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The Billionaire's Party

In some ways, David Koch’s political views resemble those of the wealthy crowd with whom he socializes in New York. He thought the Iraq War was folly, and supports stem-cell research and gay marriage. In other ways, David is very much his father’s son. Shortly after joining his father’s company, David’s brother Charles began immersing himself in the economic philosophy of the Austrian free-market economist Ludwig von Mises, considered a god in libertarian circles. In his 2007 management book, The Science of Success, Charles rails against what he calls “destructive compensation schemes” such as employee cost-of-living raises. Although David never adhered quite so tightly to the libertarian liturgy as his brother, he did embrace its central tenets—that taxes and government regulation are destructive forces and that government generally makes people’s lives worse. David earned the vice-presidential spot on the Libertarian ticket, then split with the group in 1984, when it promoted the idea of eliminating all taxes, and has been a Republican since.

David and Charles both actively support Republican causes. Charles founded the conservative think tank the Cato Institute. Charles also funds an academic center at George Mason University called the Mercatus Center, founded by a free-market economist named Richard Fink. A 2004 Wall Street Journal article reported that out of 23 government regulations on the Bush administration’s “hit list” that got killed or modified, fourteen had been suggested by Mercatus. In 1984, with the Kochs’ money, Fink started the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation. Its political affiliate, Citizens for a Sound Economy, fought hard to defeat regulations proposed to eliminate acid rain. CSE also helped organize rallies in 1993 to kill Bill Clinton’s proposed BTU tax on fossil fuels. In 2004, Koch started a group called the Americans for Prosperity Foundation devoted to personal and economic freedom. AFPF is now Koch’s primary political-advocacy group.

Global warming could be good for the planet, Koch says. “A far greater land area will be available to produce food.”

David Koch is deeply antagonistic to the Obama administration. He fought the health-care bill, and the financial-regulation measure that was passed last week (“Everyone I know in the financial world is terrified by the powers it gives the federal government”). He also opposes the president’s climate-change proposals. In his office, Koch showed me a photocopied flyer Greenpeace had produced with sketches of him and Charles below the words wanted for climate crimes and shook it in the air. Koch Industries’ emissions, Koch told me, are far less than legally required. “And yet they’re attacking us as environmental criminals,” he said. “Wanting to put me and Charles in jail.” Koch says he’s not sure if global warming is caused by human activities, and at any rate, he sees the heating up of the planet as good news. Lengthened growing seasons in the northern hemisphere, he says, will make up for any trauma caused by the slow migration of people away from disappearing coastlines. “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because a far greater land area will be available to produce food,” he says.

Koch concedes that he sympathizes with the tea party. “It demonstrates a powerful visceral hostility in the body politic against the massive increase in government power, the massive efforts to socialize this country, which goes against the conservative grain of the average American,” he says. He insists he vigorously opposes the elements of the party “that go too far” and that he stands firmly against “violence” and other “bad things” perpetrated by tea-party members. “I’m not a racist. I’m very broad-minded,” he says.

Koch’s critics, however, say he’s being coy about his tea-party connections. “David Koch likes putting his name on all his things that aren’t evil,” says Lee Fang, a blogger for the liberal “He’ll put his name on his theater at Lincoln Center, but look at the Americans for Prosperity website and his name is virtually missing. All of his groups have used these same tea-party tactics before they actually had the tea-party brand.” Americans for Prosperity, AFPF’s political arm, has certainly not shied away from joining arms with the tea party. In April of last year, AFP took credit on its website for helping to organize Taxpayer Tea Party rallies in Sacramento, Austin, and Madison, and told visitors to “save the date” for National Tea Party Tax Day in Washington, which AFP would be hosting.

Koch’s detractors also like to point out the irony of the so-called grassroots tea-party movement’s being funded by a billionaire. Koch’s real motives, they say, are self-serving. In April, Fang posted a dossier on Koch that attributes to his groups a decades-long pattern of “Astroturfing”—funding movements designed to look grassroots, but which in fact represent corporate interests. Richard Fink insists that Koch’s political activity is about principles, not money. “I view David as a courageous American who has a set of beliefs that he’s willing to support consistently over time despite all the flak he gets,” Fink says. “Very few people would do that.”