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Ron Radosh

Yesterday’s Arts section of the New York Times contained an interesting report about the status of Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl balladeer, in his native Oklahoma. Reporter Patricia Cohen writes that “Oklahoma has always had a troubled relationship with her native son Woody Guthrie. The communist sympathies of America’s balladeer infuriated local detractors.” Note those words, “communist sympathies”; evidently, Guthrie had some kind of innocuous sympathies, perhaps those of a naïve fellow traveler, but not those of a self-proclaimed hard-nosed Red. As one resident of Guthrie’s hometown Okema who loved Guthrie told Cohen, Guthrie had been “kind of taboo because some influential people thought Woody Guthrie had communist leanings.” The implication, as you can see, is that those attitudes were the ill-informed opinions of old school Red-baiters from the ’30s.

Now, after years of denial, Oklahoma is ready to welcome Woody home. The story reports on how The George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa has bought Guthrie’s archives from his children, and are “building an exhibition and study center to honor his legacy.” It will include his notebooks and diaries, art work, letters, scrapbooks, and the like, including the lyrics of 3000 songs to which he never had the chance to write music. It cost George Kaiser some $3 million to undertake the project. We also learn that Kaiser is, as Cohen reports, “one of the richest men in Oklahoma,” a man who made his millions from the Kaiser-Francis Oil Company.

Kaiser, in other words, is just the kind of capitalist the Communists always yell about — an exploiter of both the workers and our country’s natural resources. If you read the Wikipedia entry about him, you will find that his net worth in 2008 was some $12 billion, although his current net worth has dropped to a paltry $9 billion in today’s downward economy. He is still the richest man in Oklahoma (who also lives half time in San Francisco) but no longer one of the 20 richest in America, having slipped only to a tie for the 43rd richest person in the world!

Yes, Kaiser does good things with his wealth. He gives his money to causes like childhood education and the Oklahoma Jewish community. But he is also evidently part of the left wing of the Democratic Party, a man who argued before Oklahoma’s legislature that tax incentives for the oil and gas industry should be eliminated or reduced, and the money be used instead for health care, education, and tax cuts for regular people. (He did not, as you might expect, make that argument as he was accumulating his riches.) As you might expect, Mr. Kaiser was also one of Barack Obama’s “bundlers” in the 2008 election campaign, as well as a major investor in — you guessed it — Solyndra! (A bundler, as the Wikipedia entry explains, is “an individual who collects contributions to a candidate from others that are then simultaneously given to the candidate.”)

The entry also shows how carefully Mr. Kaiser gamed the market:

An article by the nonpartisan and open government organization Sunlight Foundation‘s Bill Allison has analyzed Kaiser’s business activities and his use of legal tax avoidance strategies, including how during the 1980s bust in the oil industry in Oklahoma and Texas. Kaiser bought up struggling energy companies whose losses provided him with tax deductions that effectively offset his own income and left him with little or no tax liability.

The report says Kaiser paid no taxes to the federal government for years and that when he did pay taxes, just once in a six-year period, it was just under $11,700, meaning he paid taxes on a taxable wage of $5.62 per hour. The report comes from the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison. Allison’s post indicates many experts, including the IRS, believe Kaiser’s tax strategies were illegal.

To put it a bit differently, were Woody Guthrie still alive, I could imagine the expletives that would appear as he took pen to paper to blast away at how a capitalist in Oklahoma named Kaiser made a killing while regular people took the brunt. His response would have been a bit different than that of his daughter Nora, who told Cohen: “I cried for an hour after meeting George Kaiser,” since he had put “together what I’ve always dreamed of.” Absolutely Nora — on the backs of the working class. He, according to Marx whom Woody believed in, made his money from the surplus value generated by the labor power of the Oklahoma proletariat.

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