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Charles Koch wants to find 'common ground' with Obama administration

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

Charles Koch considers himself a liberal and wants to "find common ground” with the Obama administration.

What? That’s right, the man many consider to be the banker and high priest of political conservatism and libertarianism in the United States says you can call him a "classical liberal," or even just a liberal. But he means that in what he believes is the original sense of the term. “It’s someone who wants society to maximize peace, civility, tolerance, and well-being for everybody,” Koch said. “That’s a society that gets rid of these obstacles to opportunity and innovation,” he said, speaking of what he perceives is excessive government intervention. “Historically [liberal] is a great word,” Koch said. “Then liberals became people who wanted the government to control people’s lives.” As for working with the White House, we’ll get to that in a second.

I interviewed the 80-year-old CEO of Koch Industries—who Forbes says is worth some $40 billion and is the ninth richest man in the world—at the EY Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Desert, Calif., last Friday. Koch Industries, is a diversified industrial company based in Wichita, Kan., with interests in everything from oil fields to toilet paper.

No one ever called Charles de Ganahl Koch (last name is pronounced like the soda company) a dummy. Love or hate his politics, but he does have three degrees from MIT and he did take the family business from $23 million in sales in the mid-1960s to the second-largest private company in the U.S. (after Cargill) with sales of over $110 billion.

After years of funding lobbying and political campaigns behind the scenes, Koch has recently become public facing and even come out swinging with a new book, "Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies."

He is nothing if not crafty and shrewd when it comes to parrying with a reporter. When I asked him about Donald Trump he responded: “I’m against politics.” I asked him again about Trump. “I’ve learned we can’t say anything about an individual politician because David, my brother, said he liked Walker, so now I started reading in the press that we put millions behind his campaign,” Koch said. “You want to know how much we put behind his campaign? Zero. Then, we said OK, we’ll invite Fiorina to the seminar. OK, now [people said] we’ve selected her. We hadn’t selected her. It’s just she was doing well in the polls and said some things that made sense and so on. So I can’t, I don’t dare comment about anybody because it’ll be blown totally out of proportion.”

But what does it mean when candidates like Bernie Sanders and Trump pick up traction, I ask? “It says Americans are very dissatisfied with the current direction and what we hope to present is a third way, not socialism or not a strong man running the [country], both of them telling people how to live their lives. What we’re for is a system where people can run their own lives and the government just sets the basic rules, but through the rule of law with everybody treated equally under the law,” Koch responded.

Koch may be known as someone who has strongly criticized the Obama administration for overstepping its reach (though he thinks every recent administration, Democrat and Republican, is guilty of that) but says he is looking to find a way to work with the White House and Democrats. “I’m not a big one in compromise,” he says. “But what we’re trying to do is find common ground. We’re doing it through criminal justice reform. We hope to also to find common ground on getting rid of occupational licensing that keeps disadvantaged people from getting employed, and we hope to find it in reforming and supplementing our education system so people learn the values and principles that I learned that enabled me to achieve more than I ever dreamed of.”

So what are Koch’s top three political priorities this election season?

“It’s to get both parties to stop this irresponsible spending that is taking us, heading us toward a fiscal, a financial crisis,” he said. He pointed to the federal government's $100 trillion-plus in debt and unfunded liabilities. His second priority "is to move us away from this two-tiered society. The third is to get rid of this corporate welfare, which is part and parcel of this two-tiered society, and then the next is to reform our foreign policy so it really makes Americans safer, which is the role of the U.S. government.” That’s actually four, but please explain the last point. What would that entail?

“One thing is getting all the corporate and national welfare out of it. For example, because Congress people want to support somebody making tanks in their district, they push it through even though the military doesn’t want the tanks or a base in their district the military says is no use, it doesn’t do anything for national defense,” he says.

Sounds like a point where he might find some common ground with the White House—and positively liberal too.