Sons of Wichita

Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, by Daniel Schulman. This book was a real eye-opener for me. Like most people, I had not heard of the Koch Brothers until the past decade or so. Exactly how they themselves like it.

I lived ten years of my life in the Wichita, Kansas area, the place where the Koch brothers originated. And I never had an inkling there were people of such influence in that area. This is probably a good thing, because everything I have heard from and about these brothers causes in me an intense dislike of these people. I am glad I did not know during the 70’s, when I lived in Kansas, about the Kochs. It certainly would’ve coloured my stay there.

This book, while it certainly gave a more human perspective of the Koch family than I had had heretofore, ultimately ended up reinforcing my dislike of them. They seem to epitomize everything I have ever thought evil about the influence of too much money. They have an air of arrogant entitlement about them. They think that with their money they can influence and “buy” American politicians, directly affect elections, and shape society toward their own narrow view of how things “should be”.

The book begins with the story of their father and his beginnings in the oil industry, first in Texas, then moving to Wichita, and ultimately building a global corporate empire, mostly in the oil business. The family was spectacularly successful, financially. The father, Fred Koch, had four sons. Two of them, Charles and David, basically took over running the Koch Industries in its various guises after their father passed on.

In the beginning they went out of their way to remain secretive, out of the public eye. But as they spent more and more energy attempting to shape American politics and society they inevitably became known. And what we see is not pretty.

Before Fred died he said to all four of his sons that the extreme amount of money they would inherit could influence them either for good or for evil “You will receive what now seems to be a large sum of money,” Fred Koch cautioned. “It may either be a blessing or a curse.” Unfortunately his worst fears seem to have been realized.

The story of the Koch family filled me with intense sadness. Their inheritance has basically caused them decades-long strife. For long periods some of them would not talk to each other except through their lawyers. Numerous litigations have sundered their harmony as brothers. They all have lived very dysfunctional lives; none seem particularly happy with their lives.

A friend who read this book before I did said that the book gave a much more human perspective to the Koch family than he had had before. I would agree. More human, but for me at any rate, certainly not more sympathetic. To read about how they grew, how they shaped their empire, how they run their businesses, what sort of people they really are, has only strengthened my negative perspective of them.

They appear to have no morals beyond greed. They care nothing for people who might be hurt or killed by their business activities. They care nothing for the environment, seeming to view it purely as their private playground for getting rich. They care nothing for American or global society. Anyone not of their level economically is as nothing to them. Their interest is only in people who can further their own riches and hold on power. They care nothing for democracy. They think they have the divine right to call the shots and make the decisions. Only they know what is best for America and they brook no opposing opinions.

And that is exactly how they run their businesses. “They have a very rigid selection and development process. . . . They want to make sure they’re hiring the right people with the right ethics and the right business orientation.” This is a quote from a former Koch executive. (p251) Another person commented on the intense brain-washing seminars employees were required to attend. “‘These,’ he noted, ‘were the days that my friends and I used to refer to as the “the Shadow falling on Rivendell”‘–an illusion to the evil pall Sauron casts over the elven stronghold of Rivendell in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.” (p251)

A Wichita lawyer who ran for Congress in 1996 who knows many people working for Koch Industries talks about the culture of fear. “‘I have never seen a place where people are afraid like this where they work,’ [he] said, noting that some of his friends who work for Koch jokingly refer to it as the ‘evil empire.’ He added, ‘There’s a culture of fear out there.'” (p253)

Another former Koch executive says it this way, “They weren’t involved in change-the-world stuff then.” (p264) Earlier, their father Fred had been intricately involved in the beginnings of the John Birch Society, an ultra-right wing society seeking to shape American society into their own narrow vision. Later on, Charles’ libertarian views led him “. . . to study a handful of libertarian outfits he supported with a view toward recalibrating his strategy to bring about a free-market revolution. The plan they hatched culminated some 30 ears later in the creation of a powerful political fiefdom within the broader Republican firmament that threatened the GOP establishment itself. Their strategy helped lay the intellectual and organizational groundwork for the Tea Party and other Obama antagonists.” (p264)

Everyone, especially Americans who are attracted to the conservative end of the the political spectrum, absolutely needs to read this book. It will open your eyes. You may not come to as negative a view as I have through this book, but it cannot help but enlighten the reader to some extent. I think the author has done society a huge favour in opening up at least a little the story of this family of Kochs.