Charles Koch agrees with ... Bernie Sanders?

Koch says he agrees with Sanders that the country’s political and economic system is rigged in favor of the privileged few, and he agrees that our criminal justice system needs reform, but he has drastically different ideas on how to fix these problems.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A protester holds up a sign against the Koch Brothers at the 'People's Climate March' down Sixth Avenue in New York in 2014.

In a February 18 Op-Ed in The Washington Post, libertarian billionaire Charles Koch wrote something that nobody ever expected to read: He agrees with Bernie Sanders.

Despite Mr. Sanders continually pointing to Mr. Koch and his brother David Koch as the epitome of what’s wrong with American politics, Koch writes that he agrees that the country’s political and economic system is rigged in favor of the privileged few, and he agrees that our criminal justice system needs reform.

But where the uber rich businessman and political activist diverges from Mr. Sanders is in his approach to solving these problems.

“I applaud the senator for giving a voice to many Americans struggling to get ahead in a system too often stacked in favor of the haves,” writes Mr. Koch, “but I disagree with his desire to expand the federal government’s control over people’s lives. This is what built so many barriers to opportunity in the first place.”

In fact, the Koch brothers, who run Koch Industries, a fossil fuel company headquartered in Wichita, Kan. have spent billions to fund foundations, advocacy groups, corporations, and think tanks to help promote their anti-government views and to mold American politics.

Many believe that their efforts have helped block progress on issues like climate change and income inequality.

“The Kochs exemplify a new reality that strikes at the heart of America,” wrote Robert B. Reich, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

“The vast wealth that has accumulated at the top of the American economy is not itself the problem. The problem is that political power tends to rise to where the money is. And this combination of great wealth with political power leads to greater and greater accumulations and concentrations of both – tilting the playing field in favor of the Kochs and their ilk, and against the rest of us,” he wrote.

The network of conservative billionaires led by the Koch brothers is expected to spend close to $900 million to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, which is as much as each political party is expected to spend on its candidate, reported The New York Times recently, and double the amount the brothers spent on the 2012 elections.

"The Koch brothers – second-wealthiest family and extreme right-wing family – they also have one vote, but they are going to spend some $900 million in this campaign to try to elect candidates who will cut Social Security, Medicare, federal aid to education, and environmental programs,” Sanders said to students at George Mason University in November.

"When you have one family – this is America, this it not some small Third World country – when in the United States of America you have one family spending more money than either the Democratic or Republican parties, that is not democracy. That is oligarchy, and we have got to change that" he said.

Koch says, like Sanders, he wants to see change too. When the government picks winners and losers through its economic policies, he writes in his Op-Ed, this impedes progress in society.

"That’s why Koch Industries opposes all forms of corporate welfare — even those that benefit us," Koch writes, citing Koch Industries' opposition to ethanol subsidies, despite the fact that their company produces ethanol.

Like Sanders, Koch sees serious problems with America's justice system, which he says doles out disparate punishment to rich and poor:

Today, if you’re poor and get caught possessing and selling pot, you could end up in jail. Your conviction will hold you back from many opportunities in life. However, if you are well-connected and have ample financial resources, the rules change dramatically. Where is the justice in that?

Koch says that job applications to Koch Industries have "banned the box" that asks if the applicant has a criminal record. "Public policy must change if people are to have the chance to succeed after making amends for their transgressions," he writes.

So is Koch going to cast a ballot for Bernie? Don't count on it. While he and the Vermont senator may share a desire for some of the same social outcomes, for Koch, the path to a more humane society does not run through government intervention.

"History has proven that a bigger, more controlling, more complex and costlier federal government leaves the disadvantaged less likely to improve their lives," he writes.

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