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David Koch’s Monstrous Legacy

Photo: Phelan M Ebenhack/AP/Shutterstock

By the time he died on Friday at the age of 79, David Koch was worth $42.4 billion. He will be remembered for what he did with it. Some people will probably praise his charitable spirit, perhaps even his support for criminal-justice reform, or his skepticism of military intervention. “The vast bulk of Koch’s philanthropy was not political,” Brian Doherty noted in an obit for Reason magazine. “It included hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research (he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992) and major arts and sciences institutions, museums, schools, and public television, with much of his institutional philanthropy centered in New York City, his home for decades.”

But Koch’s largesse wasn’t free. We are paying for it now, and have been paying for it for decades. Koch’s legacy is a testament to the power of weaponized philanthropy. For Koch did not restrict himself to supporting artists and scientists. He, along with his brother Charles, who survives him, committed their vast family fortune to the construction of a powerful conservative network. We live in the world that he helped build, and it is on fire.

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reported for The New Yorker in 2010, the brothers were ideologically sympatico, bound together by their disbelief in climate science and their opposition to industry regulation. Their work had massive reach, though their use of shell trusts and foundations can make their money difficult to trace. Mayer, however, has reported much of it out over the years, in pieces for The New Yorker and in her 2016 book, Dark Money. Through the Cato Institute — which was co-founded by Charles Koch, and where David Koch once sat on the board of directors — the Kochs funded analysts and researchers who denied the extent of man-made climate change for years. They donated copiously to the Heritage Foundation, which wraps climate change denial into a broader conservative platform that opposes LGBT rights and legal abortion. They helped establish the anti-regulatory Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and that came with certain privileges; in 2018, Inside Higher Ed reported that the university had given the Kochs a say in faculty hiring. Similar funding agreements also existed at Florida State University and Utah State University. Koch money bankrolled right-to-work groups that have worked for decades to reduce union membership — a goal that has, according to most experts, contributed significantly to America’s increasing wealth inequality.

reported by CNBC in June, APF’s CEO said the group would now consider backing Democrats. But this shift was hardly proof that the Kochs, or the organizations they helped found and fund, had liberalized. Instead, APF wanted to keep the Democratic Party from moving left by protecting incumbents “who lead by uniting with others to pass principled policy and get good things done.” In other words, conservatives who might find themselves targeted by the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and would support the family’s in oil and gas interests from the Green New Deal.

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