Documents and interviews unearthed in recent months by Brave New Foundation researchers illustrate a $28.4 million Koch business that has manufactured 297 commentaries, 200 reports, 56 studies and six books distorting Social Security’s effectiveness and purpose.
Together, the publications reveal a vast cottage industry comprised of Koch brothers’ spokespeople, front groups, think tanks, academics and elected officials, which have built a self-sustaining echo chamber to transform fringe ideas into popular mainstream public policy arguments.
The Koch brothers’ echo chamber has successfully written the messaging for the AARP, a traditional defender of Social Security for all generations, which recently opened the door to cutting benefits.
The Koch echo chamber begins with think tanks like the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Reason Foundation, which owe their founding and achievements to Koch backing. These think tanks take their $28.4 million in Koch funding and produce hundreds of position papers distorting the long-term health of Social Security.
The authors of these hundreds of self-described policy studies, newsletters, commentaries and books are then paraded through television, print and online news media. Their distorted message is amplified through shows like Hannity, with its 3.3 million viewers per episode, or CNBC’s Kudlow Report and its roughly 300,000 viewers per episode night after night after night.
Eventually, elected officials react to the Koch echo chamber and typically shift their position for reelection or the next campaign.
The investigation revealed Koch-supported policy fixes, and specific language repeated across each document, such as raising the retirement age or eliminating cost of living adjustments for Social Security dependents and beneficiaries.
These Koch ideas percolate through the echo chamber and into the mainstream. The frequency and repetition of the arguments supplant more popular policy recommendations like scrapping the Social Security tax cap, which would free individuals earning more than $106,800 annually to pay taxes on all of their wages, like everyone else.
“The Koch brothers job is to do everything they can to dismember government in general,” Sen. Bernie Sanders says in this video. “If you can destroy Social Security, you will have gone a long way forward in that effort.”
The Koch echo chamber has been so effective that AARP, a traditional advocate and defender of Social Security, has repositioned its policy to open the door to cut Social Security benefits for dependents and beneficiaries.
The echo chamber, coupled with AARP’s shift toward cutting Social Security, pushes the argument further toward the Koch brothers’ goals. Influential opinion-shapers in venerable news outlets will react and have already begun to referee disputes on new ‘middle ground’ that has, over time and through the actions of AARP and the Koch echo chamber, grown tolerant of the Koch brothers’ talking points.
“The Koch brothers fund organizations, and you have economists and political scientists working there and they are very, very good at getting on television,” Sanders said. “They are very effective in getting their positions out into the media.”
That’s further personified by the Koch brothers’ lobbying. Koch Industries spent $857,000 on lobbyists in 2004, one year before George W. Bush tried and failed to privatize Social Security. They also donated $104,660 to his campaign. The attacks on Social Security needed more time to stew in the echo chamber before they could be mainstream, and given the increase in lobbyists, they have risen dramatically. AARP’s shift is more proof of the Kochs’ achievements.
In the first two years of the Obama administration, the brothers have spent $20 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Public Integrity. And they’ve diversified their donations to a slew of Republican opinion leaders and strategic Democrats who oppose revenue increases like Sen. Ben Nelson and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And, with AARP’s action, the Koch echo chamber has broken ground on a new political terrain favorable to their ideological and financial goals.
Almost overnight, a historic and popular service, like Social Security, faces extinction. But behind this outcome, the Koch echo chamber has been churning for years.