I thought to offer this story from David Koch about how he made his billions, “You might ask: How does David Koch happen to have the wealth to be so generous? Well, let me tell you a story. It all started when I was a little boy. One day, my father gave me an apple. I soon sold it for five dollars and bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then I bought four apples and sold them for twenty. Well, this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until my father died and left me three hundred million dollars!” moving on to point out that the family patriarch Fred Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society, had acquired his fortune by winning patent infringement suits and using that technology to build refinery infrastructure for Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
This, I thought, would serve as a nice segue into the list of the many environmental violations Koch Industries has been fined for like “$8 million for illegally dumping a million gallons of wastewater and spilling some 600,000 gallons of fuel into a wetland and the nearby Mississippi River” (Schulman’s Sons of Wichita). The list is a long one since the Koch-owned Georgia Pacific is one of the largest polluters in the United States and the Pine Bend refinery has had chronic infractions.
Then too, there are the reports in Schulman’s book and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money of the many lawsuits against the Kochs for things like stealing oil from Indian reservations or the case where the Kochs were found guilty “of nearly 25,000 false claims against the government” with possible penalties of more than $200 million. Google “Kochs and environmental violations” on sites like the Center for Public Integrity — the results are depressing.
There is no question that the Kochs have been generous benefactors. They contribute large amounts to the arts and to medical research, although their charity puts one in mind of the practice of buying indulgences from the medieval church.
Mayer and others document that much of the money in the various Koch charitable enterprises resides there not so much as the result of a generous spirit but as a sophisticated way of avoiding tax liabilities while still controlling the use, distribution, and effects of the money; the use of foundations as tax avoidance schemes by the wealthiest families in America is a scandal unto itself.
The Koch distributions to institutions of higher learning and non-profit think tanks really aren’t charitable contributions in any meaningful sense of the word. These “gifts” are meant to buy leverage. The Kochs have funded entities like ALEC and other non-profit lobbying organizations with a clear business purpose in mind. Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute provide research designed to support Koch political and business positions. It has been well documented that grants to universities are intended to provide indoctrination in specific aspects of the economics and political science disciplines — the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University has been characterized as, “a policy shop posing as a university.”
But while preparing this commentary I came across a wonderful essay in the current Harper’s by the novelist and essayist Marilynn Robinson. Robinson is not your standard liberal, as an essayist she is forthright and strong, bent on re-examining the Calvinist ethic — strong medicine for an agnostic like me but worth reading and considering. She is also a passionate educator who teaches at the University of Iowa.
“Save Our Public Universities: In defense of America’s best idea” is a piece that anyone who cares about public education should read. The political philosopher Michael Sandel observes that we have become a market society, not merely a market economy. Robinson picks up on this theme observing that we are no longer citizens but simply taxpayers or perhaps simply consumers of government. She says, “While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes.”
Perhaps this describes why our public universities have more and more become businesses seeking out deals like the one the Kochs are offering. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking this is anything other than a business deal, in exchange for $2 million the Kochs buy the economics department at WCU and promote a brand of economics that devalues public institutions. As Robinson observes:
Obviously I am critical of the universities too. They give prestige to exactly the kind of thinking that undermines their own existence as humanist institutions, especially in economics but also in many fields that are influenced by economics, for example psychologies that subject all actions and interactions to cost-benefit analysis, to — the phrase should make us laugh — rational choice.
Robinson’s essay is well worth the time. Soon we will go to the polls to vote on a $2 billion bond issue to support our public universities in North Carolina. That’s a wise investment, but we lessen and demean it when we pursue money from the Kochs to promote self-serving fringe ideologies that undermine the fundamental purpose and ethic of a public university.