Current Affairs

The Reputation Launderers

Talking with monsters like they’re not monsters isn’t journalism- it’s cowardice.

Charles Koch wants what’s best for you. Actually, he wants you to be empowered to achieve what’s best for you. If you let him tell you in his own words, he’s a well-intentioned man of business and science, humbly seeking the best ways to help people help themselves. He believes climate change is real and something we have caused (he should know). He wants to protect the environment. He thinks that business makes the most profit when it serves people’s needs the best. He thinks that our efforts to reign in business and support the less fortunate, well-intentioned as they may be, often backfire, leaving everyone worse off. 

This is Charles Koch in his own words on the hugely popular business podcast The Tim Ferriss Show. Ferriss, a successful writer whose books on productivity, cooking, and fitness along with his radical self-experimentation have made him a darling of the tech elite. His show, which he claims has over 400 million downloads, aims to “deconstruct world-class performers from eclectic areas (investing, sports, business, art, etc.) to extract the tactics, tools, and routines you can use. This includes favorite books, morning routines, exercise habits, time-management tricks, and much more.” 

The Tim Ferriss Show was one of the first podcasts I got into. I was eager to learn how to be more productive and effective at pursuing my goals. I appreciated his candor discussing mental health and his own near-suicide. I also liked his discussion of psychedelics and how they had personally benefited him. 

Tim didn’t really talk politics, but that was fine. I had other shows for that. As my worldview changed, I became less interested in the show, but would drop in from time to time (some episodes that I enjoyed: Paul Stamets the mushroom king and Adam Savage from Mythbusters, who, with his recommendation to read Chomsky, may have been the most left-wing guest on the show). Last August, Tim popped back onto my radar in the form of a tweet announcing his episode with Charles Koch, the extant brother of the duo whose financing and organizing has done more to shift our politics to the right than arguably anyone alive. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with interviewing powerful and destructive people. There is, however, something wrong with what Ferriss did with Koch. Tim has set up his show to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, the coveted “win-win” a good businessperson is eternally seeking. He is transparent in laying out what the guest gets out of it:

“Aside from promo impact (often bigger than full-page NYT, WSJ, or Esquire coverage, or primetime CNN), guests enjoy the show because it’s friendly, long-form, and they have final cut before audio is published. This leads to extremely open, raw interviews and — paradoxically — fewer edits.”

 It’s a good deal! For an hour or two of your time, you reach millions of people, many of whom are wealthy life-optimizers. You get to hawk your product or ideas, and Tim gets to build his personal brand and rake in millions in advertiser dollars. In an interview, Ferriss describes how he wants the show to be perceived by potential guests, “I’d like it to become a clearinghouse for thought leaders who want to go deep, or set the record straight, or leave an interview they’d want their kids to remember them by.” He goes on to quote investor and past guest Naval Ravikant, “In brief, this is the response that I’d love every guest to have: ‘Realization: [Ferriss] is so meticulous that people going on his podcast sense that it will be one of their best works.’” There is no quest for truth or justice or even entertainment in creating the episode. Instead, it’s a “work” illustrating the greatness of the guest. Trade “work” for “product” and you better capture the mentality of Ferriss and his peers. 

Ferriss is just one of many interview podcasts offering titans of industry the chance to share their “thought leadership” in a safe space that appears rigorous and serious. Others, like Freakonomics Radio, Recode Decode, and How I Built This, are hosted by journalists and present an even more insidious and subtle form of propaganda. These shows and their amoral willingness to uncritically interview whichever rich and powerful asshole is willing to do it are emblematic of the norms in the business and productivity podcast world, which is remarkably unexamined given its influence. Compared to all the media discussion of shows like Chapo Trap House, these podcasts fly under the radar despite having much larger audiences. 

