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Have you heard of the Koch Brothers?

(Article Image Credits: Jeff Danziger)

The richest people shaping politics in the US whom you never knew, you never knew.

First things first – Have you heard about the protests in Wisconsin?

2nd March, Wednesday. About 8.30 pm in Tucson, Arizona. I am in class, paying attention like a ‘good Asian student’, scribbling down notes dutifully and voicing my opinions at appropriate intervals. The class discussion turns towards the allowance of ‘concealed-guns-on-campuses’ bill, SB1467. Two months after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is shot and bystanders, including a 9-year old girl, were killed, it appears counter-intuitive that Arizona State legislation would take (and would score the necessary political support to take) such a turn.

Somebody then mentions the Baja Arizona idea. In late February 2011, the Daily Wildcat, a campus newspaper, featured an article titled “Baja Arizona: 51st state a first-rate idea“. It takes up the ideas of “Start Our State“, an ‘insurgent group’ which suggests that Southern Arizona should break away from Northern Arizona and form its own state (Baja Arizona). “The primary reason for this, according to group co-chairman Paul Eckerstrom, is that the heavily liberal population of Southern Arizona is fed up with Republican-dominated state politics.” The Daily Wildcat writer adds, “If even Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city, is unable to make a dent in the tide of conservative politics, then it’s clear the system of representation is broken beyond repair, and the only solution is to scrap it and start over.”

To this, one of my classmates noted that in Wisconsin too ‘things are changing’. My professor, who is from Wisconsin, shook his head slightly and says that they have a long tradition of unions.

I interrupt, asking, “What is happening in Wisconsin?” The whole class looks at me, and I am genuinely bewildered, having just read The Guardian online the night before, as well as on my handphone right before class started. I did not see anything on Wisconsin. You don’t know about it Chewy? my professor asks, Well, then that just reinforces my point that the media is not giving it due coverage, for fear of the protests spreading.

Media Coverage of the Protests in Wisconsin

The next day I return to the Guardian online site expressly to search for those elusive articles on Wisconsin. The main page has none. I click on News – US, and there are none. I click on ‘Commentary is Free’- US, and find one article on protests in Ohio. I go to the New York Times online site. Earlier, on my phone, I had seen one article at the bottom of the main page on Wisconsin. By the time I managed to get on my computer to find it again however, the NYT main page was quite devoid of any articles on the protests at all. I am stumped; clearly, I have to reconfigure my daily news sources and reading diet.

It is not that the media is not covering the protests in Wisconsin at all – but effective media coverage in the US at least, in my view, is as much about volume as it is about substantive coverage. That week, more prime-time slots and the bulk of the US national attention were given to Charlie Sheen and his crazy antics (whatever they were about, I am still not too sure) than to Libya and the rest of the Middle East, or more significantly, to a pertinent domestic issue, the teacher protests  – not just in Wisconsin but also in other cities in midwest.

In the March 2nd episode of The Colbert Report, it was shown that the Fox News coverage of the Wisconsin protests had re-used footage from more violent protests in California (the palm trees in the background gave Fox News away). Bill O’Reilly at Fox News had apparently issued an apology – but how many viewers who had seen the footage and believed it to be on-the-ground footage of Wisconsin would have followed-up on the report and the apology? And anyway, why portray the teacher protests as violent?

Protestors at the Rotunda at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin on Feb 16th. (Mark Hirsch/Getty Images)

In this New York Times’ article, “Teachers Wonder, Why the scorn?“, the writer notes the often scathing comments from counter-demonstrators – “Oh you pathetic teachers, read the online comments and placards of counterdemonstrators. You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.” What had begun as an ostensibly ‘economic reform’ targeted at teachers’ unions has gradually transmogrified into a kind of “character attack” to this section of American society – teachers are people who wage violent protests (thanks to borrowed footage from the West Coast) and they are undeserving of their economic benefits, and indeed treat these privileges as ‘rights’. The ‘war’ is waged on multiple fronts, economic, political, social, psychological even — or at least one gets this sort of picture from reading these articles.

I should qualify – at least I got this picture from reading these articles. Lots of others who read these same articles may well conclude something wholly different – that unions ought to be ‘broken’, and teachers’ pay reformed to cut the state budget. This is not too surprising.

