Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America with Christopher Leonard 

Christopher Leonard, author of the book Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America is a respected business reporter whose book I read when it first came out in 2019. I am so pleased that he consented to an interview. Koch Industries piqued Christopher’s interest as a business reporter when he learned that it is the second largest privately owned company in America, with operations in industries spanning from blue-collar manufacturing jobs to oil refineries and energy. Because of that, they have one of the largest corporate lobbying entities in America. He also sees this as a critical subject matter because they play a significant role in limiting government regulation in the private market, especially concerning fossil fuels CO2 emissions that cause global warming. 

Fred Koch founded Koch Industries, father of the now-CEO Charles Koch and his brother, the late David Koch. Fred Koch started as an industrialist investor and co-founder of the ultra-conservative, anti-communist John Birch Society. The John Birch Society believed that “leftist communists had leeched their way into the American government.” They saw Eisenhower as a communist and any government programs such as the New Deal as communist plots to create authoritarianism in America. 

Fred Koch taught his sons, Charles and David, that government and economics are “intertwined.” Therefore, there was a need to lobby and do public relations to influence Federal and State governments to maximally benefit their business. So, the necessity of being a politically oriented CEO was instilled in Charles early on. Charles became CEO of the company in his early thirties, after Fred died of a heart attack. 

Charles Koch is a very intelligent, well-read person who earned both an engineering and a nuclear engineering Ph.D. from MIT. In the 1960’s he started building a group of intellectual economists from Austria who were extremely libertarian and shared the same beliefs, specifically that all government programs, even if well-intentioned, would do more harm than good. 

Later in the 1970s, Charles started working with Murray Rothbard, an extreme libertarian economist who not only thought government programs were destructive but “democracy itself was really dangerous” because if you have a population that can vote and set government policy, those policies can “steal money from business leaders who actually earn it.” Government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are seen as a way for the populace to take money from the rich unfairly. 

Staff working for Koch Industries have described it as a cult. New hires attend a three to five-day orientation at Koch headquarters in Kansas, where they are introduced to the philosophy and culture called “market-based management,” including its own vocabulary and ten guiding principles. These ten principles can be found throughout the company, such as on-screen savers and coffee cups. Language such as “mental model,” “point of view,” and “humility” is very specific in its meaning. The market-based management culture not only has to be fully embraced by staff to be able to work there, but if one notices that a colleague has broken a rule, they are to report them. Anyone who turns out to be a whistleblower is deemed a traitor. These are similarities found in cults, where there is repetition of the cult’s beliefs, and if anyone questions anything, then they are either told they are wrong or just completely shut out. 

The company also uses a “the ends justify the means” attitude regarding business dealings. They have taken oil from Indigenous land but have not adequately compensated the people of those lands. When there is a question about a leak or pollution, they use that ideology and do their best to deny any responsibility for the pollution. Koch Industries has in the past disregarded environmental regulations because so much of the company’s income comes from refining fossil fuels. At least half of their yearly profits are from burning these refining fossil fuels. 

For decades, they have used think tanks and lobbyists to fight climate change laws and to cast doubt on climate change science. Any slight bit of information that is off or any sliver of doubt in a study and they will pounce on it and claim that the science is not clear and that we should wait before we change anything. Additionally, they will politicize regulations by repeating that it is a communist action to regulate businesses, especially when it comes to climate change. Leonard believes Charles Koch will be primarily remembered for his impact on climate change policy.  

One thing that we talked about towards the end of our talk was narratives and how lobbyists and politicians want to create sophisticated campaigns to control narratives that we hear and see. Leonard and I stress the importance of thinking independently, looking at evidence, questioning our assumptions, and questioning what media messaging is fed to us. 

Resources: 

Christopher Leonard’s website 

Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard 

“Kochland” Examines the Koch Brothers’ Early Crucial Role in Climate-Change Denial by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker 

‘Kochland’ Measures the Reach of a Politically Influential Corporate Giant by Jennifer Szalai for the New York Times 

Financial Times Business Book of the Year: Kochland by Christopher Leonard 

The Lords of Easy Money: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy by Christopher Leonard  

The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business by Christopher Leonard 

What’s the Matter With Libertarianism? Its models of human nature and society are terminally deficient. By Peter Corning Ph.D. 

The John Birch Society is still influencing American politics 60 years after its founding by Christopher Towler 

How Sun Myung Moon ‘Digested the Scientists’ and Fueled Climate-Change Denial by David Lipsky, author of The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial