Maybe it’s our persistent idealism of the American Dream, but when we think of the richest people in America today, there are three names that come up most often: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Oprah. These are reassuring reminders that hard work can bring great success (no matter what color you are!), and that great success can breed remarkable philanthropy. After all, Buffett and Gates are the two wealthiest men in the country, and they’ve each pledged to give away 99% of their wealth by the time they die! And who doesn’t love Oprah? She gives away cars to strangers!
But if Gates and Buffett are names on the tip of most Americans’ tongues, it might prompt one to wonder: who the hell is the third-wealthiest person in America, and why do we never hear about that guy? Is it Steve Jobs, or another self-made tech entrepreneur? Someone out of Wall Street? Maybe Hollywood?
Well, it turns out to be two brothers by the name of Koch, who have inherited and expanded their father’s industrial holdings, primarily in energy. And instead of the do-goodery of Gates, Buffett, and Oprah, they’ve given a huge portion of their billions to right-wing causes, including setting up the Cato Institute and founding Americans for Prosperity, godfather to the Tea Party movement. The New Yorker has a profile of these two tycoons, and it is mind-boggling — mostly because it reads like something out of the nineteenth century. Among other things, Charles and David Koch bought out their two other brothers in a nasty feud which led the ousted siblings to dilettante lives of yachting, art-collecting, and holing up in European villas; honestly, Edith Wharton could not have constructed a more ludicrously aristocratic family than these Kansas-born, twenty-first-century patrons of “patriotism” (that is: lower corporate taxes and fewer environmental regulations).
The whole piece is very, very much worth reading, but I’ll give you my favorite line right now, a quote from a former friend of the eldest Koch, discussing his “charitable” tendencies: “Perhaps he has confused making money with freedom.”
Indeed, it seems like much of right-wing America has made that same mistake.