Have We Reached Peak Greed? A Review of Dark Money by Jane Mayer
The 80’s are back, or maybe they never went away, at least in regards to greed. Gordon Gekko may have said “greed is good” in the movie Wall Street, but were we supposed to take that as advice or an indictment? It’s hard to tell, given how much greed has been the basis of many stories in the news lately, including Elizabeth Holmes and the rise and eventual fall of her company Theranos, Billy McFarland in the Fyre Festival debacle, Operation Varsity Blues that snagged 49 parents in a college admissions scandal that included Hollywood actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, and even, or most troubling, the continuing violations of the Emoluments Clause by the First Family.
But perhaps no name is as synonymous with greed and political dark machinations as Koch, specifically Charles and David. Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, delves into the unseen finances that steer our politics. Mayer is a fabulous writer, and the book is well-researched, thorough, and worth a read. While I had read a number of articles that had given me a hint of the length of the tentacles with which the Kochs have entangled our politics, I had no idea of the breadth.*
Mayer starts at the beginning, when the Kochs, and specifically their father Fred, got their money. Although it’s not part of the company’s common lore—or in Charles’s book, The Science of Success, Fred Koch set up fifteen modern refineries under Stalin’s Russia, and also worked for Germany during Hitler’s reign, providing engineering plans and overseeing the construction of an oil refinery. Over the years, the Kochs made money in refining and distributing petroleum, chemicals and energy, fertilizers, pulp and paper, ranching, finance, and commodities trading. They currently own Invista (Dupont’s textile division, which creates Lycra and Stainmaster carpet), Georgia Pacific (Dixie cups, Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern toilet paper), and are the largest owners in the Athabasca oil sands. Koch Industries is the second largest company in the U.S.
Mayer doesn’t just introduce us to the Kochs, but also to other scions of wealth who have created and given to groups with similar philosophies over the past century, including Richard Mellon Scaife (Mellon banking, Alcoa aluminum, and Gulf Oil), John Olin (arms to pharmaceuticals), Joe Coors (beer!), and the Bradley brothers (Lynde and Harry of Allen-Bradley defense contractors). There is also a cast of characters in the book whom we’ve met more recently, including Betsy and Dick DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Robert Mercer, and Mike Pompeo (the single largest recipient of Koch campaign funds in Congress). An interesting aside: while Trump has claimed to be a billionaire, he’d never run with this crowd before his election, perhaps because he’s not really all that rich?
What do they want?
The Kochs believe in a strict libertarian view of the world (with the exception of supporting candidates who want to control women’s bodies). Their ideology comes not only from their father, who was one of the original members of the John Birch Society, but from a program called the Freedom School, which called for repeal of all campaign finance laws and abolition of the Federal Elections Commission, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, EPA, FBI, CIA, FDA, OHSA, any laws impeding employment–including minimum wage and child labor laws, and public schools and the compulsory education of children. At their fundamental level, the Kochs are opposed to all income and corporate taxes. In fact, it was opposition to tax laws that “spur[red] the funding of the modern conservative movement.”
Despite their hostility to government, “Koch industries took full advantage of a panoply of federal subsidies, ranging from artificially low grazing fees on the 40 percent of their 500,000 acres of cattle ranches that used federal lands, to a deal with the Bush Administration in 2002 to sell eight million barrels of crude oil to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve." In the end, it seems that they care only about their own wealth, which they wrap with the American flag, and hang words on it like liberty and individual rights to make it more palatable to the non-billionaire class.
How do they do it?
They are effective in three easy steps:
Invest in intellectuals whose ideas serve as the “raw products."
Invest in think tanks that turn these ideas into marketable policies.
Subsidize “citizens” groups that, along with special interests, pressure elected officials to implement the policies.
For the Kochs, the role of think tanks is to “introduce doubt into areas of settled academic and scientific scholarship, undermine genuinely unbiased experts, and give politicians a menu of conflicting statistics and arguments from which to choose.” They try to create artificial “balance” based on fraudulent research and “deceive the public about pressing issues in which their sponsors had financial interests.” The rise of citizens groups was especially evident during the Obama years, when the Kochs “radicalized and organized an unruly movement of malcontents over which by 2016 they had lost control.” It was also evidenced in 2010, with what appeared to be a “rash of spontaneous attacks” on Democrats throughout the country, which was in fact from a small group that was centrally coordinated. This stemmed from a desire to radicalize the right in politics, a sense of waging asymmetric warfare and electing representatives for whom governing was not the reason they were elected. This was evident during their first official leadership retreat in January 2009, when deciding how to organize and rule, “The House Republicans chose to emulate the Taliban.”
