Greediest family on earth: Proof Koch brothers have just one political principle

The Koch brothers like to pretend they're high-minded free marketers. Here's proof it's a scam

Published April 4, 2014 5:45PM (EDT)

David Koch                                      (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
David Koch (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Would you believe me if I told you that the Koch brothers actively participate in, and benefit from, a healthcare system in which the government subsidizes private insurance; carriers are prohibited from discriminating against the sick; the young cross-subsidize the old; and qualified beneficiaries who opt out suffer a big financial hit?

Well, they do. Not Obamacare, of course -- they want to repeal that. But as employers, they can and do compensate their employees with tax-exempt health insurance benefits, their employees are all part of one risk pool, and everyone contributes the same amount for equal coverage.

I know this because in Koch Industries' weird, official screed against Obamacare, issued on the day first launched, its human resources director Dale Gibbens boasted, "For years, Koch Industries has worked to provide reasonably priced health care benefits."

This is not something the Koch brothers consider a threat to the Republic, apparently. Perhaps deep down, or in the abstract, they think the government should not be subsidizing this healthcare and are simply following the rules of the road as set by others. That was the line they took when explaining why they participated in a temporary Obamacare program for early retirees. "Once laws or programs are enacted we will not place ourselves or our employees at a disadvantage by turning our back on incentives offered to our competitors."

Yet despite the fact that employer-sponsored health insurance resembles Obamacare in many ways, the Koch network is not actively trying to repeal ERISA -- the law that regulates employer-sponsored health plans -- or to repeal the tax expenditure that allows them to advantageously provide the benefits they claim they're working so hard to maintain.

That is an effort they reserve especially for Obamacare. To the Koch brothers, there's apparently a big difference between government subsidizing and regulating health insurance for their employees and government subsidizing and regulating insurance for the self-employed, individuals whose employers don't provide health benefits, and the unemployed.

I know this, because in a Thursday Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Charles Koch had absolutely nothing to say about the system the government has put in place to make it cheaper for Charles Koch to compensate his employees, but said the following about the other system:

The more government tries to control, the greater the disaster, as shown by the current health-care debacle. Collectivists (those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives) promise heaven but deliver hell. For them, the promised end justifies the means.

This might seem strangely contradictory, unless you stop and consider what the existence of a universal right to health insurance coverage means for employers and the people who work for them. When the Congressional Budget Office updated its analysis of the Affordable Care Act's labor market effects, it concluded that the existence of a coverage guarantee for all, and subsidies for many, would reduce employment by more than 2 million people over the coming decade. Opponents of the law pounced on this as proof that Obamacare would be a job killer, but for the most part what CBO actually meant was that Obamacare would shift the center of power between workers and employers a bit closer to the workers.

For some of those workers, that shift will mean the freedom to quit -- hence the "job killing" canard. But for other workers -- current and prospective -- it will mean the freedom to ask for more money. All thanks to a program that's financed largely by taxing people like Charles and David Koch. And I think therein lies the key to understanding why they're devoting so much time and so many resources to destroying Obamacare.

The Koch brothers like to pretend that their ideological and political commitments stem not from their own financial interests but from high-minded, principled beliefs about how American society should be organized. I know this because in that same Op-Ed, Charles Koch wrote, "I have devoted most of my life to understanding the principles that enable people to improve their lives. It is those principles—the principles of a free society—that have shaped my life, my family, our company and America itself."

And yet, the vast difference of intensity with which he and his brother David oppose the employer-based healthcare system and Obamacare gives the lie to the idea that their advocacy efforts are abstracted from their personal circumstances.

I get that the employer-sponsored healthcare system is old and enormous, and Obamacare is new and relatively small. I also get that the Democrats running for reelection today helped create Obamcare, not ERISA. But both systems now benefit a bunch of people. And both make it easy for people of all incomes and health statuses to become insured in similar ways. The former, though, redounds immensely to the Koch brothers' benefit, while the latter imposes big new taxes on them and reduces their leverage over their employees. And by sheer coincidence that's the one stuck in their cross hairs.

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On a personal note, this will be my last daily column at Salon. It has been an immense pleasure writing here and working with Salon's incredible editors and staff. Moving on is bittersweet. If you've enjoyed my articles, you can continue reading them at the New Republic starting next week. And either way I know for a fact that Salon will be doing exciting things with this space in my absence.  -bb

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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