This column, a regular feature, was originally published on

1. Getting a full, fair view of the money behind the Democrats’ prime enemies:

Their company makes everything from Dixie Cups to Brawny paper towels to Lycra swimwear to a huge share of the plywood, lumber and other products used in construction. It operates 4,000 miles of energy pipelines, according to its website, and an array of oil refineries that can process 670,000 barrels of oil a day.

Other subsidiaries are leading producers of chemicals, fertilizer and electronic and fiber optic systems. Still another unit trades energy products such as crude oil and natural gas. Apparently (the website is vague) it even has a business buying and selling the emission allowances related to pollution control efforts throughout the industrialized world.

The website takes pains to note the company’s stunning economic success — its value has grown “more than 3,500 fold since 1960” — “has supported education and social progress. These philanthropic efforts include support for educational institutions, foundations and programs that study and promote market-based solutions to societal problems. [The company] also works to protect, conserve and enhance natural resources. [Its] companies around the world have earned nearly 800 awards for safety, environmental excellence, community stewardship, innovation and customer service.”

In fact, there’s a separate section on the website detailing the company’s multiple environmental protection efforts and awards.

What company is this that’s supporting all these seemingly good works with its profits? It’s Koch Industries, controlled by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who are funding hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of ads attacking Democrats this year — mostly aimed at putting conservative Republicans in control of the Senate.

This article in the Washington Post last week tried to link the Koch brothers’ support for the Keystone energy pipeline to their company’s economic interests. But it was so lame — none of their products is due to go through the pipeline — that it made me want to read a complete article, full of unbiased reporting across the range of their business interests. I want to know just how self-interested the brothers’ political spending spree actually is.

Sure, any political activism by rich people to limit taxes and government regulation is bound to be in their interests generally. But do the Koch brothers have a more specific agenda, as the Post article tried to prove? Or could it be that Charles and David Koch just happen to believe a conservative government is good for their country?

The brothers and their foundation have also given hundreds of millions to multiple charities that have nothing to do with politics. As this article in the Indianapolis Star points out, the Charles Koch Foundation “underwrites research and teaching at Brown, Mount Holyoke, Sarah Lawrence, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Vassar and some 245 other colleges.” The New York State Theater at Lincoln Center has been renamed the David H. Koch Theater because he’s such a generous benefactor.

These are not beneficiaries associated with hard right causes.

As the Star also notes, “Koch Industries (which offers same-sex spousal benefits to its legally married employees) also donated $814,000 to the Kansas State University Office of Diversity to assist ‘historically under-represented students.’”

Is this all part of a plot to camouflage the brothers’ master plan? Or could it be that their outsized effort to buy results at the ballot box is, to them, no different from their outsized gifts to Lincoln Center or cancer care or anything else they think is good for the world?

Much of the media and punditry seems to have entertained that more generous view when another billionaire, Tom Steyer, decided to give millions to anyone willing to block the Keystone pipeline. But the Koch brothers have not enjoyed that benefit of the doubt.

For a few individuals on either side to try to dominate the agenda this way in a supposed democracy raises its own fundamental questions — and arguably shows a cavalier disregard for democracy itself. But the opposition to the Koch brothers has pushed beyond that, to accusations, in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s words, that they are “un-American” and are “trying to buy America … to benefit themselves.”

As a private company, not much is known about Koch Industries, although its website says it has 60,000 employees and annual revenues of “about $115 billion” — which would make it 16th or 17th on the Fortune 500 list of public companies, just ahead of IBM or JPMorgan Chase.

A full-bore look inside the conglomerate would produce all kinds of interesting angles before we even get to the question of whether the brothers’ political spending is a wholly self-interested investment by people who care only about themselves. To take one narrow example, what kind of health insurance do employees get at the company owned by the brothers who have financed tens of millions of dollars of attack ads on Obamacare, using fictitious accounts of people victimized by the law?

But the larger question, answered only by a complete look at their businesses and the link between them and the political causes they are funding, is whether the Koch money firehouse is, at its core, their version of an investment in a better planet or, as opponents like Reid charge, a better profit and loss statement.

2. Someone please explain bitcoin:

Okay, I admit it. Although I consider myself a fairly sophisticated businessperson and reporter, and although I have read a ton about bitcoins, I have no understanding of what they are, how they work or are supposed to work.

Please, don’t tell me it’s “virtual money,” or some such thing. Tell me exactly how a bitcoin system is supposed to operate. What is virtual money? Yes, I know that the dollars in my pocket are virtual money — because they’re just pieces of paper. But I also know that they’re universally recognized and guaranteed by a signature from the Treasury secretary to be “legal tender.”

Who is supposed to be standing behind bitcoin and why would anyone believe it’s worth anything?

This New York Times story last Saturday about the “miraculous discover of about $116 million in missing Bitcoin” got me frustrated all over again.

Here’s the key sentence:

“In a posting on its website in both Japanese and English, the now-defunct Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox announced that it had found the coins in an ‘old-format wallets,’ the virtual currency equivalent of finding money in another pair of pants.”

Do you know what the means? Or do you just think you should because it’s in the Times?

It’s time for a sophisticated journalist who can write and speak jargon-less English — like Floyd Norris of the Times, or Jim Cramer of CNBC, or maybe even Michael Lewis — to help us.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.