They have been behind strong pro-business, anti-regulation legislation, and the transformation of state governments from blue or purple to deep red. Rather than funding pro-Libertarian or Republican campaigns directly, a growing number of private conservative foundations and donors had begun directing their contributions through organizations called DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which are screens for mostly right-wing money to be donated and funneled into their causes while allowing it to be hidden from public scrutiny. “Despite their predictions that Obama would prove catastrophic to the American economy, Charles’s and David’s personal fortunes had nearly tripled during his presidency from $14 billion a piece in March 2009 to $41.6 billion each in March 2015.” So while they were behind organizations that vilified Obama and his work to pass the ACA, they didn’t lose a penny under his presidency.
SCOTUS and the Citizens United decision have taken us down the path to where we are. With Citizens United, “SCOTUS sent a message to the wealthy and their political operatives that when it came to raising and spending money, they now could act with impunity.” The Kochs were able to increase their fundraising from $13 million in 2009 to almost $900 million at a single fundraising session in the years to follow. But even before Citizens United, the Kochs have been influencing politics for decades. From 2005-2008 alone, they “poured almost $25 million into dozens of different organizations fighting climate reform.”
The Environmental Fight
This leads us to the largest threat of Dark Money. Environmental regulations are not just an ideological battle for the Kochs, but a personal one. They’ve been sued under the Clean Air Act, and have faced a number of lawsuits and investigations into their corporate practices. “By the time Obama took office some of the biggest bankrollers of the war against climate change science had, if anything, gone further underground,” which made it harder than ever to recognize the moneyed interests behind the messages.
Scientists have discovered as recently as 2008 that if “the world were to stay within the range of carbon emissions deemed reasonable in order for atmospheric temperatures to remain tolerable through the midcentury, 80 percent of the fossil fuel industry’s reserves would have to stay unused in the ground.” That would be intolerable to corporations like the Koch’s, since the fossil fuel industry “owned roughly five times more oil, gas, and coal than the planet could safely burn.“ This means that so long as corporate interests are making the rules, we will see little to no curb on emissions that contribute to a hotter planet. As climate change affects crops, resources and livability, the poor and middle class will inevitably struggle more than the super rich. We may have twelve years to address the inevitable temperature rise, but given the challenges, we are going to have to understand that 2020 is a crucial election to determine if we will continue to allow corporations to set environmental standards that prioritize their bottom line. The Koch’s network “aimed to spend $889 million in the 2016 election cycle,” and there is no reason to believe they won’t spend as much in 2020.
No matter on which side of the aisle you stand, it’s easy to see that we’re in the midst of a crisis in our country. We knew it during the Occupy Wall Streetmovement which, while loosely organized (and I use the word organized generously here), showed us that people were angry. There is a huge sense of unfairness in the economy, and people aren’t dumb: they know they are being left behind, which makes it easy to blame someone else, often immigrants, women, and even the Swamp for what’s wrong. Or more likely, the unfairness gives license to justify cheating and graft to stay ahead. While the message Mayer shares is dense and depressing, it’s an important read, because knowledge is power, and we need power to mobilize to face humanity’s biggest challenges in the next decade.
*Dark Money is opaque—hence the moniker—which is why it’s so difficult to find where the Kochs, or Mercers, or DeVos families are spending their money. This is a partial, but not exhaustive, list of the organizations, nonprofits, and think tanks that are fueled with dark money:
60 Plus Association
American Enterprise Institute
American Future Fund
Americans for Job Security
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)
Americans for Limited Government
Americans for Prosperity
Americans for Tax Reform
Center to Protect Patient Rights
Center for Shared Services
Citizens for Congressional Reform
Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Concerned Women of America
Fair and Legal Redistricting for North Carolina
Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity
Government Leadership Foundation
John Locke Foundation
Mercatus Center at George Mason University (Also home to Scalia Law School)
Sam Adams Alliance
State Government Leadership Fund
State Policy Network
Loey Werking Wells is the NWGSD Resource Director.