Streetwise Professor

March 2, 2011

Who Made Whom? Or, Do Things Go Worse With Koch?

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 1:02 pm

The apoplexy on the left over the Koch brothers, the Koch foundation, and anything Koch is quite a spectacle.  They have joined Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as the betes noir of the progressive set.  This apoplexy is informative, but not quite in the way they think.

Part of the attack on the Kochs is Alinskyite picking, freezing, personalizing and polarizing.  But part of it reflects the fact that certain kinds of people are really incapable of comprehending spontaneous, emergent, unplanned social and political movements.  They are prone to what Thomas Sowell called (in Knowledge and Decisions) the “animist fallacy”: the belief that there is a conscious human or human-like agency behind every action who intends that action to occur.  In politics, this fallacy tends to lead people to think along conspiratorial lines: and especially today, the paranoid style of American politics is not the monopoly of the Bircher right.

Indeed, the current political environment is a serious challenge to progressives, even those who are not necessarily prone to political animism.  In particular, the Tea Party movement generates severe cognitive dissonance within the progressive left.  The thought that a spontaneous, broad-based, grass roots political movement could be predominately bourgeois (an alliance of the entrepreneurial and middle-middle and lower-middle classes), libertarian and anti-statist rather than proletarian, minority-dominated and avowedly statist (if not truly socialist) is outside their mental universe.  The idea is utterly alien–hence the need to find an alternative explanation.

Thus, personalizing the broad anti-establishment movement (and yes, the Tea Party movement is clearly anti-establishment, if you understand what the current establishment is, and don’t cling to 1960s tropes) that has completely upset the political equilibrium in the US (thereby discomfiting both parties) meets the needs of the Alinskyite left, the animist left, and the cognitively dissonant left.  As the most prominent long term funders of libertarian activities and entities, the Kochs are the natural boys to put on the posters. The early and rather generous support that the Kochs have provided to Tea Party-inspired candidates and groups feeds the villain narrative perfectly.

It’s pretty clear, however, that the Kochs are riding a wave that they did not create.  A glance at the timeline–one which many on the left have documented–completely undercuts the case that they are the fathers of the Tea Party movement, rather than (likely surprised) beneficiaries of its unexpected rise.  For this timeline shows that the Kochs have been giving to libertarian causes for decades.  They founded the Cato Institute in 1977.  They gave millions to it in the 1980s and 1990s.  Even their more recent endeavors, like the Americans for Prosperity Foundation are hardly new: APF dates from 2004.

So the Kochs spent on their causes for years, with virtually nothing tangible politically to show for it.  Indeed, until 2010, the conventional wisdom was that the political momentum was all in the other direction: witness 2008 and the resulting narrative that the country had moved left and that Obama was creating a new political dynamic–one definitely not to the Kochs’ taste.

Well, Obama (with a major boost from the economic fallout from the crisis) created a new political dynamic, all right.  It was just diametrically opposed to the one everyone thought he was creating.  The backlash against his progressive onslaught served to catalyze and coordinate the spontaneous emergence of a movement that was broadly in sympathy with many of the things the Kochs had been advocating and funding for years.  You can argue over whether these libertarian, anti-government tendencies were latent in a large part of the body politic but required something to turn an inchoate set of individuals into a more cohesive collective movement, or whether the events of the past couple of years have significantly altered the views of large numbers of people.  But you can’t really argue with the proposition that Obama (and the Congressional Democrats) have transformed American politics in entirely unintended ways.

Surely the Kochs consider this a beneficial development.  Surely the Kochs are quite pleased that they have new groups and candidates and issues that they can fund with realistic hopes that this money will translate into concrete political, legal, legislative, and regulatory changes.

But the Kochs’ many years in the political wilderness–the political fringes–demonstrates that their money and support was most decidedly not a sufficient condition to achieve their political and ideological goals.  They spent much to no effect before.  They are spending now, but even then the main political dynamic is not of their creation, and they can only affect it in the most marginal way.  That dynamic is now driven by the nation’s fiscal position, its economic difficulties, and the polarizing influence of Obama.  The Kochs are merely along for the ride.  Indeed, it is likely that the success of the Tea Party movement is not necessarily tied in any serious way to what the Kochs do.