When Koch appeared on Ferriss’s show, quite a few of his own fans said that Tim shouldn’t be offering a platform to Koch. Others replied that it was naive to think that the head of the second largest private company in America and one of the richest people in the world needed Ferriss’s platform. Yes, Koch could have spent a tiny fraction of his fortune on TV spots and full-page ads in the major newspapers trumpeting his wonderful philanthropic work (Michael Bloomberg tested the limits of this approach). But appearing on The Tim Ferriss Show cost Charles Koch nothing but his time and got him something money can’t buy: the patina of respectability and intellectual seriousness that comes from doing a long-form interview with a best-selling author. While Ferriss has interviewed other villains of American capitalism (e.g. Peter Thiel, Ray Dalio), Koch stuck out to me. He is probably best known as the most prominent conductor of the far-right gravy train.
So how was the actual interview? Knowing nothing about Koch going in (as is the case for most Americans according to the latest polling), you would likely come away with the impression that he is a socially conscious businessman and a compassionate conservative. Koch makes repeated paeans to the notion of “good profit”, i.e. that which also helps the broader society. He dips his toes into political waters in lamenting market distortions that he argues are the result of cronyism, protectionism, and corporate welfare. Ferriss then lauds Koch’s work with ideological opponents like Van Jones and George Soros on criminal justice reform. He mentions his history of supporting Republicans in his political giving, but says he would support anyone willing to advance policies that align with his values. 

The show really gets interesting when Ferriss starts asking the Hard Questions. Actually, asking isn’t the right word. Ferriss begins reluctantly reciting hard questions he received from listeners, couching them in borderline apologies and walkbacks. After reading one quoted question about trickle down economics and tax policy, he says “I don’t have a dog in the fight because I’m not well-educated on this.” Now, Tim doesn’t need to be an expert on everything he discusses in his show and I think it’s generally good to disclose your gaps in knowledge, but acting as a spineless ventriloquist when interviewing one of the most powerful men in the world does no one but Charles Koch any favors. 

Ferris parrots another question from a listener: 

“Does he ever have pangs of guilt about the millions of Americans made poorer, sicker, or dead by unfettered capitalism? Does he actually prefer a world where the majority struggle in misery so a few can horde billions? Why are higher profit margins worth polluting the environment and how does he square that with the animals and people sickened and killed by deregulated industrial pollution?”

Ferriss is audibly uncomfortable when asking this question, and follows with “you don’t need to answer ‘do you prefer a world where the majority struggle in misery so a few can horde billions?’ It’s pretty self-evident that you do not prefer that.” This assurance from Ferriss reveals a lot about why the interview doesn’t work: he’s assuming the good faith of his guest. When you’re interviewing a Mythbuster or a mushroom scientist, this may be a safe assumption. But Charles Koch is not a good faith actor. Koch is one of the great enemies of the American Left for good reason. His money, organization, and vision has reshaped and empowered the American right. And perhaps no single person is more responsible for our inaction in the face of a growing climate catastrophe, a catastrophe his company has been one of the greatest contributors to. 

We can learn a bit more about Koch by examining some of his claims in the interview. In response to the above question, Koch says: 

I don’t like the term capitalism, that assumes that what we’re after is a system where certain people have a lot of capital. That’s not what we’re about. What we’re after is a system where everybody has the opportunity to realize their potential, including those who start with nothing. And businesses should only profit to the extent that they’re helping other people improve their lives… And polluting and making people sick, killing people shouldn’t profit. They should bear a cost for that…our biggest failures in our mind are safety problems. When there’s an accident and people die, I mean, that’s monstrous. Job one is keeping people safe and job two is protecting the environment. In the last 5 years, the EPA has ranked us either number one or two of US companies in pollution reduction initiatives.

There’s a lot to unpack here. If Charles isn’t “about” a system where certain people have a lot of capital, then why does he have over $47 billion? If he wanted to prove how not about capitalism he was, he could give away his capital. There is certainly no shortage of social problems that could be addressed by $47 billion. With the interest on his fortune, Charles could fully prevent and treat neglected tropical diseases that affect more than a billion people annually. With his principal, he could end extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 per day) for a year in all of Nigeria, Brazil, India, China, and Angola. Now this level of giving is not sustainable even for Mr. Koch, but that’s okay, because he’s not “about” anyone having that much money. 

