Last year, Charles Koch, the billionaire and conservative activist, initiated a project called “Bridge to Wellbeing.” Sponsored by his Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the project has been offering workshops in various states to help individuals find ways of enhancing their wellbeing. If you go to the “Bridge” website, you’ll find a listing of workshops on such subjects as healthy eating and cooking, growing your own food, couponing and personal budgeting, saving energy in the home, and effectively managing personal time.
According to journalist Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Koch supported this new initiative as a way to counter an increasingly negative public image while attempting to reframe public discussions of the “free market” ideology he has so long espoused. Although the program may seem like a minor curiosity with so much attention focused on presidential politics, it is significant because its central concern – wellbeing – represents a nexus of issues affecting almost every aspect of American life today. From the declining lifespans of white, middle-aged Americans (particularly those without a high school education) to record levels of suicide (up by 24% from 1999 to 2014), from the lead-tainted waters of Flint, Michigan, to the opioid epidemic now afflicting over two million Americans, you’ll find it hard to read a newspaper today without seeing some reference to a serious issue affecting the physical and emotional health of our citizens. And the troubling fact is that each of these issues is inextricably linked to a web of related problems.
For example, the increased death rates for middle-aged white Americans (ages 45-54 years) was first discovered last year by the Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who found that the increase in mortality from 1999 to 2013 (22% for people with a high school education or less) had much to do with increasing levels of distress, chronic pain, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide. The contamination of Flint’s water system, meanwhile, has also been a painful reminder to many observers that over half a million American children ages one to five have excessive levels of lead in their blood. This poisoning is traceable to lead paint in older homes, to soil tracked into the homes, and to water sources – and it disproportionately affects children in poor communities and communities of color.
For many years, Charles Koch and his brother David have vilified the idea of collective responsibility for the kinds of health-related problems described above, and the Bridge to Wellbeing program is no different in its approach. If you visit the Bridge website, you’ll find a section entitled “Policies Affecting You,” and the brief policy statements appearing there address a wide range of issues, from “Health Care and Entitlements” to “Energy and Environment” and “Technology.” In all the statements, an ideology of free-market individualism predominates. You can see it in assertions that government spending on food stamps has “grown out of control in recent years;” or that minimum wage legislation has been “hurting the unemployed and the very same young and low-skilled workers it is intended to help;” or that the use of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 to protect wetlands is an abuse by federal regulators who have employed the act to “relentlessly expand their reach over both land and water use.”
This ideology supports the economic self-interest of a family with immense holdings in oil, gas, coal, chemicals, and lumber, but it has little to do with meaningful efforts to advance human wellbeing. Though the “Bridge” workshops may have merit in their own right, the program as a whole evades the fact that people’s physical and emotional health requires strong social supports. No number of workshops on budgeting or healthy eating will clean up the waters of Flint or address the systemic racism and environmental injustice that led to their contamination in the first place. No helpful classes on couponing will address the rent and mental health crises in my home county of Los Angeles, where 47,000 people are now living on the streets, with the number rising each year.
For many years, Charles Koch and his brother have been major players in orchestrating the growing influence of free market, or neoliberal, ideology over American government at all levels, and it is no surprise to see the ideology dominating Republican presidential politics over the past year. Yet the challenges to our wellbeing will not go away no matter who is elected this November, and the illusory nature of Mr. Koch’s bridge reminds us of what is at stake.
We need only connect the dots to see that Mr. Koch’s structure is a bridge to nowhere. The only true bridge to human wellbeing is a just society.