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Charles Koch on the Poor: Let Them Eat Economic Freedom | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Charles Koch on the Poor: Let Them Eat Economic Freedom


Charles Koch. (AP Photo/Topeka Capital-Journal, Mike Burley)

Quit whining, American poor people and refugees from the middle class. You’re actually part of the 1 percent.

That’s the laughably misleading claim in a new ad from right-wing multibillionaire Charles Koch. The $200,000 ad campaign, now running in Kansas, starts off like one of those breathless infomercials: “Are you in the 1 percent?” a male voiceover asks. “Well, if you earn over $34,000 a year, you are one of the wealthiest one percent”—he pauses slightly before the kicker—“in the world.”

That’s right, all you have to do is to look at the very big picture, and count your blessings that you live in free-market economy. “People in the most economically free countries,” the narrator tries to explain, “earn on average over eight times more than people in the least free. The poor earn ten times as much.”

And what is this “economic freedom” that lets you imagine you’re clinking martini glasses with hedge-fund managers at their penthouse soirées? Simply, it’s freedom from government regulations, the kind that so constrain Charles Koch and his brother David, the sixth richest men in the world (net worth each: $43.4 billion). Watch:

So, people, think global and act grateful—because you could be eating mud cakes in Haiti.

But let’s get real. A household income of $34,000 for a family of two parents and two children in America is close enough to the poverty level to qualify that family for federal subsidies, like food stamps. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, that family would need an income of $48,144 to cover its basic living expenses in Marshall County, Mississippi, one of the cheaper places to live, while $53,721 would keep it above water in the more expensive Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is headquartered.

By torturing the Occupy term “1 percent” until it’s forced to include America’s poor, Charles Koch is simply promoting the Reagan, Romney, Limbaugh, and Hannity dogma that poor people (the “takers”) never had it so good. Citing a 2011 Heritage Foundation report finding that many poor people own appliances, Fox News’s Stu Varney complained that “99 percent of them have a refrigerator. 81 percent have a microwave.” (Colbert: “ A refrigerator and a microwave? They can preserve and heat food? Ooh, la la! I guess the poor are too good for mold and trichinosis.”)

And those overly entitled refrigerator owners are undoubtedly the same folks who think they’re entitled to vote (to Supreme Court Justice Scalia, the Voting Rights Act is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement”) or to walk home with Skittles without being stalked and killed.

Of course, the Koch ad isn’t really directed toward the poor or the middle class. It’s geared to the corporate elite, lobbyists and legislators to help them better rationalize their crusade to kill minimum wage increases, voting rights, Obamacare, environmental protections and other nuisances. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, the GOP-controlled House voted Thursday to completely eliminate funding for food stamps from the Farm Bill. The right doesn’t just want to starve the beast, it wants to feel morally upright even if it starves hundreds of thousands of souls along the way.

Charlie Koch’s 1 percent solution is only the latest excuse for this politics of cruelty. It’s like the right’s fake fretting—cue the violins!—that deficit spending “steals from future generations” (even as they steal from non-hypothetical children today), or that government assistance creates “a culture of dependency” (even as Koch Industries, to take one example, receives federal oil subsidies, government contracts and bailouts).

The power to delude is apparently stronger than the power of economic freedom. Charles Koch told The Wichita Eagle last week that he’d be “raising up the disadvantaged and the poorest in this country” by ridding them of a minimum wage.

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.… [the government keeps] 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.

But let’s get to the ad’s dubious, underlying claim that “across the board we see a strong relationship between economic freedom and people’s quality of life.” Like “the 1 percent,” the meaning of “economic freedom” and “quality of life” depend on who’s defining them. From the corporate and libertarian point of view, economic freedom essentially means the absence of regulations. From the vantage point of workers and the unemployed, it means, among other things, the education to get a job, the transportation to get to a job, safe and nondiscriminatory working conditions, and a living wage. That’s economic freedom.

The ad, which Koch says might expand to other states, also has an odd way of defining “quality of life.”

As Think Progress points out, the Koch-funded Fraser Institute report the ad is based on “interestingly ranks Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Chile ahead of the U.S. Those places all have government-run health care, which the Kochs adamantly oppose.” In fact, the Koch-funded, Tea Party–supporting Americans for Prosperity launched a $1 million ad campaign last week attacking the Affordable Care Act. Factcheck.org found its first ad out of the gate “misleading,” while David Firestone in The New York Times said it amounted to “outright lying.”

But when the Koch ad says that economic freedom helps promote a “clean environment,” well, that’s tar sands-toxic outright lying. The oil, gas, pipeline and chemical conglomerate Koch Industries is the world’s fifth-largest air polluter, according to the Political Economy Research Institute, and, with its multitude of front groups, it may be, says Democracy Now!, the single “biggest force behind the climate stalemate.”

Also toxic is the claim that “people in the most free countries have better protected civil rights.” That’s funny, because the number-one country in Koch’s economic-freedom graph is Singapore, which Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch has said is “the textbook example of a politically repressive state,” where “rights are only for those who reliably toe the government line.”

Here, civil rights are too often for those who toe the ALEC line. “For decades,” John Nichols writes, “the Koch brothers and their foundation have funded ALEC and other groups that are now driving the attack on voting rights in states across the country.” ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) is the group that pushed “stand your ground” laws in more than two dozen states, including Florida. Last year, when other corporations were shamed into cutting their ties to ALEC because of the law’s association with the death of Trayvon Martin, Koch Industries refused to stand down. (ALEC has said it no longer deals with “non-economic issues.”)

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One small way to protest the Koch way of reframing reality is to sign this petition, asking PBS stations to air Citizen Koch, a film exposing how big money rules American politics. Public TV execs were ready to run the film—until they freaked out that it might cost them funds from PBS-donor David Koch.

But now that you’re part of the 1 percent, PBS will surely cave to your influence, too.

Got Koch? “Seven Products Fueling the Brothers’Right-Wing Agenda.”

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