The Koch Brothers(’) Take on Business Fiction

This is the season for anger at billionaires, and Jane Mayer’s new book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right certainly stoked mine towards Charles and David Koch. Mayer showed how they were brought up by their magnate parents to believe that they could do whatever they wanted unconstrained by law or public policy. These feelings of entitlement were translated into a brand of radical right politics that opposes taxation and environmental and workplace regulation. The Kochs have taken advantage of the right to unlimited political spending created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to channel hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican candidates at all levels all over the country. The Kochs have also made founding and sustaining donations to libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute and university programs that espouse libertarian or market-based economics.

It is the intellectual aspect of the Kochs’ attempt to reshape America that especially caught my interest and led me to make a connection. Two years ago I read a book entitled Exploring Capitalist Fiction by Edward Younkins, a business professor at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. I remembered the book as praising fiction that paints a positive portrait of business. I turned to the preface and found that indeed Younkins was a recipient of Koch largesse, as the Charles Koch Foundation supported his work and funded his research assistants. He also received support from the BB & T Foundation which is associated with BB & T, a major US bank whose then CEO, John Allison IV, shares the Kochs’s economic views. In addition, the BB & T Foundation established an Institute for the Study of Capitalism and Morality at Wheeling Jesuit University. Finally, Younkins’s Google Scholar entry includes publications about “moral and economic arguments for capitalism” and commentary on Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and other luminaries of that ideological pantheon.

When I started reading Exploring Capitalist Fiction, I was actually very sympathetic to Younkins. He has been teaching a course on Business through Literature since 1991-92; I have been teaching a course on Management and Narrative since 1989. I agree with him that novels and films can be powerful teaching tools in highlighting ethical dilemmas, managerial skills, and corporate cultures. And I also concur that they portray managers in a more multi-faceted and compelling way than typical business cases.

Younkins’s plan for the book was to discuss twenty-five works of fiction, some that supported his “pro-capitalist and pro-business free-market perspective” (p.4) and others that opposed it. While many of his works were written much earlier than those I use in my teaching, there are quite a few more recent ones I am familiar with and have used (Death of a Salesman, Executive Suite, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Tucker, Other People’s Money). That approach also made good sense to me.
When I began to read his discussions, however, deep disappointment set in. He did little more than summarize plots, often in excruciating detail. Because so much of Death of a Salesman is presented in flashbacks, the plot summary was virtually incoherent.

The summaries end with very cursory judgments about the value of the work, with Younkins usually rating value on the basis of the work’s support for capitalist values. When there is a clash of values, for example between the “sentimental communitarian” factory owner and the “cunning but principled capitalist” corporate raider in Other People’s Money, Younkins interrupts the plot summary to make clear where his sympathies lie, in this case with the corporate raider. In his summary of Wall Street, Younkins cannot deny that Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox were breaking the law, but he concludes that such behavior is infrequent in real life and that sometimes corporate takeovers can be a good thing.

In his treatment of the sequel to Wall Street, Younkins discusses the causes of the Great Recession and parrots the right-wing Republican position that government was primarily at fault. After all, Congress (in the Gramm-Rudman-Bliley Act) did repeal the separation between investment and depository banks in 1999. A deeper analysis would have reflected on the role of the banking industry itself in lobbying hard for that legislation (often dubbed the Citicorp Relief Act).

As much as I am bothered by Younkins’s insertion of his own ideology, I am even more troubled by the book’s lack of literary or virtually any other kind of analysis of his chosen texts. Younkins writes at the outset about his students “enthusiastic response to the novels, plays, and films covered in the class” (p.3), but I can see no hint in Younkins’s writing about what there is in his pedagogy that students enthusiastically respond to. What ethical issues does he explore? What does he find fascinating about the characters he discusses? Students often like works that have multiple interpretations that can be debated; Younkins always offers only one.

Finally, though Younkins produces fulsome listings of novels, plays, and movies about business in the appendices, he restricts his attention to works of fiction, ignoring documentaries and docudramas. The broader perspective that I take on narrative includes such works, and explores their relationship to contemporaneous works of fiction.

To summarize, I was deeply disappointed by Younkins’s book. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the business-narrative genre, but his treatment of any exemplar was almost always superficial, one-dimensional, and ideological. If Charles Koch were to take time out from his self-proclaimed mission to tilt public policy to the right, this is the book he would write. Given his values, he got good value for the money he (and the BB & T Foundation) gave Younkins. Other readers, not so much.

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