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Christopher Leonard

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If the unbridled consumption of fossil fuels is indeed pushing the planet faster and faster toward Armageddon, Charles Koch probably deserves as much credit as anyone for the end of the world as we know it.

Christopher Leonard never makes that judgement in Kochland, his massive study of one of the most destructive corporate behemoths America has ever seen. But in more than 600 pages, he provides plenty of evidence to support it.

Charles and his late brother David were second-generation extremists. Their father, Fred, was not only one of the founders of the John Birch Society, which famously accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being a "tool of the communists". He also helped the Nazis construct their third-largest oil refinery, which produced fuel for the Luftwaffe- although you would have to read Jane Mayer's brilliant book, Dark Money, to learn that particular detail.

In 1980, David Koch was the Libertarian candidate for vice-president. The party's modest plans included the abolition of Medicare, Medicaid, social security (which would be made voluntary), the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

'The party,' Leonard writes, 'also sought to privatize all roads and highways, to privatize all schools, to privatize all mail delivery and, eventually, the repeal of all taxation'.

Such political ambitions never got very far, although the family did purchase the Republican senator Bob Dole's friendship with $245,000 in contributions and David served as vice-chairman of Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

David's main contribution to the family firm was to try to launder its name, plastering it on everything from the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center to the Hall of Fossils at the National Museum of Natural History, via hundreds of millions in charitable contributions.

It was Charles who had the focus, ambition and business acumen - and it made almost everything he touched radioactive. Nothing was too trivial to feed the family's greed, starting with the systematic theft of oil by mis-measuring amounts removed from storage tanks.

A federal investigation of this massive scheme was dropped by Timothy Leonard, a US attorney chosen by Koch ally Don Nickles, an Oklahoma senator. Here, the author rather credulously accepts Nickles' denial of any political influence over his decision, made with his hand on 'a Bible that he said belonged to his grandfather, a Presbyterian minister'.

Though the feds declined to prosecute, the Koch's dissident brother Bill brought a civil suit based on the same set of facts. That led to Koch officials admitting they had earned roughly $10m in profits each year by taking oil without paying for it.

From this not-so-petty theft, the book proceeds to tales of massive pollution surrounding a Minnesota oil refinery, when retention ponds filled and the operators decided it was better to inundate the surrounding ground than send the ammonia-filled waters directly into a nearby river.

"A belief in the power of markets created a disdain for the government agencies tasked with regulating Koch," Leonard observes. The company paid nearly $20m in civil and criminal penalties but the fines, while historic, would not dent profitability.

The same refinery was the site of some of the Kochs' most successful union-busting. But the macro damage has been caused by their five-decade attack on FDR’s New Deal.

In 1974, Charles Koch explained: "The campaign should have four elements: education, media outreach, litigation and political influence."

When Congress finally began serious consideration of a carbon-control regime, the Koch brothers saw a mortal threat. Besides the thinktanks, university research institutes and industry trade associations they funded to turn out trash science debunking global warming, their spending on Washington lobbying exploded, from $2.19m in 2006 to $5.1m in 2007 and $20m in 2008.

"In 1998," Leonard writes, "the Koch Industries PAC spent just over $800,000. In 2006 it was $2m; in 2008, $2.6m." Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group run by the Kochs, funded the Tea Party and eliminated from Congress just about every moderate Republican. In 2007 it spent $5.7m, then $10.4m in 2009 and $17.5m in 2010.

That year, the Citizens United supreme court ruling removed many restrictions on corporate cash, making it possible for the Kochs and their allies to purchase the climate position of Congress. After the House passed a comprehensive carbon control measure at the beginning of the Obama administration, the Kochs made sure it died in the Senate.

Because the Kochs are nothing if not thorough, they did the same on the state level, lobbying legislatures to eliminate incentives for renewable fuels. This ensured constant growth in the huge family fortune.

Leonard writes: During the Obama years - the years when Americans for Prosperity warned repeatedly about the threat of creeping socialism - Charles and David Koch's fortune more than doubled once again. At the end of the Obama administration, Charles Koch was worth $42bn. Together, Charles and David were worth $84bn, a fortune larger than Bill Gates.

Kochland makes it abundantly clear that everything that has been great for Koch industries has been catastrophic for America. And yet Leonard seems oddly ambivalent.

Leonard concludes that Koch will show his 'market-based management' philosophy was not just a guidebook for operating companies, 'but for operating entire societies. The proper shape of American society was the shape of Kochland.'

This is a very strange way to end a book about the wholesale pollution of land, air and water and the evisceration of American democracy.


Koch Industries, a private company, is the United States' 17th-largest producer of greenhouse gases and the 13th-biggest water polluter, according to research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst - ahead of oil giants Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum and Phillips 66. The conglomerate has committed hundreds of environmental, workplace safety, labor and other violations. It allegedly stole oil from Indian reservations, won business in foreign countries with bribery, and one of its crumbling butane pipelines killed two teenagers, resulting in a nearly $300m wrongful death settlement. The dangerous methane leakage, carbon emissions, chemical spills and other environmental injustices enacted by Koch's companies have imperiled the planet and allegedly brought cancer to many people. But it took Koch's own struggle with the disease for him to care about cancer and fund research to combat it.

This is the tragic mindset of many a rightwing oligarch: The toils, the woes, the maladies of humankind are irrelevant - unless they happen to me, or perhaps my close family members. I've never struggled to live on $7.25 per hour, so why is it a problem? An ailment has never caused me to go bankrupt, so why would anyone possibly need government subsidies to pay for life-saving medical care? Climate change has never directly affected my life so I'll keep on denying that humans have anything to do with it. Even though I inherited a business and a fortune, I earned every cent of my astronomical net worth. If you worked as hard as I have, you would have what I have, too.

