He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Jane Mayer in The New Yorker:

With his brother Charles, who is seventy-four, David Koch owns virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, whose annual revenues are estimated to be a hundred billion dollars. The company has grown spectacularly since their father, Fred, died, in 1967, and the brothers took charge. The Kochs operate oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, and control some four thousand miles of pipeline. Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products. Forbes ranks it as the second-largest private company in the country, after Cargill, and its consistent profitability has made David and Charles Koch—who, years ago, bought out two other brothers—among the richest men in America. Their combined fortune of thirty-five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

In a statement, Koch Industries said that the Greenpeace report “distorts the environmental record of our companies.” And David Koch, in a recent, admiring article about him in New York, protested that the “radical press” had turned his family into “whipping boys,” and had exaggerated its influence on American politics. But Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”

A few weeks after the Lincoln Center gala, the advocacy wing of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation—an organization that David Koch started, in 2004—held a different kind of gathering. Over the July 4th weekend, a summit called Texas Defending the American Dream took place in a chilly hotel ballroom in Austin. Though Koch freely promotes his philanthropic ventures, he did not attend the summit, and his name was not in evidence. And on this occasion the audience was roused not by a dance performance but by a series of speakers denouncing President Barack Obama. Peggy Venable, the organizer of the summit, warned that Administration officials “have a socialist vision for this country.”

Five hundred people attended the summit, which served, in part, as a training session for Tea Party activists in Texas. An advertisement cast the event as a populist uprising against vested corporate power. “Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests,” it said. “But you can do something about it.” The pitch made no mention of its corporate funders. The White House has expressed frustration that such sponsors have largely eluded public notice. David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, said, “What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”

Erick Erickson at Redstate:

Obama’s coordinated character assassination campaign against anyone who disagrees with him strikes of Soviet style politics. Saul Allinsky would be proud.

For perspective, the Koch brothers have been funding right-of-center and largely libertarian causes since the 1970’s. David Koch was the Libertarian Vice Presidential nominee in 1980. That’s right — against Reagan. This is nothing new for the Koch family. Through Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush the Koch’s have been politically engaged, sometimes even against Republican Presidents.

But Barack Obama is so used to demagoguing and is the first Democratic President to really believe the rich are evil, and not just preach it for the base, he needs an enemy. The Koch family will be that enemy.

The New Yorker has an eleven page, 6,000 word article on David and Charles Koch, who own Koch Industries. The article, “Covert Operations,” appears in the August 30, 2010 copy of the magazine. In other words, this article was being manufactured well before Mr. Obama launched the opening salvo on August 9, 2010.

Writing in yesterday’s Playbook, Mike Allen referenced the article, highlighting a passage that David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s advisor, is concerned about the Koch brothers. Mike Allen has more today.

Most troubling, the New Yorker cites as objective sources both the Center for American Progress and Media Matters without ever bothering to mention they are left-wing sources with biases and competing interests against those of the Koch brothers.

As the same time, Mother Jones is attacking the Smithsonian for taking Koch money, the Center for American Progress that the New Yorker relied on as an objective source, is attacking the Kochs in the Boston Globe, they are also attacking David Koch directly, and even Greenpeace is getting in on the act.

This is a coordinated character assassination against Koch Industries and the Koch brothers for daring to use their money to prevent the destruction of the American economy at the hand of a bunch of effete socialists in the White House.

Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator:

I’m not sure about Erickson’s speculation, but it’s hard not to notice that Mayer’s article paints an grim portrait of the Koch brothers without actually reporting anything objectionable that they might have done. For instance, here is how the article (headline: “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama”) describes the Kochs’ efforts to promote libertarianism:

In Washington, [David H.] Koch is best known as part of a family that has repeatedly funded stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular.

If that is how you describe peaceful, lawful activism, then what words are left to describe, for instance, the actions of al Qaeda, which funded an actual stealth attack on the federal government?

Later in the article, Mayer writes that “the Mercatus Center released a report claiming that stimulus funds had been directed disproportionately toward Democratic districts; eventually, the author was forced to correct the report, but not before Rush Limbaugh, citing the paper, had labelled Obama’s program ‘a slush fund…'”

Mayer is referring to Veronique de Rugy’s working paper. It is not accurate to claim that de Rugy was “forced to correct” the paper. A better description would be that she “voluntarily, in the spirit of transparency, improved the paper and found that her initial results still obtained.” You can read a less tendentious account of that episode here or de Rugy’s own explanation here.

Matt Welch at Reason:

I am a big admirer of Jane Mayer, and her article is worth reading for anyone who’s interested in the topic, but is seems a clear case of describing two apples with different adjectives because one smells funny (the George Soros paragraph in the article is a classic of the form). Whether the piece amounts to a kind of opening White House legal salvo against some of its biggest critics is something worth monitoring closely over the next two-plus months (and two-plus years). Given President Obama’s increasingly hysterical (and hypocritical) attacks against “the influence wielded by corporations and foreign entities,” it’s clear that the campaign will have rhetorical legs at the least.

