In case you missed yesterday’s chat with Daniel Schulman, author of Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, check out the question and answer archive from two hours of engaging with FireDogLake Book Salon users.
Some concluding thoughts on my part, as someone who has closely followed the Kochtopus for the last four years and often ends out tangling with some of its primary tentacles. As I wrote in the intro to yesterday’s Book Salon, Schulman’s tone in promoting his book has surprised many for its middle-of-the-road feel:
Schulman’s tomb of ‘Kochology‘ has been received with surprise for its non-condemning tone. [...] On the surface Schulman’s descriptions are unexpectedly favorable to Koch in the eyes of, say, this Greenpeace researcher.
A bit more on this. One thing I learned yesterday is that Schulman recently placed four questions he’d like to ask Charles and David Koch into the Columbia Journalism Review. Those four questions are the type of critical inquiry that I expected to hear from someone who just devoted a chunk of their life to studying the Koch family in extreme detail (without being part of their circle). Schulman looks for answers on some key contradictions in KochWorld relating to their denial of climate change science, their selective emphasis on “liberty” (liberty for whom?), and Charles Koch’s preference for an almost non-existent government, keeping in mind his company has repeatedly violated the law (and his nonprofit personnel, like Sean Noble of American Encore).
I’ll admit that after watching Mr. Schulman on The Daily Show, Reason TV, Huffington Post live and other forums where he seemed to dismiss the notion that the Kochs often act in their own self interest, the questions on CJR are the type of journalism I’d prefer to see as a major critic and skeptic of the Koch brothers and their motives (Note that what Schulman really says is the Kochs are “true believers” whose ideology comes first, sometimes overlapping with Koch Industries profits to be sure…but this nuance seems to get lost in the noise).
But I think unlike many hardcore Koch-critics, perhaps because of my own ideology rooted in Greenpeace’s core foundation in nonviolence, I didn’t feel particularly confused or conflicted over the real empathy one feels when reading about the various personal tragedies of the Kochs, keeping in mind their secure root in a privileged upbringing, harsh as that upbringing sounds.
If you have yet to read Sons of Wichita, Schulman’s extensive research conveys a surprising feel: a chronic, underlying heartache felt by Koch brothers Charles, David and Bill alike amid decades of sibling lawsuit warfare over the fortune of the company their father built. Money aside, anyone capable of empathy and compassion feels a familiar inner tug when reading these passages of how clearly hurt each of the three brothers were as they traded blows.
But the Kochs’ own compassion has widely corroborated limits. Their business-funded political activities seem to consistently crush society from the middle class down and violate their self-stated ideologies. This indicates that Charles Koch’s rhetoric of “liberty” and “prosperity” is either dishonest, or indicative of the type of ignorance that only the out of touch, hyper wealthy could hold. Lest we forget that while Koch Industries now employs more people globally, Koch’s US employment just fell by 20,000 while the two brothers made an estimated $48 billion.
If Schulman’s research of the Koch brothers’ upbringing explains some of their psychology, it doesn’t excuse the decisions they have made as grown men that adversely impact their fellow country-people. Making a billion while funding groups that demonize those on the financial margins as lazy and unproductive members of society is dishonest and malicious.
The Kochs’ home state of Kansas is a perfect contemporary case study, where numerous tentacles of the “Kochtopus” succeeded in pushing an income tax cut that has tanked the state’s revenue, increased poverty rates and led to a Moody’s downgrade of Kansas’ debt. Governor Sam Brownback is directly supported by Koch Industries and its billionaire owners, and backed by Koch-funded groups coordinated through the State Policy Network (SPN), a network of national and state-level organizations operating across all 50 states. SPN includes groups like the Kansas Policy Institute–a supporter of Brownback’s tax cut disaster, and national affiliate groups controlled or financed by the Kochs, like Americans For Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Through ALEC its affiliates in the State Policy Network, Art Laffer pushed what New York Times contributing economist Paul Krugman called an “embarrassingly bad” plan ratcheting down corporate income taxes used by Gov Sam Brownback, who is now facing mass backlash from his own party.