In other words, the Kochs didn’t make the Tea Party.  The Tea Party made the Kochs.  In attacking this personification of a movement that they do not really comprehend but deeply fear, the progressive left is wasting its time and energy on something of peripheral importance.  If they want to find their real foe, well, it is them: for the anti-government dynamic that they loath is not the creation of the Brothers Koch, but is instead a reaction to them and what they believe.

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  1. Professor –

    We rarely disagree substantively on many issues, but I have to step in on yoru latest post. You claim “It’s pretty clear, however, that the Kochs are riding a wave that they did not create.” I respectfully disagree.

    Charlie Koch, for all of his “lucky sprem club” fortune in life has indeed done a lot to attract vehement opposition to his business dealings. Our dear friend Charlie has (in my humble opinion) long been a certified asshole to both work for and to deal with. He tried to establish Koch Capital Markets as a viable financial organization in Houston and the group made so many missteps and decisions based on arrogance they suffered 300% turnover in the last year or so of its existence. Charles Koch is known by many to be a arrogant pr*ck and has left a train of many individuals with particular grudges against him and his family of companies. There are legions of talented professionals who wouldn’t work for Charlie Koch for any amount of money. In many circles, his organization is considered anything but pristine or honorable. The Tea Party needs to dissassociate itself from the Koch brothers (much like the Koch brothers have disassociated themselves from each other). Charlie Koch is most certainly (in my humble opinion) acting in the interests of Charlie Koch, not in the interests of the country, any political entity or any other human being. (again, in my humble opinion) It is not in Charlie Koch’s DNA to give a crap about anyone or anything other than Charlie Koch.

    Comment by Charles — March 2, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  2. What I just read there is you telling us that you think the Kochs did create the wave they are now riding, and then proceeding to explain how Charlie is such a terrible person that no one in their right mind would be associated with him. Seems to be a bit of a disconnect there.

    Comment by Gordon — March 2, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

  3. @Charles–Don’t read my post as an endorsement of the Kochs. Far from it. I was thinking of including a disclaimer to that effect, but thought it would sound weasely. I instinctively distrust *anybody* who is throwing around money for political causes. My default assumption is that it is done for purely self-interested reasons, and that there are agendas at work. What I know of the Kochs (dating back to the time of the lurid inheritance battles in the 90s) tells me it’s advisable to steer clear.

    But my post really isn’t about the Kochs. It’s about how others view the Kochs. Your point is basically that the Kochs are acting opportunistically. I don’t necessarily disagree. My point is that indeed, they are taking advantage of something that they didn’t create, whereas the left attempts to discredit the TP by claiming that it is a Koch creation. In the Kochs’ fantasies, maybe. It’s completely consistent to argue that (a) the TP should be wary of the Kochs, and perhaps disclaim any association, and (b) the left has the TP all wrong by making it out to be a creation of the Kochs. The post is mainly about the latter. In fact, the Kochs unpleasantness makes them perfect candidates to play the bogeymen in an anti-TP drama.

    I can’t tell you how many times in my life I have been offered seemingly attractive deals by rich guys. I’ve walked away every time because I am hyper-leery about the strings that are attached but not disclosed. So you’re preaching to the choir re being suspicious about Kochs bearing gifts.

    @ Gordon–a little unclear about who “you” is. I wrote about the Kochs not creating the wave; my old buddy Charles wrote about how terrible a guy Charlie is. There’s a disconnect because Charles and I aren’t connected 🙂 and neither of us are connected to Charlie. Hope that straightens everything out.

    And there is very often a disconnect between post and comments. Believe me. Read the comments re Russia some time if you have your doubts about that.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 2, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  4. Sorry. By “you” I meant Charlie the commenter. Charlie the commenter said he dissagrees with you, implying that the Kochs “did” create the wave that they are riding, then proceeded to talk about something completely differant, something that would lead one to conclude that creating the wave, for Charlie Koch, would be impossible. Anyway, this blog of yours is fantastic. I love coming here.

