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Charles Koch says he agrees with Bernie Sanders about inequality — but does he really?

Demonstrators protest against the campaign contributions by the billionaire Koch brothers who are owners of Koch Industries.
Demonstrators protest against the campaign contributions by the billionaire Koch brothers who are owners of Koch Industries.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Charles Koch claims in a Washington Post op-ed that he and Bernie Sanders have something in common. Deep down, they both believe the same thing: The American playing field is not level.

There's just one thing Koch leaves out. His network of donors raised $162 million in 2013 and 2014 to build the very unequal structure that he says is driving inequality, specifically when it comes to the tax code.

Here's a key piece of Koch's point:

Consider the regulations, handouts, mandates, subsidies and other forms of largesse our elected officials dole out to the wealthy and well-connected. The tax code alone contains $1.5 trillion in exemptions and special-interest carve-outs. Anti-competitive regulations cost businesses an additional $1.9 trillion every year. Perversely, this regulatory burden falls hardest on small companies, innovators and the poor, while benefitting many large companies like ours. This unfairly benefits established firms and penalizes new entrants, contributing to a two-tiered society.

Koch is right: Tax exemptions most often benefit extremely wealthy individuals and large corporations, who often end up paying a lower overall tax rate than middle-class Americans. And that setup, Koch agrees, pits rich against poor.

What he conspicuously fails to mention is his outsize personal role in building a tax and regulatory arrangement favorable to wealthy individuals like himself. Koch and his brother David have, for several decades, led a charge of wealthy, anti-government conservatives in opposing expanded government in any realm.

They have not only lobbied for lower tax rates and less government scrutiny for companies like Koch Industries but have also built an apparatus that finds young free market conservatives, educates them, and helps elevate them into office. That deep-seated political agenda has allowed the Kochs and others in their network to build a political climate from the ground up that is more favorable to their personal interests.

In New Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s book on the Kochs, Dark Money, she reports that in recent years the brothers have hit a firewall in trying to expand the appeal of their deeply anti-government agenda.

They found, through extensive message testing, that people who could potentially find their pitch appealing were biased against them because of their negative image in the media.

"In other words, if you want to be seen as a moral, compassionate person, talk about fairness and helping the vulnerable," Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute and a friend of the Kochs, told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference. "You want to win? Start fighting for people! … Lead with vulnerable people. Lead with fairness!"

In the past few years, the Kochs have sought to turn that image around by painting themselves as sympathetic to the poorest Americans. That explains, in part, why they have turned their attention and financial resources to criminal justice reform — a point Koch makes in his Washington Post piece. And to their credit, scaling back the reach of the criminal justice system fits neatly within their libertarian worldview, and their attempts to work with other reformers appear genuine.

But it also explains why Charles Koch felt moved to write this op-ed, even though it ultimately promotes many of the same ideas that have already proven to put working-class people at a disadvantage.