Joseph Bernt

Joseph Bernt

Reminder to readers: The Northwest Authors Series brings Oregon novelist Stephen Holgate to the Cannon Beach Library on Oct, 12 at 2 p.m. And Cannon Beach Reads will discuss Jahren Hope’s bestselling memoir of a successful woman scientist at several major universities in the U.S.

Holgate will discuss two recent thrillers, “Tangiers” and “Madagascar,” as well as “Sri Lanka,” to appear in 2020.  

John Markham will lead members of Cannon Beach Reads in a discussion of Jahren Hope’s “Lab Girl,” from 7-8:30 p.m. Oct. 16. At this session, the group also will begin selecting books to read beginning in January 2020.  

Both events are free and open to the public. The library has copies of Holgate’s and Hope’s books.

The election of Donald Trump has grown a forest of new books attempting to explain - either directly or indirectly - Trump’s rise to the presidency. Marjorie MacQueen, a library volunteer responsible for keeping the library collection current, has added several books in the past year that address the nation’s rightward slide in 2016.

This column has mentioned or reviewed several books inspired by The Donald’s campaign, election victory, subsequent struggle to govern, and politicos who backed his election.  

The last election and daily misbehavior by our president, no matter how concerning, had become dull and redundant reading, but MacQueen tempted me with an irresistible book to review: “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America” by Christopher Leonard, a

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business reporter published by The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Bloomberg Businessweek.  

In addition to “Kochland,” this former Associated Press national agribusiness reporter also has authored “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business,” an investigation of giant food companies, particularly Tyson Foods.

Unlike most of the books focused on Charles and David Koch’s Libertarian Party, and massive funding of conservative think tanks, university professorships, Tea Party organizations and lobbying groups, “Kochland” concentrates mostly on the growth of Koch Industries into one of the largest multi-tentacled corporations in the world, under the leadership of Charles Koch, from a ragtag oil refining and pipeline company inherited from his father, Fred Koch, a cofounder of the John Birch Society.

Leonard, who acknowledges Charles Koch’s rightwing activities, nevertheless paints his main character as a thoughtful, philosophical, well-liked but feared chief executive officer who devotes long days at Koch Industries headquarters in Wichita to expanding his business. Also, legally avoiding tax exposure, reading Austrian economists, writing books, and personally offering seminars to his senior executives about the principles of Market Based Management, and interviewing promising fresh graduates from midwestern state universities.

An entrepreneurial outlook about working at Koch Industries was most important for Charles Koch and, thus, for every successful employee at Koch Industries. Every employee was expected to continue learning, and to keep their eyes open for opportunities to expand into new products or buy out other companies before others saw them.

Leonard attributes the growth of Koch Industries to a midwestern work ethic among managers and executives hired from state universities, and the willingness of Charles and David Koch to wait patiently for well-considered investments to produce better-than-average returns over the long term.  

Unlike many large corporations in the 1960 - for example, ITT - that willy-nilly bought available but unrelated companies, Koch would take over or invest only in companies that fit with Koch’s current product lines.

Nor did it hurt to own a refinery outside Minneapolis, one of only four refineries in the U.S. able to receive an unlimited supply of cheap Canadian oil. No matter economic conditions, the Koch refinery generated huge profits. Similarly, when oil prices rose and fracking became economically and technically possible, it didn’t hurt to own a refinery in Corpus Christi and pipelines with the capacity to process the windfall of fracked oil oozing from Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.

Koch Industries was the nation’s largest purchaser of Native American oil. In the 1980s, the FBI surveilled and caught a Koch employee deliberately mis-measuring this oil collected for Koch’s refineries, to the financial benefit of the company.  

While throughout “Kochland” Leonard describes Charles Koch as employing tough management practices, he is generally portrayed as a smart, dedicated, admirable and intellectual CEO.

Koch Industries was cash-rich, privately held and sponged market information gained from controlling oil from the wellhead through their pipelines and refineries. As a person who avoids buying such Koch products as Northern toilet paper, Vanity Fair napkins, Georgia Pacific building products, Chevron gasoline and American Greeting Cards, I was surprised to find Leonard’s portrayal of Charles Koch and his company so attractive.

My opinion of Koch changed midway through “Kochland,” however, after Leonard focused on Koch’s treatment and speedup of the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU) workers at the Georgia Pacific Northwest warehouses along the Willamette River in Portland. Leonard thereafter concentrates on Koch’s willingness to conceal sub-rosa lobbying, political contributions and climate-denial techniques used against Obama’s effort to pass carbon tax legislation, and his financial support for the Tea Party movement.

The final third of “Kochland” mirrors the familiar treatment that the Koch brothers and Koch Industries has received in recent years in Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” and Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty” (also available at the library).

Still, Christopher Leonard’s “Kochland” offers the best researched and balanced treatment of the structure of the Koch brothers’ business and political efforts during the past 50 year.


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