In fact, as Singaporeans with a uniquely Singaporean work ethic, we may perceive functioning ‘trade unions’ as those institutions in the so-called “West” where they amass lots of membership, then hold the government ‘hostage’ in order to negotiate higher wages and benefits. Think of trade unions in the Singaporean context, and I think of SIA pilots. And of LKY’s various firm and stern comments on those issues. Think of trade unions and I think of strikes in France, in South Korea, when I was younger, and of my mum saying, “How irresponsible!” before flipping the TV channel.

But there is a reason why I hesitate to buy into the anti-teacher-union rhetoric just for the moment, and that brings me to the Koch brothers.

Finally, to the point of this article. Have you heard of the Koch Brothers?

The reason why I think the teachers’ protests should not be seen solely as an issue about trade-unions, and evaluated myopically and naively in terms of whether trade unions are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is because the protests feature in a larger political context with the billionaire Koch brothers at the helm, financing and directing much of what has transpired in recent weeks. Or at least according to certain articles which I present here.

In this NYT article entitled “Billionaire Brothers’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute“, the writer noted that Koch Industries had been “one of the biggest contributors to the election campaign of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican who has championed the proposed cuts.” Further, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group financed by the Koch brothers, had reportedly addressed counter-demonstrators last Saturday saying that “the cuts were not only necessary, but they also represented the start of a much-needed nationwide move to slash public-sector union benefits.” and in his own words -“ ‘We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation’ ”. All this rhetoric would be more convincing to me if they weren’t funded by the same two billionaires who financially enabled Walker’s governorship.

I now refer you to a long piece by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker titled, “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama“. According to her, “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.”

(The Koch Brothers, off Google Images.)

Mayer’s article depicts the Koch brothers as billionaires with an ideological mission, and all the wealth at hand to materialize their libertarian vision. Standing in their way, at least as far as the article is concerned, is the Obama administration; after painting the Koch brothers’ ideological picture Mayer then shows how the Obama administration has been thwarted and hemmed in repeatedly by these oil billionaires.

She first traces their ideological roots and influences to Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David Koch (the billionaires in question) who instilled his political beliefs in his sons. David Koch is quoted as saying ‘ “It’s something I grew up with—a fundamental point of view that big government was bad, and imposition of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good.” ‘ The Koch brothers subscribe to philosopher-thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek, author of “The Road to Serfdom” and Robert LeFevre, both of whom are virulently anti-government. Mayer writes, quoting Brian Doherty of Reason, ‘ “Charles’s goal, as Doherty described it, was to tear the government “out at the root.”’

Their libertarian modus operandi involves great expenses in lobbying, in political contributions and in setting up think tanks. From 2006-2010, Koch Industries have led energy companies in political contributions; “[i]n the second quarter of 2010, David Koch was the biggest individual contributor to the Republican Governors Association, with a million-dollar donation.” More statistics, or at least those of the non-anonymous donation records, can be found on page 5 of Mayer’s piece.

Naturally, the Democrats also have their billionaire donors, most notably in the form of George Soros. Mayer writes that he has made ‘generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s.” Yet what distinguishes him from the Koch brothers here is, as Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued, ‘that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that “none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.” ‘ Of course, this must be taken with a healthy dose of salt, but I will note here that in Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job, which was about the 2008 financial crisis, George Soros was one of those interviewed who was not portrayed negatively. (My review of it is here.)

Of the Koch brothers’ political investments, what interested me more was the US’ “first libertarian thinktank”, the Cato Institute. Mayer writes, ‘When President Obama, in a 2008 speech, described the science on global warming as “beyond dispute,” the Cato Institute took out a full-page ad in the Times to contradict him. Cato’s resident scholars have relentlessly criticized political attempts to stop global warming as expensive, ineffective, and unnecessary. Ed Crane, the Cato Institute’s founder and president, told [Mayer] that “global-warming theories give the government more control of the economy.” ‘

Such reasoning, wherein anything and everything is whittled down inexorably to a political agenda (real or imagined), should scream out at readers as telltale signs of political waffle and a distorted, unhealthy worldview, akin to that of conspiracy theorists’. I wonder if there is a word for such an irrational obsession with attributing the cause of all phenomena to “the government”. This also reminds me of Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon — due to prolonged and persistent Western imperial interference with domestic politics since the Qajar period, there had been a tendency for Iranians to instinctively default upon blaming the “British” or the “West” for anything wrong in their country. Pezeshkzad’s novel recasts this conspiracy theorist culture in a comedic and entertaining light. Much less amusing for me though are billionaire-financed political-propagandandistic think tanks .

