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Leaked Brownstone Institute Emails Reveal Support for Child Labor, Underage Smoking
“Maybe I have a tin ear but I can't really see the issue here."
Newly obtained internal emails from the Brownstone Institute reveal support for child labor and underage cigarette smoking at the COVID-19 misinformation dark money group.
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The emails, which were obtained by Important Context, come from a Google email group and comprise a single conversation spanning two days—Wednesday, March 15, and Thursday, March 16. They contain several different threads and some content is missing. Additionally, different time zones make tracing through-lines somewhat challenging. Note: The email addresses of the individuals in this piece and potentially identifying information have been redacted.
What the emails do show, however, is Brownstone founder Jeffrey Tucker and several Brownstone contributors, including one of the institute’s 2023 fellows, discussing the merits of “the good old days” when children smoked tobacco and performed labor. The group lamented how young people today don’t share their values and are allegedly coddled and entitled.
In the course of the conversation, Tucker admitted to supporting “youth” cigarette smoking and labor. At one point, he confessed that he had even provided his high schooler son with cigarettes to get him away from marijuana. Later in the conversation, Tucker wrote that he would “fully [repeal] the 1936 ‘child labor’ law,” because “it is cruel and robs kids of a good life.”
“I got around the law with a job at 12 (tuning church organs),” he wrote. “But these days, it is much more difficult. We condemn the kids to a life of desk sitting, only allowing them remunerative work at the age of 16 just when they have packed their schedules full of other useless stuff. So you have people entering the workforce at the age of 24 never having been in a job. They immediately sue their employers for discrimination or whatever.”
(Note: Above screenshot is highlighted by Important Context for emphasis.)
A veteran of various dark money groups in billionaire industrialist Charles Koch’s political influence network as well as a neo-confederate and neo-confederate leaning groups, Tucker has long supported rolling back child labor laws—going as far back as 2013 when he took part in the “School Sucks Project,” a libertarian crusade against formal schooling.
In a November 2016 op-ed, “Let the Kids Work,” which he wrote for the Koch-funded Foundation for Economic Education—where he was a director—Tucker laid out his case. The piece was a response to a Washington Post photo montage of child laborers from the early 20th century. He called photos of child workers “beautiful;” he suggested compulsory education was more coercive than the “system” of child labor; he claimed that youth sports like wrestling and gymnastics proved that kids enjoy danger.
With the COVID pandemic, Tucker turned his focus to public health. He founded Brownstone in May 2021 with the purpose of combatting government interventions put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. The group, which Important Context has previously reported received most of its revenue in 2021 from just nine large, anonymous contributions, became a mainstay in a larger war on public health measures waged by business-aligned right-wing groups to minimize economic disruption.
Brownstone has been a prolific—even central—hub for COVID-related misinformation, downplaying the harms and dangers of the virus while overstating those of mitigation policies. The group has been influential at the national and state level with allies advising the Republican Congress and the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But three years into the pandemic, those mitigations are largely gone and the fallout remains. Employment in certain sectors of the economy remains stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels. The leisure and hospitality sector has been the hardest hit, falling short by almost a million jobs as of late January according to the World Economic Forum. Additionally, millions of Americans are suffering long COVID, research suggests. The condition is keeping many out of work and is a likely source of lost productivity.
In recent months, Republican states have responded to these economic woes by starting to roll back restrictions on child labor. In March, following revelations of children as young as 13 working in meatpacking plants in her state, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill into law making it easier for businesses to exploit the labor of young people.
The Brownstone emails provide a clear picture the war on COVID mitigation measures has primed the pump for a war on child labor laws.
“Maybe I have a tin ear”
The conversation began benignly enough with Jeffrey Tucker lamenting that his Wikipedia page made him “sound like a crazy person.” The Brownstone founder was irked by the fact that he’d been unable to make changes on the site and blamed “trolls.”
The first response came from Debbie Lerman, a 2023 Brownstone fellow who has made a number of bizarre claims. Lerman has called the COVID vaccines “genetic vaccines,” suggested they do not work—perhaps even against the original variant, and claimed that “lockdowns” were a plot by a “biosecurity cabal.”
“Your wikipedia page is not being attacked by rando lay people who happen to think you're a Koch-funded neo-Confederate Q-Anon follower,” Lerman wrote back to Tucker. “IT IS THE NATIONAL SECURITY/BIOSECURITY NETWORK that is trying to discredit you in the eyes of anyone from the MSM bubble who might otherwise be interested in reading/engaging with your writings/Brownstone.”
Unfazed by Lerman’s strange claim, Tucker responded by calling his Wikipedia page “absurd” and noting that “I do have people I periodically tap for edits if it gets really bad but generally I ignore it.”
