Op-ed: Charles Koch's Radical Free Market Ideology Is Not a Symptom of America’s Disastrous Response to COVID-19. It’s a Cause.

Read time: 5 mins
Charles Koch

Charles Koch, CEO of Koch Industries, is receiving credit for launching a COVID-19 relief fund, as he urged a “distinctly American response” of private charity — and not public benefits — to address this deadly pandemic.

Koch kickstarted the fund with a $5 million contribution, pocket change for a man who runs the second largest privately held corporation in the country, which makes about $5 million every twenty minutes.

His “distinctly American response” is not for the government to do more but for a billionaire to solicit help from Americans who make far less: his contribution amounts to 0.000125 of his net worth of roughly $40 billion, about the equivalent of a $5 donation for someone who makes $40,000 a year.

His newly rebranded “Stand Together” group has also “matched the almost $3 million raised by its GoFundMe campaign, #HelpTheHelpers,” and 87,000 other donors have lifted the fund to more than $50 million. (Stand Together was previously known as the Seminar Network and prior to that, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.)

Koch’s miserly contribution stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s spent on his political and policy agenda to remake U.S. laws to advance a radical free-market ideology, an approach to government that COVID-19 has revealed to be fatally flawed — literally.

Nowhere is that more evident than in President Trump’s weak response to the pandemic, which mirrors Koch’s worldview in prioritizing market forces over swift, coordinated leadership from our federal government. 

Despite Trump’s assertions, America remains in short supply of tests, personal protective equipment (PPE), and life-saving ventilators that corporations are unlikely to produce in the time-frame and scale required to save tens of thousands of lives, without a presidential directive requiring urgent action.

Just this past week, Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) revealed that the Trump administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plan to meet needs for PPE on COVID-19 was contingent on two deeply flawed assumptions: First, the number of infections would decline this summer (which was and remains demonstrably false) and second, that nurses would reuse PPE equipment that was designed for single use (which infectious disease experts strongly recommend against).

Due to this untrammeled “free market” approach, price gouging is rampant, and the cost of vital equipment is skyrocketing thanks to what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described as an eBay-style competitive bidding war that has been playing out between states and with the federal government, due to Trump’s refusal to use his powers to stop this deadly competition for life-saving goods. 

Already, President Trump’s laissez-faire approach has made America #1 in the world in infections, with close to 2,000,000 confirmed cases and more than 100,000 deaths. Germany, in contrast, acted decisively to deploy its federal government and universal health care system to impede the disease and reduce deaths, and it has slowed its reopening unlike America, which has recklessly accelerated its own in many states.

Meanwhile, corporate America has proven to be no match for the pandemic. The restaurant industry has been crushed. Much of the oil and gas industry, which was mired in debt while splurging on stock dividends, is on the brink of collapse. Wall Street is in a death spiral. Even hospitals have been cutting wages and laying off workers on the frontlines of the fight. 

However, it is ordinary Americans who continue to bear the brunt of a crisis exacerbated by a social safety net riddled with holes, thanks in large part to Charles Koch.

Millions of Americans have applied for the very unemployment benefits that Koch’s network has fought for years to kill, through his group “Americans for Prosperity” (AFP) and other organizations. More than 20 million jobs were lost in April and as of June, America’s unemployment rate is more than 13 percent, the worst rate since the Great Depression, and the rate is much higher than that in some states and in some demographics.

Loss of employment also means loss of health insurance for many people, and Koch has directed tens of millions of dollars in a concerted effort to undermine alternatives like the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Medicare for All.   


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Koch-funded groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), and AFP have been relentless in their efforts to kill the ability of Americans to enroll in the ACA’s health exchanges and they’ve also helped block state expansion of Medicaid for years. Koch’s spending has been instrumental in preventing millions of Americans from getting the health care they need.   

Millions of Americans also lack access to paid medical or family leave, forcing them to choose between a paycheck and their health, which will lead to more preventable infections and deaths. Last month, AFP and IWF were mobilized to block the creation of a federal paid leave program, despite research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing paid leave helps reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

The CDC itself has also been targeted by the Koch network, lobbying Congress to cut the agency's budget by $1 billion in 2018. AFP has also attacked the CDC’s shelter-in-place policies and even went to court to fight stay-at-home orders. It is also actively trying to kill the HEROES Act, which would extend benefits in the CARES Act that millions of Americans still need, and the group is running digital ads against several senators and promising to score congressional votes on this relief package that passed the House.

But a business-as-usual approach that relies on corporate America and private charity to lead the way simply cannot deliver what strong and effective governing can: a robust safety net that protects all Americans and a fair democracy that makes the lives and well-being of our citizens its top priority. 

It’s time for a bold rethink of the radical libertarian ideology espoused by Charles Koch that has spread through our politics like a destructive virus. It’s not just a symptom of America's disastrous response to COVID-19; it is one of the biggest causes of our crisis.

Lisa Graves is the executive director of True North Research and curator of KochDocs. She’s a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Main image: Charles Koch caricature Credit: DonkeyHoteyCC by 2.0

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