Well-being: The state of being healthy, happy, or prosperous (said of people); or of being able to flourish (said of things). First seen in English in the mid-16th century; modeled after Italian benessere.
Well-being is a catchword and linchpin of the billionaire Koch brothers’ campaign to change the way their powerful conservative network – which comprises the energy-and-chemical conglomerate Koch Industries as well as numerous foundations, political think tanks, and tea party groups – is perceived. Jane Mayer, author of a new book about the Kochs, Dark Money, writes in the January 18, 2016, issue of the New Yorker that the Kochs “appear to be undergoing the best image overhaul that money can buy” to help the public forget that they were known until recently as – in the words of the president of the PR firm Reputation Doctor – “the heads of the Toxic Empire.” (Mayer’s New Yorker article is cleverly titled “New Koch.”)
The shift began during the 2014 midterm elections, Mayer writes. At a secretly recorded meeting held in Laguna Beach, California, in June of that year, Koch “grand strategist” Richard Fink told wealthy donors that the Koch network
needed to present its free-market ideology as an apolitical and altruistic reform movement to enhance the quality of life—as “a movement for well-being.” The network should make the case that free markets forged a path to happiness, whereas big government led to tyranny, Fascism, and even Nazism. Arguing that an increase in the minimum wage would cause higher unemployment, Fink told his audience that unemployment in Germany during the nineteen-twenties had led to the rise “of the Third Reich.”
At another panel that weekend, Mayer continues,
James Otteson, a professor of political economy at Wake Forest University’s business school, argued that using the term “well-being” would be “a game changer.” He added that he was setting up an institute devoted to well-being at Wake Forest.
Days later, the Charles Koch Institute – “which arranges fellowships for those interested in ‘advancing free societies’” and whose president is Richard Fink – hosted the Inaugural Well-Being Forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It also announced a Well-Being Initiative “aimed at fostering an exploration of what enables individuals and societies to flourish and how to help people improve their lives and communities.”
If your definition of “well-being” involves clean air and water, safe food, universal healthcare, free preschool, and subsidized parental leave … well, that’s not quite how the Kochs see it. Their $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund, for example, was earmarked for students interested in studying “how entrepreneurship, economics, and innovation contribute to well-being.” The Kochs’ support for criminal-justice reform is focused not on freeing indigent drug dealers but on white-collar crime; it can be traced to the Koch brothers’ prosecution in 2000 for environmental crimes. The Bridge to Wellbeing initiative, launched by the Koch-funded political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, offers advice on “how you can advance economic freedom in your community.” Arthur C. Brooks, president of the Koch-funded American Enterprise Institute, has been writing op-eds and making speeches that equate happiness – or, as a large sign displayed during his appearances proclaims, H-A-P-P-I-N-E-S-S – with “the free enterprise system that lifts people out of poverty.”
It’s not the first time in U.S. history that well-being has been invoked for corporate-PR purposes. Modern publicity was invented, writes Mayer, for John D. Rockefeller, who in 1914
hired the publicity expert Ivy Lee to salvage his image after the Ludlow Massacre, in which security guards and National Guardsmen attacked miners on strike at a Rockefeller-owned mine, killing more than a dozen people, including some of the miners’ wives and children. Rockefeller, taking Lee’s advice, visited the miners’ tent camp and expressed a personal interest in his workers’ well-being.
For more on Jane Mayer’s investigation of (and by) the Kochs, listen to the first segment of this New Yorker podcast. For visual representations of the Kochs’ influence, see this series of charts by Muckety, as well as the links at the end of that post. For more detail about dark money, see my June 2012 blog post.