When we wrote what we thought was a parody about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to privatize the LSU football program, little did we know the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation beat us to the punch—by a good six years.
Only they were dead serious.
Thanks to an alert reader who forwarded us a link to a Tampa Bay Times story from May of 2011, we learned that Koch, one-half of the infamous Koch brothers who are the primary benefactors of ALEC, had pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University’s economics department way back in 2008 (How did we manage to miss this for so long?).
There was one major caveat, however: In exchange for his generosity, Koch received veto power over hiring decisions for the department.
But even the FSU endowment was not precedent-setting. Between 2007 and 2011, Koch and brother David were said to have given more than $30 million to various groups that negotiated deals with more than 200 universities throughout the U.S.
As Rachel Maddow of MSNBC correctly observed, naming rights to a stadium in exchange for an endowment is one thing, but purchasing faculty rights is something else altogether.
Maddow, while conceding the deal made perfect sense from Koch’s perspective, was still critical of state officials “crazy enough to let him do it.”
She said that Koch “gets to make sure his conservative billionaire economic ideas get taught and published and propagated under the brand name of something that is supposed to look like a university-level education.
“If you don’t like what the facts say, then write your own facts,” she said. “If you don’t like what independent scholarship looks like, then buy some.”
Normally, university benefactors have little input into who fills a chair that they endow. The unfettered power of university administrators to hire professors of their choosing is considered sacrosanct in academia.
Most universities, the University of Florida among them, have strict policies limiting donor input over the use of their gifts and Yale University once even returned a $20 million endowment when the donor wanted veto power over appointments. Such control was “unheard of,” the university said.
And technically speaking, Koch did not get direct authority over hiring decisions but he did receive authority to select members of an advisory committee that screens candidates which, it turns out, is just as good. A year after the grant was awarded, that advisory committee had rejected 60 percent of job applicants suggested by FSU faculty.
Author Jennifer Washburn called FSU’s capitulation to the siren song of the dollar “an egregious example of a public university being willing to sell itself for next to nothing.”
One of Koch’s favorites, George Mason University, has received more than $30 million over the past two decades. Koch also has underwritten faculty members who push his political beliefs at Clemson and West Virginia universities.
Bruce Benson, chairman of the FSU economics department, denies any suggestion that he agreed to the deal with Koch for economic reasons but did say he makes annual reports to Koch on faculty publications, speeches and classes. He says he has no concerns that agreements with Koch will encourage other donors to seek control over hiring or curriculum.
Koch is in political lock step with Florida Gov. Rick Scott who, in one of his first acts as governor, froze all new state business regulations and who has pushed for sweeping tax cuts.
The Koch brothers are also political allies of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who likes to tout bogus surveys and reports that make the state appear as the national pacesetter for robust economic health and job growth.
Again, sound familiar?
In fact, one discredited report by Arthur Laffer, who concocted the infamous Laffer Curve nearly 30 years ago, said that Wisconsin’s economic outlook had made a quantum leap in 2013, from 32nd in the nation to 15th. That would be great if only it were true.
But, as they say, there are lies, damned lies and statistics.
It turns out Laffer’s annual report, Rich States, Poor States, is published and distributed by ALEC. Moreover, ALEC solicited funding to underwrite the report from two foundations—the Searle Freedom Trust ($175,000) and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation ($150,000).
The Koch brothers, by the way, control and run the latter.
The Laffer report, co-written by Wall Street Journal writer Stephen Moore and ALEC director of tax and fiscal policy Jonathan Williams, does not limit its favorable treatment to Wisconsin. Other states with Koch-friendly administrations tend to get the same glowing reports. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger published one of his reports last May with the headline trumpeting that Mississippi’s economic outlook ranked in the top 10 nationally. (Of course, both Mississippi and Louisiana also lead the nation in poverty, obesity, pay disparity between men and women, and the percentage of citizens without health care insurance.)
And Laffer’s report, while serving as a cheerleader for Wisconsin’s economic outlook which he said had jumped 17 spots, was less enthusiastic over data that showed the state’s economic performance moved up only one position, from 42nd to 41st. Obviously, then, there is a huge difference between economic outlook and actual economic performance. Laffer’s recommended formula for the state to improve on economic performance? Lower the state income tax rate for the wealthiest of the state’s citizens while slashing the corporate tax rate in the upcoming 2014 legislative session.
Not to belabor the point, but that should have a familiar ring to Louisiana citizens.
“This is not rocket surgery,” Laffer said. (Yes, he really said that.)
We suppose it’s really not rocket surgery. In fact, it all seems rather easy to comprehend: package your economic philosophy in institutions of higher learning and promote your political and economic agenda in cooperative state legislatures with friendly governors leading the charge.
Once those goals are accomplished, the Koch brothers, through ALEC and their newest organization, the Center for State Fiscal Reform and their corporate membership, can pretty much have their way with us.
And that, of course, would include the elimination of collective bargaining, doing away with the minimum wage, abolishing medical and retirement benefits, discarding worker safety rules, repeal of anything else that stands in the way of their agenda which also includes passage of increased deregulation of business and industry and even more corporate tax cuts.
First, there was Citizens United, and those criteria have already been met, thanks to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
In Laffer’s words, it’s not rocket surgery.