Sunday, 5 September 2010

Koch redux

Best critique thus far of Mayer's hit-piece on the Kochs:
But consider also that the Koch brothers could devote large sums of money to lobbying for environmental regulations that benefit incumbent firms at the expense of new entrants, or that support opaque tax regulations that benefit the Kochs at the expense of less-wealthy individuals. Given that the accumulation of large amounts of money is essentially a positional competition, it stands to reason that high marginal tax rates are more of a problem for people trying to accumulate fortunes rather than people who have already accumulated fortunes.

That is, Koch philanthropy dedicated to giving grant money to graduate students interested in liberty — including several left-wing friends of mine, one of whom received a small sum to fund his research into David Hume’s moral philosophy — is a pretty darn indirect way to serve your economic interests. The same is true for making “investments” into shaping the broader ideological environment. You just don’t get very good bang for your buck relative to alternative uses.


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.


  1. I didn't like the treatment of Norman Barloug by the Ford foundations and others.

  2. Send link; I know nothing about this.