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Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Review: Kochland

Kochland is Christopher Leonard's history of Koch Industries, and how it became not just a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, but also a political heavy weight, with deep influence on not just by defeating Democratic initiatives such as cap-and-trade for carbon, but also Republican initiatives that you might or might not have heard about because they were defeated before even being publicly debated.

Before I read the book, I thought that the main reason Americans didn't vote for a greener lifestyle or better working conditions (such as longer mandated vacations, etc) was because they were either too uneducated, selfish, or simply in-thrall with religion to understand the issues involved, even though many of them were really simple (seriously? oppose a mandated family leave policy? or do away with for-profit health insurance companies?). To some extent I think that, still, but now I know that's not the entire story.

The Koch brothers were MIT trained. What that meant was that all their malice and avarice had purpose, and was guided by an engineer's ability to optimize their goals in ways that less competent evil people could have done. They also started with a fairly substantial legacy left by their father, Fred Koch, who was also a right wing libertarian. The author does a very good job of balancing the coverage of early Koch industries as being driven by profits above all else (including a lack of compunction when it comes to polluting the environment) before Charles Koch came to the conclusion that compliance with the law not only made business sense in terms of avoiding punitive fines, but also ensured that the legal system didn't have an excuse to investigate him so he could maintain his privacy.

I cam away from this book not only with a better understanding of how Koch Industries changed the political landscape until attempting to reduce greenhouse emissions is considered anathema to the Republican party, but also a strong sense that if there was any justice at all, the entire company and all its executives should be convicted of crimes against humanity. Not that I'm about to hold my breath --- I read with dismay of passage after passage describing how chillingly competent the Koch political operations are, and the surprisingly little amount of money it takes to buy American politicians.

If you want to understand the modern political landscape (as well as what's likely to happen after the 2020 elections), this book is invaluable. And you know what, when my sons start to blame me for what are sure to be more horrifically hot summers to come in future years and decades, I'll want to have a copy of this book handy to give to them and show them that there was no way I could have stopped this evil juggernaut from screwing them over.

The one thing the jumps out at me is that philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have made a fundamental strategic area in where they've put their money: it does no good to save millions in Africa from malaria when you've got the Koch brothers putting their money and leveraging it and turning the USA away from solutions to the climate change that is already causing mass migration and will surely kill many more in the future. It's quite clear to me that Koch has gotten a huge ROI on their investment in their political infrastructure, and now that this book is in public hands, I wouldn't be surprised to see more wealthy people join them.

You should stop whatever you're doing and read this book. That's how important it is.
In 2007, for example, Koch Industries quietly funded the work of a Democratic-leaning think tank called Third Way. The think tank promoted “New Democrat” policies such as those embraced by Bill Clinton: neoliberal policies that sought to combine New Deal goals with free-market methods. Lobbyists at Koch’s office knew that Third Way’s economic study program supported free-trade policies such as NAFTA. Such trade policies were under attack in 2007 because they did not deliver the economic benefits that they had promised to huge swaths of the American population. The textile industry of South Carolina, for example, was decimated by trade agreements, such as NAFTA. This was stoking opposition to such trade agreements among both Democratic and Republican politicians. Koch Industries supported free-trade agreements and wanted to ensure the passage of future trade deals, while blocking any reversal of existing deals. The possibility of any trade war was dangerous for Koch Industries not just because the company had extensive business holdings around the world. To take one specific but very high-stakes example: Koch’s Pine Bend refinery, still a major profit center for the company, was deeply dependent on oil imports from Canada. Any trade disputes ignited by renegotiating NAFTA could dramatically hurt Koch’s profitability. (Kindle Loc 7343)
 ExxonMobil also funded third-party groups that sought to raise doubts about the science behind climate change and to fight the cap-and-trade bill. But Greenpeace, the environmental activist group that fought hard to limit air pollution, found that Koch Industries fought to undermine the scientific consensus around climate change for longer, and more fiercely, than even Exxon. A 2010 Greenpeace analysis of spending on climate-denial groups between 2005 and 2008 found that Koch Industries and its affiliates spent $24.9 million to support such groups, almost triple Exxon’s $8.9 million in spending.V And Koch was more uncompromising than Exxon, whose lobbyists made it known that Exxon might support some sort of carbon emissions plan, such as a carbon tax. (Kindle Loc 7407)
 Of the eighty-five newly elected Republicans who arrived in Washington, seventy-six had signed Americans for Prosperity’s carbon pledge, vowing they would never support a federal climate bill that added to the government’s tax revenue. Of those seventy-six members of Congress, fifty-seven of the signees had received campaign contributions from Koch Industries’ PAC, according to an analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Koch Industries had terminally stalled the Waxman-Markey bill in the Senate, and now it had salted the earth behind it, ensuring that a new climate change bill would never grow. (Kinde Loc 7502)

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