CEO says attacks on him and his brother are “beneath the dignity … of the president.”
Charles Koch hit back at criticism of “the Koch brothers” during President Barack Obama’s energy speech in Las Vegas earlier this week, saying he was “flabbergasted” by the attack and charging that Obama made the dig as a favor to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who appeared with him.
“It’s beneath the president, the dignity of the president, to be doing that,” Koch said during a phone interview Tuesday.
Koch’s blistering comments came as he and his brother David, whose conservative political network plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the 2016 election, have spoken out more frequently in an attempt to blunt Democratic attacks on their political influence and insinuations about their motives.
Reid has been particularly relentless, calling the Kochs “shadowy billionaires” who seek to “rig the system to benefit themselves and the wealthiest 1 percent,” among many other charges. At the National Clean Energy Summit at the Mandalay Bay Resort Convention Center on Monday, Obama joined the fray.
The president drew applause when he said: “[Y]ou start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests, or conservative think tanks, or the Koch brothers pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding — that’s a problem.”
But Koch, who is chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, said his opposition to subsidies for clean energy companies — or any other private businesses — doesn’t mean he’s against their success. Rolling back corporate welfare is one of the top issues Koch is pursuing with his richly funded political network.
Koch said his company also opposes subsidies for fossil fuels. And he portrayed Obama’s remarks as an unwarranted personal attack.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted that he could say so many things about us that were the opposite of the truth,” Koch said. “I was really dumbfounded. And I know he was there with Harry Reid. So we expect that with Harry Reid, but I didn’t expect that from the president.”
Koch said he has never met Obama. “The only thing I can think of is he was there with Harry Reid, and it was kind of a farewell gesture to help Harry Reid,” Koch added. “I can think of no other reason to single us out in his remarks in his efforts to promote his favorite forms of energy.”
Koch said his company is “opposed to renewable energy subsidies of all kinds — as we are all subsidies, whether they benefit or help us.”
“We are not trying to prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding,” Koch continued. “Any business that’s economical, that can succeed in the marketplace, any form of energy, we’re all for. As a matter of fact, we’re investing in quite a number of them, ourselves — whether that’s ethanol, renewable fuel oil. … We’re investing a tremendous amount in research to make those more efficient and create higher-value products.”
Koch added: “But it’s not going to help the country to be subsidizing uneconomical forms of energy — whether you call them ‘green,’ ‘renewable’ or whatever. In that case, the cure is worse than the disease. And there is a big debate on whether you have a real disease or something that’s not that serious. I recognize there is a big debate about that. But whatever it is, the cure is to do things in the marketplace, and to let individuals and companies innovate, to come up with alternatives that will deal with whatever the problem may be in an economical way so we don’t squander resources on uneconomic approaches.”
Obama said of those who try to thwart policies intended to boost clean energy: “That’s not the American way. That’s not progress. That’s not innovation. That’s rent seeking, and trying to protect old ways of doing business and standing in the way of the future.”
Obama continued: “I mean, think about this. Ordinarily, these are groups that tout themselves as champions of the free market. If you start talking to them about providing health care for folks who don’t have health insurance, they’re going crazy: ‘This is socialism, this is going to destroy America.’ But in this situation, they’re trying to undermine competition in the marketplace, and choke off consumer choice, and threaten an industry that’s churning out new jobs at a fast pace.”
Koch shot back: “I don’t know whether he knows what that phrase means, but ‘rent seeking,’ of course, is, in economic terms, is getting the government to rig the system in your favor. And that’s exactly what these so-called ‘renewable energy’ proponents are doing.”
Clean-energy advocates argue that government incentives have helped cut the cost for solar power by 75 percent in the past decade — making it competitive with fossil fuels in many places in the country. The resistance, they say, now comes from utility monopolies that fear their profits will disappear as the clean power sources on customers’ rooftops displace big fossil-fuel plants.
For his part, Koch said he’ll continue speaking out on the issue.
“In the days ahead, we’re trying to show that corporate welfare wastes resources,” he said. “The country — or the government — is headed for bankruptcy. … So we’re going to be continuing to speak out against corporate welfare as something that hurts everybody except those direct beneficiaries.”
Koch’s latest comments are part of an ongoing attempt by the billionaire brothers to raise their public profiles. Most notably, they dramatically expanded access to the media for the summer meeting of Freedom Partners, their political network. At the meeting, this reporter had on-the-record interviews with five presidential candidates.
Charles Koch expounded on his crusade against “crony capitalism” and his political philosophy in a POLITICO interview on July 31.
“Any of the social changes in American history are because people thought there was injustice,” he said. “We have to show that this corporate welfare and cronyism is unjust — and that it’s not only rigging the system so people get wealthy who don’t deserve to get wealthy, but … many aspects of it are undermining the opportunities for the poor and the disadvantaged.”
Koch said he has been “working on this issue since the ’60s,” and said his zeal on it has not been popular with some of his corporate friends.
“In the ’70s, I set up an organization called Council for a Competitive Economy, and I tried to recruit business people to oppose subsidies and corporate welfare,” Koch recalled. “And everybody had a rationalization for getting subsidies, protection from foreign competition, whatever. … [I]t doesn’t make our friends … happy. … I mean, so what? You’ve got to do the right thing.”
Asked if Koch Industries benefits from federal subsidies, the CEO replied: “Oh, tremendously. … The whole economy is so rife with cronyism and corporate welfare. I mean, take a look at all the import tariffs. We would do away with them all — and, believe me, a lot of our products are protected by it.”
Koch continued: “You say, ‘Well, why are you doing it if it is going to cost Koch Industries so much money to have these reforms?’ We take a long-term perspective. So it isn’t just altruism or we’re into self-sacrifice. No, we’re into win-win. We’re into a society that’s mutually beneficial.”