By Chet Yarbrough
Sons of Wichita
By: Daniel Schulman
Narrated by: Daniel Schulman
When organizations became people, American elections became less democratic.
Corporate contributions to the election process distort the meaning of “one person – one vote”. Daniel Schulman’s story of the Koch brothers is an example of what is wrong with the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision that gave corporations person-hood.
The Koch brothers are tough-minded, intelligent, well-educated engineers; driven by the arithmetic of life. Like Donald Trump, the Koch brothers make decisions based on profits without care for either the environment or the politics of the common good. Business leaders often see the profit of a transaction without considering the cost to the general public. Life is not a transaction. Life is multi-dimensional puzzle of genetic pre-disposition, learned behavior, and interpreted experience.
Daniel Schulman recounts details of the Koch brothers’ lives that make one admire the Koch brother’s strengths and fear their weaknesses.
As a listener is titillated by Schulman’s characterization of each of the brothers, one is reminded of Joseph Kennedy Senior’s biography (“The Patriarch”) and Kennedy’s determination that no circumstance justifies America’s entry into WWII. Kennedy’s underlying belief was that German atrocity is a matter of arithmetic not politics. Joseph Kennedy, like the Kochs, believed “living life” is transactional. Kennedy believed Hitler could be contained like any unfair business conglomerate that fails to follow the rules of society. To a business mogul, everything is negotiable whether dealing with a mad-man or saint.
Charles Koch, like Joseph Kennedy, is the patriarch of the Koch family. He. like Kennedy, believes life is merely a matter of arithmetic. Charles is a devotee of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. Rand was an author and founder of a philosophical system called “Objectivism” while Hayek was an academic economist-author, and follower of a philosophical system that reduces economics to the arithmetic of free markets. (In fairness, this is an oversimplification and distortion of Hayek in the sense that he did believe government has a responsibility for a safety net for the poor, unemployed, and disabled.)
Charles Koch, and his brothers David and William, grew a multi-million dollar company into a multi-billion dollar conglomerate based on Rand’s, and a version of Hayek’s philosophy. (Fred is a fourth Koch brother but is shown by Shulman to be uninterested in business.)
Growing millions into billions of dollars is unquestionably a great accomplishment, born of hard work, dedication, and tenacity. (Of course, it helps to start out, like Donald Trump, with a million dollars or more.)
The Koch brothers were born rich and raised in a safe and competitive family environment. Schulman explains actions of Charles, David, and William that show how intelligent, driven Americans can adopt Rand and Hayek’s philosophy to become enormous job creators, philanthropists, and benefactors for American society. On the other hand, the Koch brother’s story shows how their philosophical beliefs ignore the reality of human nature that relegates many to a cycle of poverty; i.e. a cycle engendered by poor education, unsafe neighborhoods, a lack of health care, and un-employ-ability. Life is not arithmetic. Life cannot be reduced to dollars and cents.
Charles, David, and William Koch offer great opportunities for workers of the world through the arithmetic of profit, growth, and self-interest. If a worker is not smart or healthy enough to join the Kochs’ group of workers, they have no value; they are the bums one sees sleeping on the sidewalk, neighborhood gang members selling drugs and sex, or beggars asking for lose change.
The Koch brother’s success lies in their alloyed belief in self-interest, their inherited wealth, genetics, environment, and luck. The Koch’s success is not a matter of arithmetic; therein lies the flaw in the use of dark money in American elections. To presume equal opportunity exists in America because of self-interest is ridiculously simplistic. The Supreme Court gifted an advantage to wealthy corporate owners. Dark money from corporations distorts “one person, one vote” democracy.
Schulman infers the Koch brother’s arithmetic view of the world is skewed. The Koch’s imply only market driven, free choice of employees is what makes companies and America grow stronger. Charles argument is compelling except it is based on theories of two academics (Rand’s self-interest and a distortion Hayek’s economic beliefs). When 21st century Americans cannot get a decent education, they are on a treadmill of malnutrition and genetic disadvantage. They often live in unsafe and unhealthy environments, and are destined to become part of an underclass society.
Charles’ arithmetic works within a corporate culture that gives no value to government’s responsibility for health, education, and welfare. Even Hayek, as an academic, suggests that the disadvantaged of society should be protected from the extremes of disablement, poverty, and starvation. In contrast, Ayn Rand’s belief is that people are poor because they are lazy, unproductive, and dependent on the charity of others; i.e. being poor, to Rand, is a personal fault; not a societal concern.
To the Koch brothers, free markets and the arithmetic of life will correct unemployment and the disadvantage of the poor. The idea of a free market is a joke. Markets are not free. Many industries in the United States are subsidized in one way or another by federal tax dollars.
Many inner city poor cannot get a job so they sell drugs or their bodies to put bread on the table. Who is going to hire a person arrested for peddling drugs or serving time for prostitution. The cycle of poverty is perpetuated by the belief that America is a free enterprise market. Everything from agricultural products, to drug manufacturers, to the energy industry, to cars we drive, and planes we fly are subsidized by the American tax dollar.
Schulman’s biography infers that Charles, David, and William believe less government interference will correct the maladies of society. Public health, education, and welfare are private sector responsibilities, particularly in Charles’ idealistic world. This view ignores the reality of human nature. There is good and evil in all human beings. Power, money, and self-interest are swords with two edges that build and destroy societies. Without government, there is no protection from the evil side of human nature.
Schulman explains a rift that occurs between William and Charles and the future management of the Koch conglomerate. William Koch’s legal battles with Charles and David (William is the twin brother of David) reflect the frailty of unfettered human nature.
Human nature is good and evil for all; including the Koch brothers. Government, as noted by Thomas Hobbes, is to protect people from the evil that is inherent in humankind. This is not to argue that every time government legislates or acts, it is in the best interest of the public. However, murder, rape, and theft are unfettered human choices without government. Murder comes in many forms, including gas leaks, environmental contamination, and scientifically proven causes for global warming.
Great industrialists, like the Koch brothers, are a boon to the American economy and to millions of American citizens but to believe their success is based on limited government is self-delusion. American government created a safe environment for “free” enterprise with relative freedom of choice; not absolute freedom of choice.
Schulman suggests Charles Koch believes a plutocracy of industrialists, managed by the principles of market driven self-interest, will cure the maladies of American society. The arithmetic of business fails to address the nature of human beings. Creating jobs and wealth does not raise all boats; i.e. jobs and wealth are quantifiable variables in a sea of un-quantifiable needs.
Human nature may change over time but only when, or if, humans reach a level of belief, and action “to do others as you would have them do to you”. Until human nature is rid of evil, something more than market driven self-interest is required to advance society.
In the end, one concludes from Schulman’s fascinating book, the Koch brothers are neither devils nor angels; just humans with wealth, extraordinary abilities, tenacity, and luck.