Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the known universe came out today. It’s a useful bit of service journalism for those of us who don’t know that political leaders and Supreme Court justices and popular musicians have a good deal of influence. The way Time approaches this project is clever – they know that’s it’s not enough to simply tell you that these famous and influential people are famous and influential, which is why they recruit other famous and influential people to write vacant, anodyne blurbs about the fame and influence of the lucky duckies on the list. Hey, did you know U.S. president Barack Obama is an influential person? Well now you do. Thanks, Joe Klein!
The Time 100 list also a great way for ambitious politicians to do a bit of sucking up to valued constituencies. Thus you have Hillary Clinton penning a sappy ode to “progressive champion” Elizabeth Warren. And then there’s “libertarian-ish” presidential candidate Rand Paul’s two-paragraph tongue bath of libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Here’s how Rand starts out, employing the painfully earnest writing style of a sixth-grader’s history report on Abraham Lincoln:
Charles and David Koch are well known for their business success, their generous philanthropic efforts and for their focus on innovation in management. Some also know them for their activism in the political realm. All of these are important contributions to society.
Hah. Okay. Team Rand could have saved a little time and just provided a mailing address for the Kochs to send a check, but appearances must be kept up, I suppose. The Paul family and the Kochs have had their ideological differences over the years, but the Kochs are far too powerful on the right for Rand to allow much friction to exist between them. What makes Rand’s dissertation on the Kochs’ influence great, however, is his treatment of the brothers’ ambition to use their considerable resources to remake government:
Unlike many crony capitalists who troll the halls of Congress looking for favors, the Kochs have consistently lobbied against special-interest politics.
For decades they have funded institutes that promote ideas, not politics, such as Cato and the Mercatus Center. They have always stood for freedom, equality and opportunity.
He’s right that the Kochs don’t waste their valuable time prowling the “halls of Congress” trying to bend lawmakers to their will. No, they pay a small army of lobbyists several millions of dollars to do that for them. The Koch brothers sank nearly $10 million into lobbying against carbon taxes and environmental regulations that would threaten to shave a little bit of profit from their sprawling empire of petroleum concerns. And their stated resistance to “crony capitalism” notwithstanding, the Kochs have soaked up a whole lot of corporate welfare over the years as they’ve poured millions of dollars into the reelection funds of Republicans in Congress. They are massive hypocrites on that score.
And that bit about the Kochs funding “institutes that promoted ideas, not politics” is straight-up hilarious. The brothers preside over a network of dark-money activist groups that aims spend close to a billion dollars this election cycle as part of an effort to transform the American political landscape and foment public hostility towards “big government.” They’re not simply “idea men,” as the sub-hed of Rand’s piece states – they’re trying to become a political force on par with the major parties.
“The Koch brothers’ investment in freedom-loving think tanks will carry on for generations,” Rand concludes, “reminding all of us that ideas and convictions ultimately trump all else.” That is the wrongest statement about the Kochs’ influence one could imagine. The brothers like to think of themselves as principled (and persecuted) defenders of “freedom” who are the only bulwark against the coming collectivist apocalypse, but their real influence is measured by the number of zeroes they put on the checks they send to candidates and activist groups, and by the (related) fact that a U.S. senator and wannabe president is sucking up to them in the pages of Time magazine.