(Obtained via Guardian: photo by Gus Ruelas/Greenpeace)

Mayer continues to flesh out the various moves by the Koch brothers to trip up the Obama administration. “Soon after Obama assumed office, Americans for Prosperity launched “Porkulus” rallies against Obama’s stimulus-spending measures.” These rallies proved instrumental in tilting the political balance in favour of the Republicans, and also in discouraging donors to the Democrats.

‘ The Republican leadership in Congress, [Norquist, a conservative lobbyist] said, “couldn’t have done it without August, when people went out on the streets. It discouraged deal-makers”—Republicans who might otherwise have worked constructively with Obama. Moreover, the appearance of growing public opposition to Obama affected corporate donors on K Street. “K Street is a three-billion-dollar weathervane,” Norquist said. “When Obama was strong, the Chamber of Commerce said, ‘We can work with the Obama Administration.’ But that changed when thousands of people went into the street and ‘terrorized’ congressmen. August is what changed it. Now that Obama is weak, people are getting tough.” ‘ K Street refers to a major street in Washington, D.C. where major think tanks, lobbyists and advocacy groups are located.

In sum, with recent developments as the Citizens United case where corporations are now ‘persons’ and have no caps in political contributions, the Koch brothers are ever better-positioned to take down their perceived big, bad government and carry out their ideological agenda as sketched in Mayer’s piece.

The Prank Call

Below, I have embedded a 58-second  news clip regarding journalist Ian Murphy‘s prank call to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, posing as David Koch. A bill was soon passed in Wisconsin banning prank calls. Click here for Ian Murphy’s article on it and the full phone conversation.

So what?

Why did I think it important and worthwhile in writing an article that is essentially a summary of various news articles on the web, with emphasis on the Koch brothers? Firstly, a straw poll amongst close friends and family in Singapore revealed that while some might have heard of the Wisconsin protests, nobody had heard of the Koch brothers. If this sample is in any way indicative of the greater population, then my writing this would shed some light; if not, at least I will be able to present this complex picture to these friends and family members.

Further, with much important news around the world jostling for our attention – earthquake in Japan, Middle East revolutions – the passing of an anti-union bill (which finally happened today, for better or for worse) in an American state is unlikely to make a headline able to compete with natural disasters and revolutions. Then, to quote Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker during that prank call conversation, “Sooner or later the media stops finding it [the teacher protests] interesting.”

In addition, there is a sinister sense in these developments and the sinister element is due in large part to the secrecy and covert nature (recall the title of Mayer’s piece) of these billionaires’ maneuvers. Some people have viewed these developments in terms of a ‘class warfare’. Seen from the Koch brothers’ viewpoint, it is an ideological and philosophical battle for ‘freedom’; seen from the protesters’ viewpoint, it is anything but.

It is ironic that these billionaires are so gripped with their libertarian ideology and the ‘badness’ of government. ‘ “Gus diZerega, the former friend [of Charles Koch], suggested that the Kochs’ youthful idealism about libertarianism had largely devolved into a rationale for corporate self-interest. He said of Charles, “Perhaps he has confused making money with freedom.”’ That quote really sums up the Koch brothers for me.

What remains more puzzling for me is why the American public seems to buy into the Koch-funded libertarian rhetoric. Mayer writes, ‘ “Income inequality in America is greater than it has been since the nineteen-twenties, and since the seventies the tax rates of the wealthiest have fallen more than those of the middle class. Yet the brothers’ message has evidently resonated with voters: a recent poll found that fifty-five per cent of Americans agreed that Obama is a socialist.” I suppose that not knowing who is funding the political rhetoric makes it easier for the public to imbibe it.

(What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank was recommended to me by my professor when I asked why lately, the Americans seemed to be voting against their interests. I pass on this recommendation here.)


2nd March, Wednesday night – we were reviewing a primary source document regarding the decline of the Ottoman Empire just prior to the turn in our classroom discussion to contemporary American politics. The primary source was an extract from Mehmed Pasha’s The Book of Counsel for Viziers and Governors; he was the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman empire and was greatly disturbed by the failings, corruption and slow degeneration of the empire he was witnessing. These observations and his recommendations to counter them were noted down in this book.

My classmate observed that while she was reading the source, she had thought of the current state of the US and about how they were in decline too. This was what prompted the turn in our class discussion, with which I began the article.

Koh Choon Hwee is an NUS undergraduate currently on exchange at the University of Arizona. Go to Democracy Now for more news on the protests.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Witness the Uprisings in Wisconsin and the Midwest: Tune in to Democracy Now | the kent ridge common

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