This is a convenience for Kansas-based Koch Industries, perhaps, but at the expense of over $300 million of Kansas’ budget in the year since cuts took place, laughably short of Brownback’s projected $500 million surplus…if you’d dare to laugh at the situation Kansans have been subjected to. Consequences of the Koch-fueled, Brownback implemented “experiment” are resulting in massive cuts for the social services for those who need it most, a perverse “fix” on the backs of children who will have even less resources backing their public education. The Kansas Supreme Court even intervened, since Kansan children have their opportunity for equally-financed education protected by the Kansas constitution.
This leaves little way out for the [majority of] Kansas families who can’t afford to send their kids to the privatized schools that Koch and their politically aligned executives have pushed around the country by misdirecting taxpayer dollars to charter schools
This man-made disaster in Kansas feels similar to the budget crisis created in Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker took office, with support from Koch Industries and Koch-funded State Policy Network groups. Walker cut corporate taxes, fabricating a budget shortfall, and used the crisis he created to justify attacks on public employee’s right to negotiate fair wages and benefits. This sounds all too familiar as Kansas snips away important social services to accommodate the elitist policies implemented by their Koch-krafted governor. And as the Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb wrote, similar corporate tax cuts were implemented in Ohio Governor and ALEC alumnus John Kasich, and cuts are on the table in Oklahoma under Governor Mary Fallin, ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” in 2009.
The widespread influence of these many Koch-funded “Stink Tanks” have made the billionaire brothers Charles and David impossible to ignore on the political main stage. Their shadowy dark money finance network–always evolving to hide from journalists, activists and regulators–has started getting the Koch network in trouble. Koch’s “American Encore” was fined in $1 million for money laundering in California under its previous name, the Center to Protect Patient Rights.
Now another Koch-controlled advocacy group and money funnel, the 60 Plus Association, is being questioned on similar allegations that it “violated federal law by intentionally failing to disclose more than $11 million” around the last two election cycles.
Hopefully the IRS will do something. Several Koch-funded front groups are worthy of IRS scrutiny, including ALEC, which Congressman Raul Grijalva has scrutinized for potentially illegal lobbying. Indeed, the State Policy Network members in Pennsylvania (the Commonwealth Foundation) and Ohio (the Buckeye Institute) are actually under IRS investigation,* part of the reason why we are seeing a noisy, coordinated backlash against the IRS on the grounds that it inappropriately scrutinized tea party groups. Perhaps they did–but these corporate front groups are a different story, and each case merits unique consideration. As taxpayers, pretty much none of us like the IRS, but we still expect it to do its job and hold large-scale lawbreakers accountable, since we’re the ones paying for it.
Those who read Schulman’s book will recognize that despite Charles Koch’s public insistence on “10,000% compliance” (100% of employees complying with laws 100% of the time), former Koch employees have accused Koch Industries of encouraging them to systematically violate the law, like cutting corners on oil pipeline safety or stealing oil from Native land.
Koch’s oil spills continue. The massive petroleum coke piles are still in Chicago, and Koch is threatening to sue the city to delay its cleanup responsibilities. Charles Koch continues to convene other millionaires and billionaires to raise funds and set strategy around national elections, coordinating hundreds of millions of dark dollars into the political groups that are being documented for hiding money entering our elections.
But people get it now. Thanks in part to the [vastly oversimplified and sometimes overused] criticism of Koch by national politicians, voters are becoming familiar with how a few billionaires are funding so many of the dishonest attack ads they see on TV.
The entrance of billionaire Tom Steyer into national politics as a champion of climate change policy is an important half-counterweight to KochWorld, but it only reinforces the sentiment that our elections are being controlled by billionaires we will never meet. SuperPACs run by the likes of Jonathan Soros, CREDO and Stephen Colbert all have a self-destructive mission: to undo the consequences of the anti-democratic Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling and replace appropriate limits on how outside money can influence elections. Compare that with Charles Koch, who rhetorically blasts subsidies, including those to his companies, but makes no attempt to reject that federal money.
Lies and misrepresentation are cheap forms of capital–potentially effective in the short term, but damning in the long term. As someone so focused on the long term game (another theme in Sons of Wichita), you would think that Charles Koch would use his hands-on approach to make the groups he funds behave more honestly.
Because in the long game, that may well come back to bite him.
*Source: Stephen Moore, “Conservative Think Tanks: The Left Tries to Shut Them Down Because They’re Winning,” National Review, p. 20, April 7, 2014.