zachary Mider and Ben Elgin have a fantastic report today on the DCI Group, a lobbying and consulting firm in Washington, DC, and how hedge funds employ it to achieve their horrid aims.
It reveals how James K. Glassman, a journalist-turned-influence peddler in Washington, has “shuttled from one DCI front [group] to another,” helping its clients with causes such as getting debt-burdened Argentina to pay up to its bondholders—like billionaire Paul Singer, whose hedge fund made a nice $2 billion in profit off the country in 2016.
How did DCI help? It waged a PR war against Argentina—reportedly paying for a person in a rat costume, “wearing an Argentine flag and holding a sign in its claws: ‘I’m the rat in the G20,’” and compensating the National Taxpayers Union for a report, authored by Glassman, arguing that Argentina shouldn’t be in the G20. Glassman testified in Congress, while working for “an affiliate of DCI,” that Argentina was trying to renege on its debt.
In all cases, DCI was working behind the scenes to create the impression of, if not a wide grassroots clamoring from ordinary Americans for Argentina to pay its hedge fund bondholders, at least an echo chamber of Serious People and Serious Organizations calling for that:
DCI worked to shift the focus from Singer. In court, it helped round up briefs from allies to create a sense of broad support beyond Wall Street. It started a coalition, American Task Force Argentina, with dozens of members—including some not usually identified with sovereign-debt disputes, such as the National Grange, a farmers’ fraternal order, and the Colorado branch of the American Association of University Professors. (It’s not clear that all the members knew of their participation. At least three now say they never agreed to join ATFA.) Separately, a motley consortium—ranging from a Tea Party–aligned group to the National Black Chamber of Commerce—wrote letters to lawmakers and issued public statements.
DCI’s work is notable for its successes, and the lengths to which it goes to obscure the interests it works for, but stories like these are ten a penny in D.C.. It is corrupt and shady, a blight on democracy, and it is perfectly normal. Millions of dollars are spent every year on campaigns like this: deceptive, bogus PR campaigns designed to create the impression that there is more intellectual weight or public interest in a certain policy than just a corporation, an industry, a hedge fund, a foreign dictator, or even one wealthy individual wanting that policy because it will benefit them financially.
As Lee Fang wrote in his exposé on shadow lobbying in 2014, “the growth of the influence industry has created a new generation of millionaires while reshaping the region in its wake.” The city is exploding with expensive condos and new office buildings, endless small-plates restaurants, daycares for dogs, and stores that only seem to sell candles and gold pots for holding succulents. The lightning-fast bougification of DC is fueled, in large part, by the burgeoning idea-laundering industry. There are a lot of real jobs in Washington, and there are also thousands of more lucrative “jobs” crafting talking points for your client America’s Children For Chemical Warfare LLC and then turning those talking points into op-eds for The Hill to create the impression that the position of America’s Children For Chemical Warfare LLC is simply one side of the Discourse on an issue.
Part of the reason this bullshit industry isn’t remarked upon very much is that, as Bloomberg points out, disclosure rules are very limited. Lobbying disclosure laws are rarely enforced, easy to get around, and only apply to contacts with elected or appointed officials and their staff. If DCI Group pays a guy to dress up as a rat as part of a hedge fund-backed campaign to get a broke foreign country to pay its wealthy creditors, they don’t have to disclose that. PR campaigns don’t count.
It’s also hard, especially without disclosures like that, to suggest any kind of quid pro quo, where one company pays a consulting firm to say things on their behalf. Last year, I went to a terrible event put on by the tech think tank ITIF, which gets money from telecom trade groups, representing companies like AT&T and Verizon. That event was about how tech journalists are too “pessimistic” about technology and fret too much about things like privacy, but ITIF also, for example, likes to talk about how good it is that the FCC repealed its net neutrality rules—a position that exactly mirrors that of its funders at AT&T and Verizon. But you can’t prove that they take that position because of their funding. You can’t say that AT&T wrote a big check and put FOR OPPOSING NET NEUTRALITY in the memo line, which allows them to present themselves as merely part of the lively exchange of ideas, with donations as a happy coincidence.
And when the entire city works upon an agreement that we don’t get too mad about that whole arrangement, that if we don’t push too hard on New America for taking Google’s money, we won’t push too hard on ITIF for taking Verizon’s money, there’s a massive incentive to shrug and just say, yeah, that’s how it works, don’t get too mad about it.
To misquote the Resistance, this is normal. It is absolutely normal in DC for someone like Glassman to have a job in saying things he may or may not believe, in public or in Congress, that help a hedge fund get its way. As the Bloomberg piece noted, Glassman was exposed in Washington Monthly by Nick Confessore fifteen fucking years ago for running a fake news site that was in fact a “lobbying operation in disguise,” and nothing happened. If anything, his professional stature (along with his annual income, surely) has only increased since then.
One thing that you learn quickly in DC is that people are very good at looking away from things that are bad but systemic, because to be comfortable, to have a career and still be able to look yourself in the mirror, you have to be able to ignore all that. You, or your friends, or their friends, or your neighbors, will have some kind of horrible job that makes America worse, because that’s like half the jobs here, so what are you gonna do about it? Move? Be a teacher and make like $40,000 and only ever socially interact with other teachers? No, best just to put it out of your mind, adjust your expectations, and live with it. Buy another gold pineapple for your desk. You might be a liberal and your mate might work for the Chamber of Commerce, but he’s really nice, so you don’t hold it against him.
And that, coupled with a lack of laws requiring any more moral clarity than individuals can summon within themselves, is how groups like the DCI Group get away with this shit. If you were the one at a party to say hey, what the fuck, Darren, why is your job lobbying for United Healthcare?, well, you’d be the weird one, not the guy whose job is to try and help make sure insurance companies can keep scraping every dollar they can off the average American’s broken backs.
And so it goes on, and on, and on, and another James Glassman gets his hedge fund cash, and another hedge fund gets its even more cash. It was thus under Obama, and is thus under Trump, and will be thus until someone shakes this vile city by its pressed lapels until blood pours from its glassy eyes.