You may object: Koch giving away all his money won’t put a huge dent in global inequality. There will still be a few thousand billionaires left over. Global inequality is really the result of policy failures (or successes, depending upon your perspective). Well the good news is that Charles is quite well-versed in using the American political system to realize his vision. Since he’s not about systems where “certain people have a lot of capital”, we would expect him to have pushed for increased taxes on the wealthy in his political giving and organizing. 

Well, that’s not exactly what happened. In 2017, Charles and his brother spent $20 million to convince voters to back Trump’s tax cuts, which likely saved them and their company between $840 million and $1.4 billion in income taxes each year, according to an analysis from the nonprofit Americans for Tax Fairness. But, the tax cut also put money back in the pockets of regular Americans right? A report from Congress’s official think tank found that “individual income taxes as a percentage of personal income fell slightly from 9.6% to 9.2%.” A Vox analysis of the economic effects summarized: “GDP growth was level with pre-tax cut projections. Wage growth was marginal and slower than GDP.” Corporations received enormous windfalls, but the think tank found “relatively little was directed to paying worker bonuses.” And while tax rates fell for everyone, people making more than $100,000 received the greatest percentage growth in after-tax income. An economist who worked in the Obama administration summarized the effects of the then-proposed bill: “The bill is investing heavily in the wealthy and their children — by boosting the value of their stock portfolios, creating new loopholes for them to avoid tax on their labor income, and cutting taxes on massive inheritances.” Examining Charles Koch’s personal and political actions reveals that he seems quite fine with a “system where certain people have a lot of capital” (he and his children being amongst those with the most capital). But maybe becoming rich by “creating value” for millions of people is fine. To justify wealth inequality, libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick used the (dated) example of Wilt Chamberlain becoming wealthy because a million people pay a quarter to watch him play basketball. As noted above and elsewhere in this magazine, personal wealth cannot be justified in a world with so much deprivation, regardless of how it was “earned.” But Koch has made his billions in one of the dirtiest ways possible. He and his brothers inherited Koch Industries from his father Fred Koch, who built his business, Winkler-Koch, on a patented equipment design stolen from an existing company. The equipment “cracked” heavy crude, an essential step in processing oil. Winkler-Koch built 15 “cracking” units for Stalin’s Soviet Union between 1929 and 1931. In Dark Money, Jane Mayer found that Fred Koch’s company helped build the third-largest oil refinery in the Third Reich, which played a crucial role in fueling the Nazi war machine from its completion in 1935 up until American bombers destroyed it in 1944 (planes filled with fuel that Koch helped refine). Fred wrote admiringly of the Axis powers in 1938, “I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard.” These despotic clients were not incidental to the rise of Winkler-Koch, as Mayer concludes, “Fred Koch’s willingness to work with the Soviets and the Nazis was a major factor in creating the Koch family’s early fortune.” 

While it’s not fair to judge him for the sins of his father, Charles has plenty of sins of his own. In 1996, teenagers Danielle Smalley and Jason Stone were incinerated in Lively, Texas. Unbeknownst to them, “…a decrepit Koch pipeline carrying liquid butane – literally, lighter fluid – ran through their subdivision.” The pipeline had ruptured and filled its surroundings with gas that ignited when Danielle cranked the ignition of her dad’s truck. The Koch company responsible for the pipeline was aware of hundreds of corrosion defects, but repaired only 80 of them. Just months before the explosion, Charles Koch had ordered his top staff to cut expenses by 10 percent “through the elimination of waste” adding that “(I’m sure there is much more waste than that)” in order to increase pre-tax earnings by $550 million a year. Mayer quotes a deposition with a Koch executive vice president admitting “Koch Industries is definitely responsible for the death of Danielle Smalley.” In another deposition Kenoth Whitstine, a former employee, testified that “when he brought concerns to his boss at the company about another corroding pipeline, which he feared could cause a fatal accident if ruptured, he was told that it would be cheaper to pay off damages from a lawsuit than make repairs.”