Koch epitomized this grotesquely selfish mentality during his 1980 vice presidential campaign on the Libertarian ticket, when he ran on abolishing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, welfare benefits, the minimum wage and the Environmental Protection Agency. He put $2m of his own money into the effort and campaigned to ax all campaign finance laws so he and his brother could maximize their bloated political influence without any pesky rules attempting to honor the constitutional premise of American elections: 'One person, one vote.'

It is this cruel mindset that was the real cancer plaguing David Koch. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would spread itself into university curricula, the halls of Congress, regulatory agencies, and the White House. It possessed the unfathomably rich who came before him, and it will infect the opulent oligarchs who come after him. It is the cult of anarcho-capitalism, the faithful worship of the divine free market that has shined so brightly on Koch and his family. If only we could do away with government altogether, we’d become a true utopian society: a handful of corporate monarchs ruling over billions of wretched serfs who toil away until their deaths, faithfully adding zeros to the quarterly revenues of the select few at their own fatal expense.

Not only did Koch help unleash countless metric tons of greenhouse gases from the earth, he was a key funder of climate change denialism, stiff-arming scientists in order to further plunder the earth he was destroying. Revelations in Christopher Leonard's new book, Kochland, show that Koch played an even greater role in funding climate change denialism than we previously knew. As we careen towards a climate catastrophe that seems more and more likely to happen within the next 11 years, we can rightly pin a portion of the blame on David and his brother.

With Charles, David funded and participated in a network of free-market thinktanks that produced academic literature in support of slashing taxes and gutting regulations in order to aid mega-corporations like Koch Industries. These ideological centers include the Cato Institute, which the Kochs founded and where David was a longtime board member; the American Enterprise Institute, where he was a member of its National Council; George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies; and the Heritage Foundation. Now alumni of the Koch academic and policy network have become government administrators, regulatory officials, political advisers and lifetime judges.

In 1984, David co-founded the predecessor to the non-profit Americans for Prosperity (AFP), among the first of many political major groups the brothers would fund and operate. The Kochs increased their political spending and engagement over decades, using AFP and other groups to publicize the thinktanks' laissez-faire policy proposals and pressure members of Congress to support them. In 2009, AFP helped get the allegedly grassroots Tea Party off the ground, as it and other Koch network organizations began years of campaigning against President Obama's effort to give millions of low-income Americans health insurance and expanded Medicaid. David has funded research into cancer therapies but appears to believe that only the financially secure deserve treatment.

Spending by the Kochs' political groups and campaign donations from the Kochs and their company's Pac made a wave of rightwing ideologues into lawmakers at the state and federal levels. The Tea Party sweep in 2010, a phenomenon that laid the groundwork for a rightwing nationalist president, would not have been nearly what it was without the Koch largesse. Now the Koch political network claims to be distressed at President Trump's cruel immigration policies and tariff wars, yet the network championed the contemporary far-right movement that has seated countless lawmakers who revel in anti-immigrant and nationalist policymaking.

In the current decade, while Koch-backed state legislators made sweetheart deals with oil and gas companies and crippled the progress of solar companies, Koch beneficiaries in the House and Senate were cutting taxes, undoing federal regulations, and doing all they could to kick millions of Americans off of their health care coverage.

When you walk around Cambridge, Massachusetts, you'll pass by MIT's David H Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research or the David H Koch Childcare Center. When taking in upper-crust Manhattan arts and culture, you'll come across Lincoln Center's David H Koch Theater. For those who don't know about Koch's business and political operations, he must seem like a generous man.

Koch may have kept some arts institutions on life support, bolstered the Natural History Museum's dinosaur exhibition, or employed cancer researchers, but we must not let these philanthropic acts cover for a billionaire whose corporate greed has gravely endangered the future of the planet and the human species. This is the point of these seemingly magnanimous contributions: to cast the Kochs in a positive light, deflecting criticism of Koch Industries' shameful business practices and defending the legacy of a heartless robber baron.

What was the prime motivator behind the life and career of Koch, an MIT-educated chemical engineer who denied the existence, and the harms, of man-made climate change? Was it his extreme distaste for authority, birthed during his youth under a strict, Nazi-supporting nanny and an often absent father? Was it a religious commitment to free-market capitalism and an honest belief that the market, if truly unfettered, will solve every daunting problem for humanity? Was it a sincere belief that, although he and his brother were born to a wealthy oil executive, every single poor and working-class person could pull themselves up from nothing, with no help from anyone, in a drastically unequal society, if they just tried harder?

I don't think it was any of these explanations. The answer is very simple. It was greed, the blind pursuit of horrifying wealth and power. An addiction that has left the country less equal and the planet endangered.

David Koch died as the eleventh-richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $51bn. His name is plastered on the facades of New England cancer centers and Manhattan hospitals and performance halls. But these historical imprints are temporary and relatively inconsequential compared to his lasting legacy, something far more significant, and terrifying. Koch's never-ending quest for obscene wealth no matter the consequence - and that of his brother, his fellow oligarchs and his political allies - will be part of every future climate change-intensified weather disaster; every city undone by catastrophic sea level rise; every animal species that goes extinct because of warmer waters, desertification, or biblical floods; and every desperate climate refugee.

Death and destruction. That is David Koch's legacy.

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