Nick Gillespie at Reason:

Exactly how are the Koch brothers under the radar or underground? They show up every year in the Forbes super-rich lists. Charles Koch wrote a best-selling business book a year or two ago and makes no secret of his belief in free markets and limited government. David Koch ran for vice president of these United States on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980 (where he helped Ed Clark pull over 900,000 votes, by far the highest total gained by the LP). Both are known for a wide range of philanthropic giving, whether to arts and medical outfits or think tanks or political action groups.

Full disclosure: David Koch has been on the board of trustees of Reason Foundation, the publisher of this website, for decades, and his name appears in the masthead of Reason magazine; I have also taught at various programs for the Institute for Humane Studies, which the Kochs fund, and will speak at an Americans for Prosperity event later this week. While I have never had more than brief interaction with either brother, I am perhaps overdue in thanking them on this blog for supporting my career at Reason, where I have argued in favor of gay marriage, drug legalization, non-interventionist foreign policy, open borders, sales in human organs, an end to corporate welfare, and a wide variety of other shamelessly libertarian policies.

While the Kochs are not publicity hounds, they certainly don’t hide their giving or their political agenda under a bushel basket. They are consistently in favor of smaller government (even if Koch Industries gave 15 percent of its political donations to Democrats in the 2008 election cycle). They may in fact be “out to destroy progessivism” but they are hardly using secret means to combat the growth and reach of government. You can argue whether The New Yorker story is “shameful,” but there’s no question that it is a great example of the demonization of opposing points of view (this happens on the right, too, where way too many liberals are labeled socialists or communists or whatever). It’s not enough that opponents believe different things, they must be cast as underhanded and duplicitous, acting out of only the most vulgar or awful of motives.

Frank Rich at The New York Times:

There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are.

Their self-interested and at times radical agendas, like Murdoch’s, go well beyond, and sometimes counter to, the interests of those who serve as spear carriers in the political pageants hawked on Fox News. The country will be in for quite a ride should these potentates gain power, and given the recession-battered electorate’s unchecked anger and the Obama White House’s unfocused political strategy, they might.

All three tycoons are the latest incarnation of what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein labeled “Invisible Hands” in her prescient 2009 book of that title: those corporate players who have financed the far right ever since the du Pont brothers spawned the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R. You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our “socialist” president.

Only the fat cats change — not their methods and not their pet bugaboos (taxes, corporate regulation, organized labor, and government “handouts” to the poor, unemployed, ill and elderly). Even the sources of their fortunes remain fairly constant. Koch Industries began with oil in the 1930s and now also spews an array of industrial products, from Dixie cups to Lycra, not unlike DuPont’s portfolio of paint and plastics. Sometimes the biological DNA persists as well. The Koch brothers’ father, Fred, was among the select group chosen to serve on the Birch Society’s top governing body. In a recorded 1963 speech that survives in a University of Michigan archive, he can be heard warning of “a takeover” of America in which Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the president is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.” That rant could be delivered as is at any Tea Party rally today.

Last week the Kochs were shoved unwillingly into the spotlight by the most comprehensive journalistic portrait of them yet, written by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker. Her article caused a stir among those in Manhattan’s liberal elite who didn’t know that David Koch, widely celebrated for his cultural philanthropy, is not merely another rich conservative Republican but the founder of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which, as Mayer writes with some understatement, “has worked closely with the Tea Party since the movement’s inception.” To New Yorkers who associate the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center with the New York City Ballet, it’s startling to learn that the Texas branch of that foundation’s political arm, known simply as Americans for Prosperity, gave its Blogger of the Year Award to an activist who had called President Obama “cokehead in chief.”

Warner Todd Huston at Big Government:

First of all most of what Rich wrote was but rehashed words from Jane Mayer’s slam against the Koch Brothers of New York. Three quarters of what Rich penned really came from Mayer’s New Yorker piece on the philanthropists. So, big demerits for Frank Rich for simply appropriating Mayer’s piece.

But the real point of Rich’s piece was to pile onto Mayer’s slanted attack piece with some echoed slams against the Tea Party movement in order to discredit it all. Rich is desperate to make the movement seem like a marionette show with rich “sugar daddies” funding it and controlling it from the top.

“There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising,” Rich says of the Tea Party events, “the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the ‘death panel’ warm-up acts of last summer.”

Rich then rehashes Mayer’s examples of where the Koch brothers put their money in the form of Americans For Prosperity and Freedom Works, two nationwide, very active, and successful conservative advocacy groups.

Now, it is absolutely true that both AFP and Freedom Works have had the cash to put on large events in Washington D.C. and other cities. But it is not true that either of these groups controls and runs “the Tea Party” movement from above.