This was not an isolated incident. Koch Industries was sued and indicted for violating the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act respectively. Between 1988 and 1996, Koch pipelines spilled 11.6 million gallons of oil. After Koch Industries paid a record-breaking civil penalty, a former EPA administrator said of the company, “They simply did not believe the law applied to them.” In 1996, a whistle-blower revealed that Koch Industries had released fifteen times more benzene than the legal limit and 149 times more than what they had reported to the government. This revelation resulted in a 97 count indictment in 2000. The company faced up to $352 million in fines and four employees faced potentially long prison sentences. Eventually, the George W. Bush administration gave the company what was perceived to be a sweetheart deal, and it pled guilty to only a single felony count for covering up the fact that it had disconnected a key pollution-control device, though it was still handed historic $20 million judgment in fines and reparations.

Perhaps the company has learned the error of its ways. After all, as Charles says, “In the last 5 years, the EPA has ranked us either number one or two of us companies in pollution reduction initiatives.” The company’s website actually claims this has been true since 2012. While I was unable to find any evidence for this claim that didn’t come straight from the company itself, let’s assume it’s true. A skeptical interviewer might push back on a claim like this from a prominent opponent of government and regulation, who has a lengthy and public history of tangling with the EPA.

In a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Charles Koch wrote, “EPA officials have commended us for our ‘commitment to a cleaner environment’ and called us ‘a model for other companies.’” The “model for other companies” claim is bullshit. A regional EPA administrator said of an agreement with Koch subsidiary Flint Hills Resources (FHR), “It is our hope that the FHR process will serve as a model for other companies seeking to transition to federally-approved permits” (emphasis added).

Pollution prevention initiatives are less important than the actual amount you’re polluting. And in this respect, Koch Industries emits rarefied, toxic air. Koch Industries is one of only three companies to rank as a top 30 polluter across air, water, and greenhouse gas emissions, according to data directly from the EPA. The other two are Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Exxon Mobil, each of whom generated over twice as much revenue as Koch Industries in 2018. Now, it may not be fair to expect Ferriss to know a fact like this offhand (although anyone with a passing knowledge of how Koch makes money might have had their bullshit detector go off at the claim), but there are a few paths Ferriss could have taken. He could have asked any follow-up question, perhaps something simple like: “do you think the EPA should exist?”

Writing critically about Charles Koch is easy. The hardest part is choosing what to leave out. The man has his fingerprints on many of the worst political and corporate developments of the last sixty years. His company’s crimes are well-documented and his political ideology is barbaric. All this makes Ferriss’s fecklessness as an interviewer all the more embarrassing and damning. 

But things make more sense when you look at the interview for the purpose it serves, intentionally or not: laundering the reputation of a very bad man. A Marxist analysis might explain it as simply two very rich men (one vastly richer than the other) defending their class interest. As a longtime listener to the show, I think it’s more the result of Ferriss’s access “journalism” model. If he tears into Charles, future high-powered guests may reconsider attending. Ferriss, as he would be the first to admit, does not really engage with politics, which is itself a political action. Avoiding politics is a conservative act, a tacit endorsement of the status quo. He seems to have little critique of power and is obsequious in its presence. 

The funny thing is that a more transparently puffy interview would have been less effective at refurbishing Koch for an inquisitive audience than the one Ferriss conducted. If Tim hadn’t asked Charles about climate change or inequality and just stuck to Koch’s wonderful charity work, even a credulous listener would have recognized the interview for what it was: a puff piece. But by offering a critical voice, even as a craven ventriloquist, Ferriss offers Koch a chance to reply to the most common criticisms he faces. And because Ferriss doesn’t ask a single critical follow-up question, Koch’s massaged and dishonest talking points go unchallenged. 

Ferriss is just one particularly bright star in a constellation of business podcast hosts, each boosting their own reputation by interviewing richer magnates and more famous celebrities. 