    Comment by Gordon — March 2, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

  5. The Koches may be long-known entities, whether loved or despised, in greater Houston, but to those of us in the rest of the nation, even those who are politically-aware conservatives, they were pretty much completely off the radar until that histrionic and conspiratorial New Yorkers article was published last year. Unless you were a full-blown professional wonk, or a card-carrying member of the big-L Libertarian Party, you’d never heard of them.

    Indeed, that’s why the article made such a splash on the left: It provided the Animist Liberals with an instantaneous Grand Unification Theory of What Destroyed the Grand New Progressive Order.

    Comment by Aaron — March 2, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

  6. @Aaron. Bingo–you win the prize. The left needed an explanation for the inexplicable (to them, anyways). That they had to excavate so deep to find the Kochs reveals just how desperate they are. If it hadn’t been the Kochs, it would have been somebody else, equally obscure, who has been beavering away in the wilderness for years. They had to have somebody, anybody, to explain away the implosion of the GNPO (great phrase btw).

    @ Gordon–much obliged. Really appreciate it.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 2, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

  7. @Gordon –

    Tell me exactly what “wave” you believe the Koch brothers are riding and I will tell you whether I believe they created it or not. Unquestionably, they are card carrying members of the lucky sperm club, but they are also one of the few examples of second generation wealth being grown and not squandered.

    I question whether the Tea Party really wants to be closely associated with the Koch brothers. Charlie, especially, has demonstrated values that would seem to be the opposite of those we want from our elected officials or those we want taught to our children. The Koch family (after Fred’s death) has a checkered history of inter-family litigation dealing with control of the firm. The firm itself has been found guilty of theft of oil from tens of thousands of customers, large scale environmental violations and various findings of negligence and malice that lead to needless deaths of various individuals.

    Ask anyone who ever worked in Houston for Koch Capital Markets just what it was like working as a professional for one of Charlie’s companies. How KCM treated employees is still discussed here in Houston (and not in glowing terms). I seriously doubt the Tea Party movement would want to be connected with the stories of KCM. I am a strong non-union guy and Charlie Koch is the best argument I have ever heard for unions (Literally, people talk about watching co-workers leave to go to lunch and not being sure whether the person would come back or just quit. Another guy claims to have a list of the 120 some odd people who walked through the door there in a 3 year span. The staff was around 40. That is 100% turnover a year for three years straight. If that doesn’t send warning signals, I don’t know what would). Thankfully, (allegedly) the work conditions were so bad that they couldn’t attract enough talent to allow the company to operate effectively and KCM was run out of existence.

    While the Koch brothers might not share human values of mainstream America, the claims against the Kochs by various progressive groups seem misguided. Charlie Koch is an opportunist, not a grand puppetmaster seeking to build secret organizations to control the U.S. government. I have no doubt that to him, the Tea Party was an opportunity to further his political aims and to further his legitimate concerns that the great lurch to socialism The Messiah ushered in was (and has been) a horrible mistake on the part of the American electorate. The attack so far on the Koch brothers with respect to their Tea Party funding seems a pathetic attempt by progressives to attack the messenger when one is unable to attack the message.

    I don’t share many of Charlie Koch’s business values, but I do share his concerns with the direction our country is headed and his basic argument concerning the role and size of government. I was taught to admit when someone is right. As much as I disagree with Charlie Koch, I have to give him credit for being right when he is right. Likewise, I would gladly give Obama credit for being right if I could only find an example of when he has been.

    Comment by Charles — March 3, 2011 @ 7:43 am

  8. The Koch brothers are all we got separating us from the Soros pitchforks. The reason the Left goes apoplectic when you mention their names is because the see them as a threat.
    Yet, working in the Tea Party, no Koch official came to our meetings last Fall, while the unions are ever present at the Leftist meetings. So the professor is right, Koch may have lit the spark, but now he is along for the ride.

    Comment by hayeksheroes — March 3, 2011 @ 10:10 am

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