Why Are the Kochs Investing in Happiness?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 25 2014 6:02 AM

Why Are the Kochs Investing in Happiness?

For the conservative billionaire brothers, well-being is just another word for free enterprise.

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Some recent well-being forums sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute have featured panel discussions on the economycriminal justice, and higher education, among others. On Wednesday, the Charles Koch Institute will host what it’s calling its “Inaugural Well-Being Forum” at the Newseum in downtown Washington, D.C.

Not-so-diverse board

The five-member advisory board of the Well-Being Initiative includes Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason University, and Tyler Cowen, a popular libertarian professor at the school and Slate contributor.

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As the Center for Public Integrity reported in March, two of the six private charitable foundations the Koch brothers control and personally fund combined in 2012 to pump more than $12.7 million into colleges and universities. George Mason University has received more Koch money than any other school.

“The Charles Koch Foundation has been generous to the university, and they have supported various efforts in areas that are important to us, so this time around they wanted my guidance and advice, and I thought it would be a great thing to do,” Cabrera told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview.

Cabrera—not a libertarian, he says—explained that the Koch’s Well-Being Initiative lines up with the university’s strategic plan, which includes a well-being component. He refuted the idea that this initiative was all about promoting the Koch brothers’ libertarian ideology.

“If they had a predefined definition or ideology that they wanted to push with this effort, the last thing you want is free, independent thinkers telling you what to do,” he pointed out.

The initiative seeks to explore various research areas, including something called “neuroeconomics”—a field of study that merges brain science and economics to explore economic decision-making.

Advisory board member Paul Zak, aka “Dr. Love,” is a neuroeconomist and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He is widely known for his research into the brain chemical oxytocin—which he calls the “moral molecule” that is key to improving social interactions, including those involving financial transactions. Zak has concluded in his research that free markets are inherently moral.

In an interview, Zak told the Center for Public Integrity that he had reservations about joining the advisory board when he was first approached by Koch Institute officials about nine months ago.

“I said, ‘You guys have kind of a dicey reputation,’ ” Zak recalled, noting that he disagrees with some of the Koch brothers’ political efforts. “And they said, ‘Yeah, we know, and we want to start funding some good science so that we can allow people to draw their own conclusions.’ ”

Zak said officials convinced him that the Well-Being Initiative is apolitical.

“It seems non-agenda driven,” he said. “We really want to understand [well-being] better and we want lots of people to use this. Let’s try to make a really global, useful, broad index and just see what it tells us about government policies, about economic growth, about all of these things that can affect people’s well-being.”

Still, Zak acknowledges that the initiative’s advisory board is dominated by libertarians. “Could [the board] be more diverse?” he asked. “Probably.”

More libertarianism

The other two advisory board member positions are filled by William Inboden, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and Chris Rufer, the president and founder of the Morning Star Co.

A former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Inboden was previously the senior vice president of the London-based Legatum Institute, which publishes the “Prosperity Index,” ranking countries based on wealth, economic growth, and quality of life.

Rufer is a board member of the Free to Choose Network, which produces broadcast programs that air on PBS stations. Last November, the network produced Economic Freedom in Action: Changing Lives, a documentary about how the “rise in economic freedom has led to increased prosperity and longevity, allowing more people to rise out of poverty and build positive futures for themselves and their children.”

The program, funded in part by Chris Rufer and his wife, aired on stations all across the country.

In an interview with the Center, Rufer said the Koch brothers’ message has been misinterpreted by the liberal media.

“Is it a PR move?” he asked. “Call it PR. What do you do when you put on a better shirt so you think the girls will look at you? Is that fraud? It’s not fraud. You’re just trying to represent yourself.”

This initiative, though, is good PR to a good end, he said.

“If you’re maliciously trying to deceive, well that’s bad,” he said. “But look at well-being and look at libertarianism and I think you’ll see it’s pretty consistent … because that is the objective of libertarianism: human welfare.”

Erin Quinn contributed to this story.

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

Chris Young is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity’s Consider the Source project, where he focuses on the influence of money in state and federal courts.

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