Tech journalist and media entrepreneur Kara Swisher hosted her own podcast called Recode Decode, where she interviewed the mega-successful in tech and beyond (she recently moved to a new podcast with New York Times Opinion, where, “she’ll continue her work holding major tech figures to account, while expanding her scope to a wider landscape of political leaders, regulators, C.E.O.s and important thinkers in science, culture and entertainment. She’ll interrogate people in power as well as those influencing the world from less traditional corners.”). While not a household name, Swisher has unique cachet in the tech world. She met Jeff Bezos when Amazon was looking for office space and Larry Page and Sergey Brin when Google was still in a garage. She co-founded the iconic Code Conference, where Steve Jobs and Bill Gates came together on stage and where she and her co-founder grilled Mark Zuckerburg on privacy issues (making him sweat so much, he took off his famous hoodie). Next year’s speakers include the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Starbucks, Salesforce, Disney, and Airbnb, to name a few. NY Magazine’s profile of Swisher writes:

“Above all, Swisher’s power derives from her reporting—driven, in turn, by her deep sourcing—and from the sense, unnerving to executives, that she has a red phone with a direct connection to the perma-class of venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road who fund their companies and fill their boards and decide their fates. She has regularly broken news about big deals (e.g. Google trying to buy Groupon, Yahoo buying Tumblr) and major personnel moves (Facebook’s hiring of Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft’s recent CEO search), and she dominates coverage of Yahoo (she broke the news of CEO Scott Thompson’s résumé lies and his subsequent resignation and won a Loeb Award for live-blogging one of the company’s earning calls).”

Swisher plays herself in HBO’s Silicon Valley, interviewing the fictional billionaire CEO of Hooli, who compares the treatment of billionaires to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Real-life billionaire CEO Stephen Schwarzman famously compared the Obama administration’s proposed tax increases on carried interest profits (gains made when private equity firms buy and sell businesses) to “when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939”. Kara Swisher’s interview with Schwarzman is less hard-hitting than one might expect from Silicon Valley’s “Most Feared Journalist”. Swisher doesn’t mention Schwarzman’s comparison when he blames increased anger in America in part on the Obama administration’s treatment of the business community (he correctly attributes part of the anger to the financial crisis as well). Schwarzman also claims that income taxes are actually pretty progressive, despite what the slogans say. This is technically true, but labor income is not how the truly wealthy make their money. Things like capital gains (money your money makes while you’re asleep) and carried interest are taxed at extremely low rates. This is how the richest Americans pay the lowest overall effective tax rate of any income group. Kara probably knows this, and, if she doesn’t, she should. But she lets the claim go unchallenged. 

They discuss immigration and the bipartisan support for the H1B visas reserved for “high-skilled” workers. Schwarzman blames a failure to expand the program on Democrats because they insist on negotiating about undocumented immigrants and less popular immigration programs in any conversation about H1B. Instead of asking why Republicans aren’t to blame, Swisher argues that you don’t always know which immigrant will create the next trillion dollar company. When they discuss “Dreamers” (undocumented people brought to the US as children), both Swisher and Schwarzman are sympathetic. Swisher calls them very talented people. But would she care about them if they were a wholly average group of people with no chance of creating the next Google? There is no discussion of human rights or fairness with respect to immigration. These are simply assets moving across national boundaries, increasing our (human) capital stock.

Swisher’s other interviews are far fluffier than you’d expect from someone so feared. Last year she spoke with former HP CEO and Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorinia became the CEO of HP in 1999. Her signature decision was to purchase Compaq against resistance from “most industry analysts, HP shareholders, HP employees and even some HP board members.” Thanks to that deal, profits fell and the company laid off tens of thousands of employees. HP’s value fell 55 percent during her tenure. While this period coincided with the bursting of the dot-com bubble, competitors did well over the same years: “…stocks in companies like Apple and Dell rose. Google went public, and Facebook was launched. The S&P 500 yardstick on major U.S. firms showed only a 7 percent drop.” 

Fiorina has a history of lying about her performance at HP. For example, she claimed that, “We had more employees by the time I left HP than either pre-merger HP or pre-merger Compaq had, combined.” In reality, HP at the end of Fiorina’s tenure employed thousands fewer people than the combined workforces of HP, Compaq, and the dozen-plus other companies HP bought. HP laid off roughly 30,000 employees under her leadership.