In fact, both AFP and Freedom Works were sort of caught unawares when the Tea Parties started forming spontaneously all across the nation in early 2009. Both had to rush to try and tap into that passion. Neither was initially prepared for the amazing energy that the Tea Party has unleashed.

Yes, these two organizations have held many events. But the number of evens that they have held, funded and had a hand in operating are but a small number compared to the hundreds if not thousands of Tea Party groups that started up all on their own, all with their own funding and members, all without the bankrolling of a “sugar daddy” named Koch.

To say that the Koch brothers, or Dick Armey, or Americans for Prosperity’s Tim Phillips control the Tea Party movement is simply a lie. In fact, these advocacy groups are like the 80-pound child taking his 200-pound dog for a walk. The kid may seem like the owner, but it is the big dog in control of where the walk ends up heading! The Tea Party is the 200-pound dog that neither AFP, nor Freedom Woks can control. These groups are the 80-pound kid holding on for dear life, trying to stay relevant in the minds of the Tea Party movement.

And Rich makes a second mistake — or calculation — in addressing the Tea Party movement. He keeps saying “the Tea Party” as if it is a single entity. It is not. I have been interacting with, writing about, and attending rallies with various Tea Party groups since the first days of the movement. There is one thing that holds true throughout. They are not connected one to the other in any meaningful way.

But you see, if Rich and his anti-traditional American ideologues can make it appear as if “the Tea Party” is run from the back pocket of the Koch brothers, it is easier to discredit as a false front set up by secretive, shadowy forces. If it were all a Koch enterprise, now that is a strawman that Frank Rich could knock down. But if the Tea Party is understood as millions of individual Americans following their patriotic hearts, that is an impossible image to discredit.

So you can see why Rich and his cohorts are desperate to make it “the Tea Party” instead of revealing the truth.

David Weigel:

Here’s more on the story I published this morning — a letter that the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation is sending around arguing that Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile treated the Kochs unfairly.

“The New Yorker article, and those pieces that have echoed it, rely heavily on innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions,” writes foundation president Richard Fink, who is the public face of the brothers’ ideological work. “Unnamed sources and those with a strong philosophical opposition to the Kochs – many of whom have no current or first-hand knowledge of Koch Industries, Koch Family Foundations, Charles Koch or David Koch – go unchallenged. Supporters of the Kochs are largely ignored (as evidenced by the fact that the reporter chose not to include the vast majority of supportive comments made by a number of people familiar with the Kochs and the organizations they support). On the other hand, those who reinforce the reporter’s preconceptions are given a free pass.”

Fink argues that Mayer treated the Kochs unfairly despite the access she received, but Mayer reports that she didn’t get face time with David or Charles. That’s the point I’m making — these attempts to keep the brothers out of the political fray just don’t work anymore.

Reihan Salam:

All this is to say that I’m very comfortable with critiques of the rise of the right, including left-of-center critiques. Let’s just say I don’t think Rich is an authority on this subject. That said, I would never question his knowledge of the history of Broadway, Vaudeville, or theater more broadly.

I don’t doubt that a talented reporter could illuminate the worldview of the Kochs and the extent of their reach. But Mayer might be the most talented reporter writing today, and she’s written a piece that relies heavily on Gus diZerega, incendiary quotes from a wide range of scrupulously non-partisan but decidedly left-of-center think tanks, a credulous statement from a Soros spokesperson, a conversation with Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, references to Andrew Goldman’s article in New York and Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, and something else I’m sure I’m missing. One possibility is that Mayer’s editors pressed for early publication of the Koch story, spurred by the fact that New York had published its piece in late July and the prospect of more articles on the Kochs in other magazines. If that is indeed the case, I think Mayer’s editors have done her a disservice.

As someone who has benefited from left-of-center and right-of-center foundations, I definitely have a bias here: I don’t think it’s a bad thing for rich people to devote some of their money to spreading ideas, including bad ideas. The U.S. economy is vast enough that I can’t imagine even the largest fortunes holding undue sway over our national political life, which could be Pollyannaish on my part. I’m not even all that threatened by the influence of the Ford Foundation, which, as David Bernstein observes, is considerable:

According to Mayer, the Kochs have spent “more than a hundred million dollars” on “right-wing” foundations since 1980. Let’s be aggressive, and assume arguendo the figure, adjusted for inflation, is four hundred million dollars. That’s a whole $13 million or so a year since 1980. By contrast, the Ford Foundation, one of many well-endowed “mainstream” liberal foundations, spends over $500 million a year, a decent fraction of which goes to left-wing organizations and causes. Any given major American university employs far more liberal academics in the social sciences annually than can possibly be employed on a $13 million budget. Soros’ Open Society Institute annually spends over $150 million to “support individuals and organizations advancing a more open, just, and equal society in the United States.”

I am definitely open to strong arguments that suggest the Ford Foundation or the Kochs are a danger to our democratic freedoms. I’m still waiting for them.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias and Matt Welch on Bloggingheads

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Filed under Political Figures, Politics

One response to “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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