A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do secret societies control everything?

May 31, 2013

Dear Cecil:

The Straight Dope columns I find particularly interesting are the ones about secret societies: the Illuminati, the Bilderbergs, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the Masons, etc. I'm not sure whether I should beat 'em, join 'em, or continue to relegate them to the land of paranoid delusions. Can you give me the Straight Dope?

Cecil replies:

You’re missing the big picture, John. Sure, I could riff on the Illuminati, Skull and Bones, or the League of Hyrax — or I could tell you about the more insidious secretive societies that hide in plain sight. These organizations are far more dangerous than a bunch of balding ex-frat brothers sitting around naked in the woods plotting world domination. They work right out in the open, knowing the average person can’t fathom how deep the swamp really is.

Let’s start with the many secretive entities on the federal payroll, perhaps the most infamous being the National Security Agency. Every day NSA robosnoops intercept at least 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, and other electronic communications, looking for … well, we don’t know exactly, because no one is talking. We also don’t know the size of the NSA’s budget; its share of the $53 billion U.S. intelligence kitty is classified.

But evidently they get a good chunk. In October a heavily fortified top-secret NSA data center costing $1.5 billion will go into operation in Utah. Projected by some to consume $40 million in electricity per year, this mega installation has enough capacity to store hundreds of times the amount of data created in all human history. The idea is to protect us against terrorism and such. But who can say when some midlevel bureaucrats may take it into their heads to investigate the Tea Party, the Socialist Workers, or you?

Closely linked to the NSA is the vast anti-terrorism and homeland security apparatus erected after 9/11. A 2010 Washington Post investigation found 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies were toiling away at numerous obscure security initiatives. Thirty-three buildings totaling 17 million square feet had been constructed in the D.C. area to house all those worker bees. What are they up to? Even the people at the top of the intelligence food chain don’t really know.

Another secretive agency is the Federal Reserve, which controls U.S. banking and monetary policy. The Fed’s deliberations are closed to the public, and its bylaws and codes of ethics are also secret. The idea is to prevent the intrusion of politics, but stuff happens. A recent General Accounting Office report noted that a New York Fed director had bought Goldman Sachs stock while the firm was receiving $12.9 billion via a bailout the Fed had engineered.

Finally, the most insidious secretive society of all — lobbyists. They don’t work for the government; typically they’re former government employees who put their insiders’ contacts and knowledge at the service of whatever private interest is willing to pay their steep rates. How steep? For a crude idea, divide the estimated $3.3 billion 2012 lobbying tab by the 12,400 known lobbyists, for an average of $266,000 per lobbyist. Acquiring votes ain’t cheap.

Who pays that kind of money? The National Rifle Association at $3 million is a piker compared to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, number one at $136 million. The rest of the top five might seem noncontroversial — the National Association of Realtors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, General Electric, and the American Hospital Association. But think: what businesses are these people are in?

Still, we need to look at the even bigger picture. An enduring belief among progressives, clung to more fervently than ever in the age of WikiLeaks, is that greater transparency = better world. This is inarguably true of information. Your columnist and his henchpersons luxuriate in the ability to jack into open databases and download everything from federal homicide investigations by criminal code subsection to Chicago Transit Authority daily rail ridership by stop.

But transparency of decision-making is something else. In a TED talk from February, Harvard professor and political activist Larry Lessig observes that U.S. elections are a two-stage process: in stage one, the people with big bucks decide who the rest of us will get to vote for in stage two, namely the official elections.

In the manner of all TED lecturers, Lessig offers no useful guidance on how this process might be reformed, and at a fundamental level it can’t be. We live in a world of infinite possibilities; the body politic is equipped to choose among two or three. Reducing the pile from the former state to the latter is inevitably accomplished behind closed doors by a jostling mess of lobbyists, operatives, moneyed interests, do-gooders, harried bureaucrats, politicians of varying intelligence, integrity, and guts, and other interested parties.

I’ve participated in this shadowy process myself. Occasionally afterward I go to the public meeting at which the matter is nominally decided, or more often ratified (I live in Chicago, OK?), and I think: most of the people in this room have no clue.

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Ariosto, David “GAO audit finds Federal Reserve bank boards lack transparency” CNN.com 20 October, 2011. Accessed 8 May, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/20/us/gao-report-fed

Bamford, James. “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” Wired 15 March 2012. Accessed 12 May, 2013. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1

Boerma, Lindsay. “Critics slam Obama for "protecting" Monsanto” CBS News 28 March, 2013. Accessed 14 May, 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57576835/critics-slam-obama-for-protecting-monsanto/

Farnam, T.W. “Spending on lobbying hits plateau for first time in decade” Washington Post 2 February, 2011. Accessed 12 May, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/02/AR2011020205406.html

Goodwin, Danny. “Google Grabs More Search Market Share, Now at 67.5%” Search Engine Watch 15 March, 2013. Accessed 14 May, 2013. http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2255183/Google-Grabs-More-Search-Market-Share-Now-at-67.5

“Google 2012 revenue hits $50 billion, profits up” Dawn.com 23 January, 2013. Accessed 14 May, 2013. http://dawn.com/2013/01/23/google-2012-revenue-hits-50-billion-profits-up/

McGuinness, Michelle “'Monsanto Protection Act' called 'outrageous,' dangerous” MSN.com 28 March, 2013. Accessed 14 May, 2013. http://news.msn.com/us/monsanto-protection-act-called-outrageous-dangerous

“Monsanto Wins GMO Seed Patent Fight at Supreme Court” Associated Press 13 May, 2013. Accessed 15 May, 2013. http://www.dailyfinance.com/2013/05/13/monsanto-soybean-seeds-patent-supreme-court/

Morris, Frank. “Monsanto GMO Ignites Big Seed War” NPR.org 14 January, 2010. Accessed 9 May, 2013. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122498255

Myslewski, Rik. “Internet Explorer makes modest gains against Google Chrome” The Register 16 April, 2013. Accessed 13 May, 2013. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/04/16/microsoft_internet_explorer_makes_modest_gains/

OpenSecrets.org Accessed 14 May, 2013. http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/

Philpott, Tom “DOJ Mysteriously Quits Monsanto Antitrust Investigation” Mother Jones 1 December, 2012. Accessed 9 May, 2013 http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/11/dojs-monsantoseed-industry-investigation-ends-thud

Pincus, Walter and Miller, Greg.”Federal budget 2013: Intelligence agencies would get 4.4 percent less” Washington Post 13 February, 2012. Accessed 5 May, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/44/post/federal-budget-2013-intelligence-agencies-would-get-44-percent-less/2012/02/13/gIQAEvFDBR_blog.html

Priest, Dana and Arkin, William M. “A hidden world, growing beyond control” Washington Post 19 July, 2010. Accessed 12 May, 2013. http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/a-hidden-world-growing-beyond-control/3/

Rushe, Dominic “How Goldman Sachs gained from bailout of AIG” The Guardian 27 January, 2011. Accessed 15 May, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/jan/27/goldman-sachs-received-aig-bailout-cash

“Sirius XM Is Not Alone Anymore” Forbes 1 June, 2012. Accessed 14 May, 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/thestreet/2012/06/01/sirius-xm-is-not-alone-anymore/

“The Federal Reserve System: Purposes & Functions” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Washington, D.C., 2005. http://www.federalreserve.gov/pf/pdf/pf_1.pdf

Tong, Scott. “Monsanto: The behemoth that controls 90 percent of soybean production “ Marketplace 13 March, 2013. Accessed 14 May, 2013. http://www.marketplace.org/topics/sustainability/monsanto-behemoth-controls-90-percent-soybean-production

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