Jane Mayer has a bone to pick with the David and Charles Koch, billionaire brothers who spend (some of) their money supporting libertarian causes and fighting government regulation. Their spending, she seems to think, is central to the Obama administration’s current (extended) bout of political misfortune. She also insinuates they’ve used their money dirtily, somehow improperly influencing the political process. But, though she spends nearly 10,000 words in her New Yorker article picking through their history and following their money trails, it’s not clear that there’s much there there. What there is is a lot of spending money to support causes that Mayer apparently finds distasteful, a few (serious) lapses by the brothers’ corporation, and absolutely nothing (apart from quotations from Democratic Party operatives) to suggest that the Kochs have managed to manufacture a political movement out of thin air. And there is absolutely nothing in her article to suggest that the Kochs have engaged in inappropriate or illegal political activity.
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She recounts how the two brothers took the oil company that their father left to them (and two other brothers, whom David and Charles bought out), and, after renaming it Koch Industries in their father’s honor, turned it into the second-largest private company in the U.S., with holdings that include “oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, . . . Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra.” WIth their money, they’ve taken to donating funds to organizations that share their views. Among them are the Cato Institute, a nonpartisan libertarian think tank, the Mercatus Center, an economics think tank based at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm that spends its time fighting “eminent domain abuse” and onerous bureaucratic red tape.
Though Mayer accuses the brothers of “[subsidizing] a pro-corporate movement,” even she acknowledges that their money hasn’t been limited to their own financial interests:
The Kochs have gone well beyond their immediate self-interest, . . . funding organizations that aim to push the country in a libertarian direction. . . . Many of the organizations funded by the Kochs employ specialists who write position papers that are subsequently quoted by politicians and pundits. David Koch has acknowledged that the family exerts tight ideological control. “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” he told [an interviewer]. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.”
It’s not clear what the problem is with this. It’s perfectly fine for individuals or organizations to try to affect public debate. The wealthy and powerful are not denied that right, and Mayer notes (and does not object to) George Soros’ Open Society Institute spending up to $100 million a year in the U.S. George Soros happens to support greater social welfare spending, and the Kochs don’t agree. Are they prohibited from spending money to support freer markets just because it would benefit them?
As Joseph Lawler notes, the language she uses to describe the Koch brothers is awfully extreme relative to the activities she’s describing. In response to Mayer’s description of David Koch’s promotion of libertarianism as “[funding] stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular,” Lawler asks
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?
Though Mayer weaves a good story, she mostly weaves it by insinuation of political impropriety, unfounded by evidence. (She does cite maintenance and safety failures at Koch Industries in the 1990s, some serious, including a leak that led to an explosion that killed 2 people. Safety failures are lamentable and should be corrected, and Koch Industries should comply with the law and face consequences when it fails to. But any large organization is bound to make mistakes—sometimes serious ones; such mistakes don’t disqualify the corporations from defending their own interests.)
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Update: Lots of folks have commented on Mayer’s piece. And, apparently, Koch Industries saw fit to link to my blog post. I’m happy for the attention, and just in case anyone’s wondering, nothing (and no one) prompted my post but the questionable innuendo in the New Yorker piece.
—Nathan, August 30, 2010 at 9:52 p.m.