I learned none of this from the interview Fiorina did with Swisher. Instead I heard bromides about how we need a problem solver in politics and that it’s now time for an outsider (why Fiorina, an ex-Fortune 500 CEO, former adviser to a prominent senator, and major party candidate for Senate in the largest state in the country, is more of an outsider than the reality TV star and con-man who is currently president, is never questioned).Swisher, who is gay, also didn’t challenge Fiorina on her past opposition to marriage equality: Fiorina previously supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and California’s Proposition 8

So why is Swisher feared? If I were a famous business guy going on her show, I wouldn’t be very afraid. I might expect to discuss some uncomfortable topics, but not for too long. And while I may get jabbed about things that I say, they will be good-natured and lighthearted. If I were a founder of one of the companies that Swisher is genuinely opposed to, like Facebook, I might have more to fear. But Swisher’s show isn’t trying to discover truth or hold power to account, it’s designed to be entertaining in the service of selling more advertising. 

Another journalist-turned-podcast celebrity in the constellation is Stephen Dubner, co-author with economist Steven Levitt of Freakonomics, the 2005 bestseller that turned counter-intuitive microeconomics research into compelling Malcolm Gladwell-esque nonfiction. (Despite the pedigree of their authors- a journalist with work in The New York TImes and a distinguished University of Chicago professor respectively- the books make a number of serious mistakes.) Freakonomics’ runaway success turned into a sequel and the popular podcast Freakonomics Radio, with reportedly 15 million global monthly downloads. 

Freakonomics Radio, hosted by Dubner with frequent appearances by Levitt, has become one of the staples of the business podcast world, consistently ranking in the top 100 across all of Apple podcasts. Promising to “explore the hidden side of everything”, the show does 45-60 minute NPR-style narratives on a wide range of topics, with an emphasis on behavioral economics, business, and management. Dubner takes a position on more contentious issues than Swisher and Ferriss (e.g. “Why Rent Control Doesn’t Work”) and dives more directly into politics. 

The show tries to present itself as fair-minded, tough, and evidence-based, but sometimes the mask slips a bit. Their episode about socialism features no conversations with actual socialists- the most left-wing guest Dubner interviews is development economist Jeffrey Sachs, who is no socialist. Socialists may as well be mythical creatures in the world of Freakonomics, to be debated and speculated about in the absence of a live specimen. However, I’m fairly confident “America’s most prominent Marxist economistRichard Wolff would have happily given an interview had he been asked. Dubner does, however, find time to quote an economist on Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers claiming that fully enacting Bernie Sanders’ agenda would decrease US GDP by 24%, and examines the failure of Venezuelan government economic policies, which Dubner calls “pretty much like the textbook definition of socialism,” since it involves state ownership of the means of production. This is, however, a stupid definition of socialism. A government of plutocratic elites with no accountability to the public could own all the means of production and they would not be socialist in the slightest.

So it may not be too surprising that a podcast about behavioral economics misses the mark on socialism, but how are they in their wheelhouse?

The show did a series on CEOs, featuring interviews with such luminaries as Mark Zuckerburg, Jack Welch, and Ray Dalio. Welch, the long-time CEO of GE who died this March, was nicknamed “Neutron Jack”. During their interview, Dubner tells Welch, “So you were famous for speaking your mind, being yourself. Now the phrase is called ‘radical candor.’ It wasn’t called that then; they just called you names like Neutron Jack.” The name really came from Welch’s penchant for layoffs- like the neutron bomb, Jack eliminated people while leaving buildings intact. 

Dubner did his own two-parter on the Koch Brothers featuring extensive interviews with Charles. Dubner does a far better job than Ferriss of offering criticisms to Charles and the audience, framed, however, with the distance of “critics say”. He describes how Fred Koch’s experience building oil refineries for Stalin informed his politics, but he doesn’t mention the work Koch Sr. did for Hitler. Dubner mentions Fred’s involvement in the John Birch Society and its racist, nativist program. But, ultimately, these interviews fail as works of journalism as well. 

