Charles Koch launching Wichita campaign about economic freedom, government overreach

Charles Koch, who runs Koch Industries and contributes to political groups and campaigns, said he will launch a new campaign on Wednesday to laud economic freedom and warn the public about government overreach.

He knows this means he will again draw fire from political critics. His memory of the 2012 political campaign is still fresh. People said he tried to buy elections, and he recalls critics calling him names.

"Evil Koch brother," he said. "Greedy and stuff."

In that campaign, conducted mostly out of the limelight, he spent millions (he has not said how much) helping 2012 candidates oppose President Obama and support conservative and libertarian economic policies.

The effort beginning this week will cost the Charles Koch Foundation about $200,000 and run as a media campaign in Wichita for four weeks, he said. If people like it, he said, he might expand it to other cities.

The point of it, Koch said, is that he believes prosperity grows where economic freedom is greatest, where government intervention in business affairs is kept to a minimum. He hopes his ideas will help the country grow, he said. In his interview he emphasized several times that he believes his ideas on economics will help disadvantaged people. Government regulations – including the minimum wage law – tend to hold everyone back, he said.

"We want to do a better job of raising up the disadvantaged and the poorest in this country, rather than saying 'Oh, we're just fine now.' We're not saying that at all. What we're saying is, we need to analyze all these additional policies, these subsidies, this cronyism, this avalanche of regulations, all these things that are creating a culture of dependency. And like permitting, to start a business, in many cities, to drive a taxicab, to become a hairdresser. Anything that people with limited capital can do to raise themselves up, they keep throwing obstacles in their way. And so we've got to clear those out. Or the minimum wage. Or anything that reduces the mobility of labor."


Koch, in a telephone interview from his office at Koch Industries in Wichita, took questions on several topics: the current gridlock in Washington, for example.

"Gridlock is bad if there are positive solutions," he said. "… But if the proposals are to take us in a worse direction, then gridlock is good. So it depends."

He also addressed whether his company plans to bid on buying the Tribune Co. newspapers, which includes the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.

"It's possible," he said. "It's not on the front burner, but it's possible."

In an interview last month with the Wall Street Journal, Koch said his company is interested in buying newspapers. But on Monday, he appeared to back off a step or two.

"We are at square one on that. There are tremendous changes going on in media, in taking media as a whole, all forms of communication. We're back at square one analyzing where is the most change, where are the best opportunities for new entrants to come in and add value? And so newspapers are one, but there are all sorts of others. There's the Internet, there's TV. There's entertainment. And so we don't know where we'll end up on that."

Koch personally took a role in developing the local media campaign that starts Wednesday; he joked about that, too.

"I'm to blame for everything," he said. "So I might as well take credit for some of the good things."

Reactions to strategy

Some who have followed the Koch brothers' rise to political power were intrigued when told about the campaign. Larry Jacobs, a professor of politics at the University of Minnesota, said this may signal that one of America's more powerful and influential men has conceived of a new way to get his ideas across.

"I actually find that what he's done in stepping outside his cocoon, taking the risk of talking to you ... to be personally poignant," Jacobs said. "You almost get the feeling that he feels a frustration that he's being misunderstood as a kind of a threat to America, a greedy threat, and that he feels like he's unfairly demagogued. He wants his message to resonate, so he's now offering a positive agenda that applies to all of America."

Many of Koch's ideas about government regulations are contentious and "probably won't go anywhere," Jacobs said, because many people believe that some regulations give the poor and disenfranchised a "minimum floor" of protection.

"But I do understand his frustration," Jacobs said. "It's really quite striking, you get a sense of a guy who feels mystified as to why he's become demonized to some extent, as someone selfish, out for himself. There is a kind of caricature of the Koch brothers – obviously the Democrats and liberals do a lot of fundraising based on demonizing him."

Another political observer who believes this signals a new strategy by Koch is Chapman Rackaway, former GOP political consultant and a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

"For a long time now, the Koch brothers preferred to act very quietly, and you had to be really in the game to know who they were funding, who they were allied with what their motivations were," Rackaway said. "They have seemed to be incredibly private people. But the thing about politics is, it forces people into the public eye. In their case, they were turned into a kind of shadowy bogeyman. So it looks like that may be some of the motivation here, that we're getting dragged in, so we might as well use the public exposure as leverage for our ideas."

Campaign's points

Koch doesn't directly criticize Obama in this campaign and wants instead to make several points: 1. Countries with the most economic freedom are the countries with by far the most wealth and 2. One follows the other. Even the poor in the free countries fare better than others, Koch said.


The video, available on YouTube, starts by saying that if you earn more than $34,000, "you are one of the wealthiest 1 percent in the world." Koch, one of the richest men in the world, acknowledged that assertion might be pounced upon.

U.S. economic freedom is declining, he said.

The campaign Koch is starting makes no mention of the Affordable Care Act. Missy Cohlmia, a spokeswoman for Koch Industries, said there is no link between this campaign and a separate campaign by another group buying television ads in Ohio and Virginia. The New York Times on Sunday published a story saying that Americans for Prosperity, which is funded in part by Charles and David Koch, had launched the ad campaign to criticize the health care act.

Koch said helping the disadvantaged is one of his primary motives. In half a century of studying and applying economics, he learned that "the most critical thing in overcoming poverty and creating human well-being was having a free society and in particular having economic freedom."

He said he still has the same worries that he outlined in a long interview in The Eagle last year before the election.

"Massive spending, debt, deficits, this … avalanche of regulations we've had advanced, particularly in this administration but even in the previous ones," he said.

"All this undermines the standard of living and human well being that we've worked so hard to get people to understand the benefits of.

"This particularly hurts the disadvantaged. Large companies, it helps them short term, in many cases, as we see they're big proponents of it. And that's where we get cronyism. It's a lot easier to try to get a regulation that favors you than it is to continually improve your ability to satisfy customers against competition that's innovating and improving."


Koch said it's possible that the people who criticized him for his campaign spending last year will attack him for this campaign also, saying he's merely trying to make more money for Koch Industries.

"If that is true, then why are we the only large company that's doing this?" he said. "All the other large companies, or the great majority of them, are promoting some kind of special cronyism where they're undermining economic freedom."

He said he's learned to look for positives in why he is attacked so vigorously.

"The people who are more interested in power and their own interest rather than the general interest are threatened by these ideas. And this is an old dialectical trick that (philosopher Arthur) Schopenhauer articulated, that if you can't answer somebody's ideas, you attack them personally. Or you say they've got a special interest."

Roy Wenzl

Wichita Eagle