The Agenda

Jane Mayer and Frank Rich on the Kochs

Media criticism is not really my beat, but a friend was recently looking for a critique of a recent article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker. Do take it with a grain of salt. 

There are a number of articles on the Charles and David Koch’s philanthropic efforts in the works and two that have been published in recent months. Andrew Goldman published a fairly balanced, measured account that focused on David Koch in New York magazine in July. Goldman based his piece on a number of interviews with Koch, and extensive reporting on various sibling rivalries.

More recently, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, one of the most well-regarded investigative reporters of her generation, published a piece that was disappointing in contrast, yet that has nevertheless attracted a great deal of favorable attention, much of it from people who presumably haven’t read Goldman’s account. Mayer’s article has been echoed in a number of blog posts and columns, a powerful reflection of the remarkable, resilient influence of The New Yorker, which is best understood as one of the country’s leading cultural institutions. Frank Rich praised Mayer’s work in a characteristically intemperate column, and Mark Kleiman, the well-regarded scholar and blogger, favorably linked to a blog post by Kelly Kleiman that described Mayer’s article as “excellent.” 

As someone who admires but doesn’t always agree with Mayer, I’m afraid I can’t make sense of the praise. The central problem with the piece might be that Mayer seems to have gained very little access to the Koch’s inner circle: 

The Kochs and their political operatives declined requests for interviews. Instead, a prominent New York public-relations executive who is close with the Kochs put forward two friends: George Pataki, the former governor of New York, and Mortimer Zuckerman, the publisher and real-estate magnate. Pataki, a Republican who received campaign donations from David Koch, called him “a patriot who cares deeply about his country.” Zuckerman praised David’s “gentle decency” and the “range of his public interests.”

Mayer describes Goldman’s profile of David Koch as “admiring,” which could be a bit of a kneecap to a professional rival given that Goldman’s piece does a very good job of chronicling the extent of the Koch’s ideological philanthropy and he respectfully quotes at least one critic of Koch that the famously cool-headed libertarian public intellectual and media critic Julian Sanchez has called a “serial fabulist.” New York magazine also published a profile of Bruce Kovner, a hedge fund billionaire known for his dedication to both artistic and conservative causes in 2005, so it could be that the magazine had the institutional memory to make the piece work. I can’t really say. 

But Mayer’s piece is, for someone of her prodigious investigative talent, strangely thin. She draws heavily on sources like Brian Doherty’s excellent Radicals for Capitalism as well as interviews with Doherty, himself a talented narrative reporter. While reading the article, I wondered why The New Yorker didn’t commission Doherty, who, despite his libertarian leanings, seems pretty capable of maintaining critical distance from his subjects. My sense is that he would have made the most of the opportunity to reach such a broad audience. 

Mayer also quotes the same journalist quoted by Goldman, to almost exactly the same effect. There is a place for articles that rely heavily on secondary sources and interviews with other reporters. As someone who is deathly afraid of misquoting people, a fear that really destroys your ability to be a serious investigative journalist, it’s something I do all the time. Suffice it to say, this is not something we’ve come to expect from a Pulitzer nominee.

Rather oddly, one of Mayer’s main sources, if not her main source, for the article appears to be Gus diZerega, described in the article as “a former friend of Charles Koch.” How close is DiZerega to the Koch brothers?

 

David and Charles had absorbed their father’s conservative politics, but they did not share all his views, according to diZerega, who befriended Charles in the mid-sixties, after meeting him while browsing in a John Birch Society bookstore in Wichita. Charles eventually invited him to the Kochs’ mansion, to participate in an informal political-discussion group. “It was pretty clear that Charles thought some of the Birch Society was bullshit,” diZerega recalled.

DiZerega, who has lost touch with Charles, eventually abandoned right-wing views, and became a political-science professor. He credits Charles with opening his mind to political philosophy, which set him on the path to academia; Charles is one of three people to whom he dedicated his first book. But diZerega believes that the Koch brothers have followed a wayward intellectual trajectory, transferring their father’s paranoia about Soviet Communism to a distrust of the U.S. government, and seeing its expansion, beginning with the New Deal, as a tyrannical threat to freedom. In an essay, posted on Beliefnet, diZerega writes, “As state socialism failed . . . the target for many within these organizations shifted to any kind of regulation at all. ‘Socialism’ kept being defined downwards.”

Keep in mind that DiZerega, a left-of-center political scientist who doesn’t appear to have any special insights into the Kochs, is quoted several times in the piece. Incredibly, DiZerega is used to lend credence to a pretty strong claim:

Gus diZerega, the former friend, 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.”

Imagine if a former childhood friend of yours who came to embrace very different politics from your own were asked questions about your ideological proclivities, your self-servingness, and much else besides. Imagine also that this friend had been approached by The New Yorker magazine, by a celebrated reporter who seemed keenly interested in the notion that the Koch brothers were orchestrating a right-wing revival with their vast sums of money. 

The rest of that paragraph is also worth a look:

Of course, Democrats give money, too. Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America. Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s. But 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.” The Kochs have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry.

Consider that Vachon’s words aren’t given any critical examination. Soros has donated large sums to transparency and civil society in central and eastern Europe. Like many Americans who favor the legalization of soft drugs and the promotion of high school debate, I have benefited from Soros’s largesse. A number of my friends have received grants and scholarships and fellowships funded by Soros. One assumes that Soros’s efforts will make the region more hospitable for business investment, among other things. Now, this might sound like a pretty extended connection to Soros’s business interests.

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.

Mayer speaks to a respected STS professor at UCSD:

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, is the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” a new book that chronicles various attempts by American industry to manipulate public opinion on science. She noted that the Kochs, as the heads of “a company with refineries and pipelines,” have “a lot at stake.” She added, “If the answer is to phase out fossil fuels, a different group of people are going to be making money, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re fighting tooth and nail.”

But again, does this actually reflect what we know about political economy? In the absence of the Kochs, is it easy to imagine that we would “phase out fossil fuels” given the existence of states like West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana? And is it difficult to imagine that a privately-held company sitting on a vast ocean of capital would learn how to game a congeries of subsidies devoted to alternative energy technologies? One wonders if Professor Oreskes is a victim of confirmation bias, or a simple failure to understand the logic of competitive strategy in a regulated marketplace. 

Frank Rich writes in a similar vein:

All three tycoons [the third is Rupert Murdoch, a subject we’ve addressed] 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.

I’ve actually read Invisible Hands, and I’m sorry to say that it is not as strong a work as Angus Burgin’s The Return of Laissez-Faire, a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press that covers similar ground with much greater success, or Steven Teles’s The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, a highly impressive and rigorous treatment of conservative and libertarian efforts to create an alternative legal public interest network. I’m not sure how knowledgeable Rich is on this general subject — I get the impression that the answer is not very — but he might also profit from reading, on the grassroots front, Kevin Kruse’s brilliant White Flight, possibly the best book ever written on the history of grassroots conservatism. Kruse draws a direct line from the battle against desegregation to contemporary conservatism, a thesis conservatives and libertarians might find discomfiting but that nevertheless rests on careful scholarship that demands our attention and respect.

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. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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