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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Rich’

[Author's note: Although I wrote it before the election, I embargoed this essay until today, lest anyone think I was advocating for a political party or for an electoral victory. The sentiments expressed below are unrelated to any partisan agenda.]

Billionaire businessmen and philanthropists Charles and David Koch have come in for a lot of criticism lately, and in all the best places: among others, in The New York Times (both Paul Krugman and Frank Rich), in New York Magazine, and in an improbably long piece in the The New Yorker. The charges in all the accounts are the same. The Kochs are “covert” bankrollers of the Tea Party, shadowy “tycoons” funding a relentless campaign to discredit President Obama and his policies, and, more generally, financial supporters of numerous initiatives whose real goals are to help them line their pockets—all either in secret or behind a false mask of charity and patriotic rhetoric. According to critics, when the Kochs talk about “individual liberty” and “free markets,” what they really mean is “get the government off our backs so we can make even more money.” And people supported by the Kochs who espouse similar notions are just puppets pulled by the strings of the Kochs’ billions.

As someone whose work has sometimes been supported by the Koch Foundation, the criticisms directed at the Kochs are thus also directed at me, as they are at the other professors, students, academic institutions, charitable organizations, and others that have benefitted from the Kochs’ giving over the years. If the Kochs really are this bad, however, am I required, in good conscience, to abjure any and all connection to them?

Luckily I don’t have to answer that question: The charges are in almost all cases either false or grossly misleading. They may fit a narrative typical of a Hollywood movie, where evil rich businessmen connive to manipulate others for their own benefit, but conspiracy theories like those rarely match reality. The Kochs themselves have responded to the various allegations, but there are at least two clear reasons why the allegations must be either false or misleading.

The first relates to the Tea Party movement. Attending a Tea Party rally or listening to people sympathetic to the movement, one cannot help but be struck not just by how articulate they are, but how genuine. They mean what they say, and conviction like that simply cannot be bought. By contrast, paying people to claim they believe things that they really don’t is a rather dicey affair: It is almost always transparent, and mercenary offers like that appeal to only a small number of people in any case. But the Tea Party phenomenon is astonishing precisely because it is not orchestrated from the top. Indeed, its decentralized, bottom-up character is one of the keys to its success. The hundreds of thousands of people who have attended rallies nationwide have done so because they have sincere beliefs on which they decided to act.

The second reason that charges against the Kochs are false or misleading relates to their alleged influence in higher education. The Kochs have given millions of dollars over several decades supporting students, professors, academic institutions, and nonprofits that are either sympathetic to their worldview or at least willing to give it a fair hearing. Yet what proportion of professors today subscribe to the Kochs’ view? Less than one-tenth; probably more like one in twenty. How could this be, if the clandestine reach of the “Kochtopus” is so far and wide?

Consider what they are up against. According to the New Yorker article, Charles and David Koch “have given over one hundred million dollars to right-wing causes” since 1980. That sounds like a lot, but it averages only about $3.5 million per year. Generously adjusting for inflation, assume it is the equivalent today of even $10 million per year. That is enough to pay the full salary and benefits of perhaps seventy professors in the country per year. That would be seventy out of some 1.7 million, or a vanishingly small .004%.

Considering, moreover, the substantial predominance of left-leaning political and economic worldviews on today’s campuses, one begins to see why the money the Kochs are donating hardly warrants the hyperventilating rhetoric it is receiving. For better or worse, theirs is a small minority view on college and university campuses, and the money they give is dwarfed by the resources that left-leaning faculty, centers, programs, and institutions regularly devote to discrediting positions like theirs and to advocating contrary views.

But putting aside money and numbers, what of the Kochs’ ideas themselves? The Kochs support limited government, free markets, protections of private property, individual liberty, and peace. This is approximately the political-economic vision of America’s founders. Perhaps that is a “radical” view in the minds of an average New York Times columnist, but it still resonates with many Americans who understand that that vision has enabled more freedom and prosperity for the average person than any other system of political economy ever tried. It is moreover an inspiring moral vision: human beings as unique and possessing a dignity that requires both individual freedom and personal responsibility, and a system of social institutions that leads to prosperity and peace.

These are the ideas that are so ominous and threatening?

Charles and David Koch are those rare specimens who take their convictions seriously enough to put their own money where their mouths are. One might in the end disagree with their vision, but for standing up for what they believe, and for being willing to shoulder their part of the burden of maintaining a free society, I say they should be not vilified but applauded.

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In a feat of logical gymnastics so convoluted it is surprising it passed editorial review even on on opinion page, Frank Rich made the following argument in the New York Times not long ago:

The crowd that wants Latinos to show their papers if there’s a ”reasonable suspicion” of illegality is often the same crowd still demanding that the president produce a document proving his own citizenship. Lest there be any doubt of that confluence, Rush Limbaugh hammered the point home after Obama criticized Arizona’s action. ”I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers,” he said. ”Maybe he’s afraid somebody’s going to ask him for his.”

Now, neither I nor (apparently) the Times has very high expectations for Frank Rich.  But this sad excuse for an argument had even me shaking my head.  First, anyone who thinks non-citizens should have to carry documents with them (a long-standing requirement of federal law, by the way) is naturally a Birther.  How do we know this beyond “any doubt?”  Simple.  The entertainer Rush Limbaugh used the Birthers to make a mildly funny dig at President Obama.

No reason for careful polling or analysis.  Apparently Frank Rich can divine the feelings of the electorate by listening to Rush Limbaugh and looking at the tea leaves in his cup.

Rich does say that “Arizonans, like all Americans, have every right to be furious about Washington’s protracted and bipartisan failure to address the immigration stalemate. To be angry about illegal immigration is hardly tantamount to being a bigot.”

My sense is that those who have “every right to be furious” are, for the most part, furious for very different reasons than those Frank Rich imagines.  He and others on the Left are trying to claim affinity with the public by acknowledging Washington’s failure on immigration.  But were Frank Rich to write an immigration bill, how much support could it possibly have?

Rich fails to mention that something like 70% of the good people of Arizona supported the recent law, and just over half the country in a recent poll did, too.  If we generously put the percentage of people who are both bigoted and birthers at, say, 25% of the country (surely its much less), that leaves a whole lot of people who would be supportive of Arizona’s measures and a whole lot more who are frustrated with illegal immigration but don’t support the Arizona law.

I’ve often wondered why this group is so angry.  Partly it is due to bad information and bad arguments spewed forth by demagogues like Limbaugh and Beck.  For instance, a lot of people think that illegal immigrants are getting a host of government benefits without paying into the system, when the truth is that illegals pay a lot of taxes, but will not qualify for most entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare.  They are for the most part, a young, healthy, hard-working group with a relatively low crime rate.

When they tried to tackle the illegal immigration problem during the Bush Administration, the Republicans got burned badly.  Now people like John McCain are running for their political lives.  I’m wondering if Democrats are really foolish enough to take up the issue, rather than just watching the Republicans implode.  True, they hope to increase their electoral advantage among Latinos, an increasingly important group, but I seriously doubt they have the math right if they think this is a winner issue.  Given that there are some smart Democrats, I bet their real agenda is to bring up the issue enough to generate the anti-immigrant comments that Republicans are certain to make–comments that will get a lot of play among Latinos–and then quietly back down from actually passing anything.

The angry middle is already upset about an overreaching new health care system, voluminous federal deficits, and a stubbornly persistent unemployment problem.   They have, with good reason, an enormous amount of anxiety about the future, and they are looking for scapegoats.  Whoever thinks this anxiety is going to be lessened by giving illegals a pathway to citizenship or anything like that, are seriously deluded.

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