In May, an undercover journalist seeking to understand how fossil fuel companies manage the political side of their business managed to pass himself off as a recruitment consultant. He recorded the Zoom interviews he had with two senior ExxonMobil lobbyists. Greenpeace has now published the interview and reported on the findings on its website, Unearthed.

One of the lobbyists, Keith McCoy, was particularly candid about the history of the oil firm’s successful opposition to legislation that might rein in its activity, despite clearly understanding the impact it had on the environment. Asking and answering his own rhetorical questions, McCoy confesses: “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes.” He immediately follows this up with what he believes is an attenuating circumstance: “Did we hide our science, absolutely not.”


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But he goes on to admit the deviousness of Exxon’s method: “Did we join some of these ‘shadow groups’ to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments, we were looking out for our shareholders.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Look out for:

Generously cheat on behalf of someone other than oneself… and sometimes for oneself as well

Contextual Note

McCoy’s reasoning reveals a lot not just about Exxon’s strategy, but also about the prevailing worldview that Americans hold regarding the economy in general. The idea of “looking out for” suggests a noble action, a form of generosity and self-sacrifice. Because of its implied moral probity — defending those who need defending in a hostile world — it even makes the expression “look out for yourself” appear to sound fundamentally virtuous.

McCoy cites the classic defense used in the case of many economic and social injustices: the law permits it (“there’s nothing illegal about that”). But he goes further by claiming that the company is doing nothing more than fulfilling its own noble mission. It is “looking out for [its] investment.” In US culture, investing is always interpreted as an act that promotes prosperity, something fundamentally virtuous. 

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People consider investments sacred because they signify self-sacrifice for the greater good of the many. Of course, independent investors who play the stock market — from Warren Buffett to the Reddit community of retail investors — are driven by a mix of greed and gaming instincts. Their rewards are measured by growth in nominal value, not by the positive effects on society as a whole the investment supposedly produces.

In contrast, corporate investments are by definition good for two reasons. The first is that they enrich the cornucopia that the consumer economy craves. People always want more goods, more choices and the lower prices that mass production and mass consumption permit. The second reason is structural. Powerful industry depends for its existence on generous wealthy people who are willing to play the role of its shareholders, who believe in the company’s mission and expect to profit from it.  

The idea of “looking out for our investments” thus appears noble to anyone who shares the free market worldview that identifies investment as the noble and necessary aim of actors in a capitalist economy. Investment transforms unproductive liquid capital into fixed capital, which enables efficient mass production. Mass production, in turn, enables mass consumption. And, of course, mass production + mass consumption = growth, which is everyone’s ultimate goal.

Growth stands as the key to national serenity. Significantly, it is also the criterion that allows today’s political leaders to win tomorrow’s elections. That is why politicians will always encourage growth, even if they understand that it may damage the physical environment. With such a focus by corporations, politicians and lobbyists, armed with their belief in the virtues of the free market system, all must clearly “be for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” as Voltaire’s Pangloss famously affirmed.

McCoy understands that everyone (or nearly everyone) in the United States is expected to believe in this virtuous cycle that celebrates the “makers,” who diligently look out for their investments and thereby create four essential things: jobs, consumable merchandise, profit for the shareholders and enough cash left over to allow its managers and lobbyists to live in style. The shareholders of course do nothing, but without them, the makers could do nothing. That’s why McCoy understands it’s important to look out for them. 

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Historical Note

Although peddling influence at royal courts was practiced throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe and in every hierarchically structured civilization across the globe, the contemporary art of lobbying in the industrial world arose in the early 19th century in Washington, DC. One legend concerning the origin of the word “lobbying” itself derives from the practice of citizens who accosted legislators in the lobby of Washington’s Willard hotel with a view to influencing their drafting of laws. Though the reference to the Willard lobby dates back only to the 1860s, the first mention in the press of “lobby members” appeared in 1817 in New York.

The association with the Willard hotel may not be the true origin of the term, but the hotel setting suitably reflects what everyone now knows about how lobbyists work. Wining and dining with the right people at the right time holds a central place in their skillset. Keith McCoy reveals how lobbyists become the trusted interlocutors of influential politicians. He even mentions several by name, including the “kingmaker” Joe Manchin, who now holds the Democratic administration at his mercy. His candid description of these relationships demonstrates what, in 2014, Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court denied. In the majority decision on McCutcheon v. FEC, Roberts claimed that corruption could not exist if there is no visible quid pro quo. McCoy reveals what everyone in Washington should consider obvious: that quids can assume a lot of different disguises.

McCoy reveals much more than what Roberts wants the public to understand, not just about lobbying and corruption, but about how corporations manage the laws with the complicity of the media. He notably mentions that Exxon used its publicly expressed agreement to the principle of a carbon tax as something that “gives us a talking point that we can say, well what is ExxonMobil for? Well, we’re for a carbon tax.”

He follows up by admitting that a talking point is as its name indicates: talk and not action. He proudly explains that “it’s an easy talking point to say, look I’m for a carbon tax.” This is especially true when you know, as McCoy confirms, that the lawmakers would never pass such a law. “Carbon tax is not going to happen,” he tells the reporter.

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McCoy admits that the key to ensuring corporate interests prevail over public interest lies in the management of relationships with moderate Democrats, whom Exxon can count on to remove the teeth from any future legislation that affects the firm’s profitability. He even describes the hierarchical nature of Exxon’s quasi-military campaign to undermine the public interest. “Senator Coons… has a very close relationship with Senator [President] Biden, so we’ve been working with his office — as a matter of fact our CEO is talking to him next Tuesday and having those conversations and just teeing it up, and then that way I can start working with his staff to let them know where we are on some of these issues.”

He then specifically describes the purely electoral logic that makes this pressure possible and ensures success. It is not only moderates, but specifically ones that are up for reelection. He calls them “a captive audience, they know they need you and I need them.” That’s the kind of solidarity that is now at the core of US democracy.

An embarrassed Exxon spokesman predictably explained that the lobbyists “interviewed were not involved in developing the company’s policy positions on the issues,” which is of course true. They were involved in applying them, which should be even more embarrassing.

The most disturbing truth McCoy tells concerns his forecast that nothing will be done about climate change because, unlike COVID-19, and despite growing evidence, “it doesn’t affect people’s everyday lives.” The media should be actively helping the public understand that it does affect their everyday lives. But the corporate media prefers to treat climate change as little more than an interesting “talking point.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.