During their conversations, Charles compares himself to both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther with no pushback from Dubner. Koch laments the influence of special interests in politics. He offers no definition of special interest and Dubner doesn’t ask for one. The examples he gives of fighting special interests are in successfully opposing Hillarycare and the proposed Clinton BTU tax on carbon-based energy sources, along with nuclear, hydro-electricity, and imported electricity. Both of these measures were (flawed) attempts by the government to provide universal benefits to its citizens, universal health insurance and reduced pollution and carbon emissions respectively. They both failed due in part to opposition from industries that would be harmed by their passage, like health insurance and fossil fuels. It seems clear in these cases that the problematic special interests were those that killed these bills, not the undefined ones pushing for their passage. A decabillionaire fossil fuel executive successfully lobbying the federal government to kill bills that oppose his interests, economic or philosophical, sounds like a textbook definition of a special interest to me. Yet this obvious point is never raised by Dubner the journalist. 

In Dubner’s first appearance on The Tim Ferriss Show, he argues that stories are more effective at persuading people than theory, data, or rational argument, which is not to say you disregard these elements when crafting a story. It seems that Dubner’s penchant for spinning yarns has led him to miss the mark with Koch. In Dubner’s telling, the left depicts Charles Koch as a diabolical billionaire seeking to protect his material wealth from taxation and his businesses from regulation. But after researching Koch’s life and speaking with the man himself, Dubner concludes that he’s a true believer, a principled libertarian. As he rhetorically asks the audience, why would a man in his 80s, who’s worth tens of billions of dollars, do all this political work just to boost his net worth by a few billion more? In all the interviews I found, Koch goes to great pains to emphasize all of the policies he supports that would hurt his bottom line. But just as he’s benefited greatly from the policies and politicians he’s supported thus far, a more Kochified America is probably one in which Koch Industries is worth even more. But maybe he really thinks that, after getting rid of all the special interests and crony capitalists, Koch Industries would actually fare worse, but believes in doing so anyway for the greater good. I don’t feel qualified to judge how genuine and well-intentioned Koch’s political projects are, and, unlike Dubner the storyteller, I don’t really care. What really matters are the consequences of Koch’s actions, which as we’ve seen above, are terrible. 

In fact, great irony in all of Koch’s stated desire for a fair marketplace is that his core businesses generate a huge amount of what economists call “externalities”, costs which are not borne by the system producing them. The quintessential example of an externality is pollution: a company makes a toy for children, producing toxic waste that runs off into the nearby river. The town downstream experiences costs related to the pollution, like health problems and ecological destruction. These costs are not borne by the toy company or reflected in the product’s price. They are “external” to the market. Carbon emissions are the ultimate externality, the costs of which will largely be borne in the coming decades. If we were able to price carbon-based fuels while accounting for the future consequences of their emissions, the profitability of Koch Industries would drop, perhaps to the point where the business is no longer viable. Any economic philosophy that doesn’t meaningfully account for the huge problems that externalities pose is not worth seriously considering. All of this sounds like interesting and relevant material for an economics podcast to discuss with someone whose economic views have enormously influenced American policy. Alas. 

There are good models for how you should interview monstrous people. For instance, Mehdi Hasan’s Al Jazeera show “Head to Head” often features hostile interviews with controversial public figures. In Hasan’s interview with Trump advisor and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, Hasan came prepared with the details of Blackwater’s crimes in Iraq, incriminating quotes from Prince, and a panel of relevant experts. He asked Prince follow ups and pushed back, catching Prince in obvious lies. Prince certainly didn’t succeed in using the interview to make himself look good.It would be hard to watch this interview and come away thinking that anyone should trust Erik Prince to privatize the US war in Afghanistan (something Prince proposed at the request of Trump aides). Given Prince’s position of extreme power and his company’s bloody record, this kind of grilling is not only justified but morally obligated if you find yourself in the position to interview someone like him. 

I’m not expecting Tim Ferriss, Kara Swisher, and Stephen Dubner to start grilling their guests on the bad things they’ve done, but until they do, their shows should not be treated as works of journalism or even as intellectually honest depictions of their guests.

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