(Courtesy of Flickr user Michael Coghlan)
Robert FitzPatrick calls it the “Pyramid Lobby”: a massive outlay of money and muscle from the multi-level marketing (MLM) industry, working “not just to curry favoritism or receive income at the public trough, but to prevent its extinction. This requires thwarting law enforcement and foiling consumer protection.” That is because MLM companies are effectively frauds: their main economic activity is recruiting “distributors,” who do not make profits by selling products but recruiting new distributors, and each new distributor the further down the chain has less of a chance—much of the time, less than a 1 percent of a chance—of making money. “Only the tobacco industry has as much at stake in its political lobbying and its public marketing campaign,” he writes.
And the targets for that campaign are almost exclusively Republicans. For MLM fraudsters are a huge part of the conservative infrastructure.
Of course, in the case of the mighty DeVos family in Michigan, the conservative infrastructure and the MLM industry almost entirely overlap. Richard DeVos Sr. number sixty on Forbes’s 2012 list of wealthiest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion made ripping Americans off, founded Amway—short for “American Way”—in 1959. In 1979, the company was forced by the Federal Trade Commission to tell distributors that over half its distributors do not make money, and that the average distributor made less than $100 month—a stricture they promptly violated. None of that kept the DeVos family from rising in Republican and conservative politics. After all, between 1991 and 1997, Common Cause documented, Amway affiliated companies gave $4.4 million in soft money to the Republican National Committee, DeVos and his wife giving $1 million in April of 1997 alone. In 2000 Amway gave $1.385 million in soft money to the RNC (just $500 less than Enron), and DeVos hosted a party starring Colin Powell on his private yacht at the Republican National Convention. In 2004 DeVos and his cofounder Jay Van Andel gave $2 million each to the right with “Progress for America” 527, and in 2006 his son tried and failed to win the Michigan governorship. Meanwhile I’ll never forget the time—it must have been about ten years ago—when I visited the Heritage Foundation to interview their fellow Lee Edwards for research on my book Nixonland. When we were done, he was kind enough to walk me to the office at Heritage of former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese. On the way, we passed an entire room at Heritage devoted to Amway, including a surreal display of Amway products—like, soap and shampoo. At the time, I was baffled; I had no idea what I was seeing. Now, it makes more sense. Heritage is among the conservative think tanks—others included the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Acton Institute; get the full list here—to which the Richard and Helen Devos Foundation provides massive, sustaining support.