“The only part that always makes me laugh about my supposed views is that I favor 1) youth labor and 2) youth cigarette smoking,” he added. “I mean, that part is kind of true. Maybe I have a tin ear but I can't really see the issue here.”
Tucker said he does “keep my opinions on these topics off Brownstone however.”
At that point, Brownstone contributor Robert Blumen, who has also written for the Mises Institute, a group with which Tucker is affiliated and which the Southern Poverty Law Center reported has “strong neo-confederate principles,” chimed in. Blumen offered up an anecdote about antiwar activist pages getting edited by a single, potentially automated user slowly over time.
“Robert - fascinating!” Lerman responded. I think that person was hired by a much broader and deeper propaganda network. Here are some great articles I've been reading about CIA involvement in controlling the narrative through MSM/liberal media.”
The links Lehrman added were to articles from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine propaganda outfit, Children’s Health Defense.
Lerman also replied to Tucker’s confession that he supports “youth labor” and “youth cigarette smoking,” telling him she was “deep into investigating Mr. Walker Bragman et al and they love to say you're in favor of child labor.”
(In apparent retaliation for Important Context’s previous reporting on Brownstone, Lerman has been “investigating” the author of this piece, sending a barrage of inquiries and making the outlandish suggestion that he may be linked to “the military/department of defense and other national security-related organizations.” In response to a request for comment on this story, Lerman accused the author of “spying” on her and Brownstone and declared, “I think Walker and Important Context have been recruited by what we now know is the Censorship Industrial Complex…to discredit Jeffrey and Brownstone due to our dissenting narratives on Covid etc.” Lerman went on to lament that “the former radical left is now aligned w[ith] Big Pharma, Big Media and the intelligence-military network.”)
“I think I agree with you on both work and smoking issues, since I believe you mean teen-agers when you say ‘youth,’” Lerman told Tucker. “The propagandists and their minions like to conflate ‘youth’ with ‘children’ to make you sound more fiendish.”
“That’s another story”
Tucker took Lerman’s encouragement as an invitation to prove her wrong. In his response, Tucker linked his 2016 op-ed, “Let the Kids Work,” stating that “this is the article that somehow got me in heaps of trouble.”
“I still can’t see what’s wrong with it,” he wrote before turning to the smoking issue, which he admitted was “a bit different.” Tucker explained that he had provided his own son with cigarettes when he was in high school to keep him off marijuana.
“I did in fact get my son into the cigarette business (accidentally) by trying to incentivize him to drop the weed (which I despise),” Tucker wrote. “Sadly, he found that he could sell cigarettes I provided him and make a profit, so the whole high school was suddenly swept up in coughing fits. That was sort of regrettable.”
“He did save me from getting arrested for distributing contraband. He paid off the witnesses with cigarettes,” Tucker added. “But that's another story.”
Tucker followed up with another email a few minutes later containing a photo of child laborers looking into the camera while smoking.
“I mean, these kids seem happier than kids today,” Tucker wrote.
“Get a job, kid”
Tucker’s musings on child labor elicited general support from Brownstone authors. Minutes after his photo email, Laura Rosen Cohen, who has defended the anti-vaccine trucker convoy for Brownstone, offered her take on the issue, writing, “I am in favor of child and teenager labour. Absolutely. Get a job, kid!!”
Physician Randall Bock, who has only written one article for the institute, also waded in, telling Tucker, “That's a great photo.”
“Reminds me a bit of Peaky Blinders – with its fair share of smoking as well; but with far more independence and wherewithal than kids are allowed or presented with, in this age of Obama's JULIA, pajama boy – and 26-year-old parental health insurance dependents,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, self-described “open schools mom”Jennifer Sey, a former top Levi Strauss executive who parted ways with the company over disagreements about her online advocacy against school closures and mask mandates, which she argued were causing undue harm to children, complimented Tucker’s pro-child labor article.
“Jeffrey—I like that you mention gymnastics as evidence of young people liking danger. It’s true!” Sey wrote. “Sadly not so much anymore. They want safe spaces. Disagreement is violence. I wish I hadn’t broken so many bones and landed on my head so many times but at least I’m not a wimp. I can endure physical and psychic pain stoically.”
“Ah the good old days,” she quipped. “Next I’ll be shouting ‘get off my lawn!’”
Haley Kynefin—whose Brownstone author page notes that she is a “writer and independent social theorist with a background in behavioral psychology” and who has previously written about how “Covidianism inverts the heroic archetype”—added her take to the discussion.
“I mean, what are we all here for anyway?” she wrote. “A child needs to be prepared to enter society as a functional human being. Otherwise they will have severe hangups and problems (happening).”
In response to a request for comment about her remarks, Kynefin sent Important Context the following response, included in full:
Oh sure, I'd be happy to elaborate. But I have a tit-for-tat system. You don't get something for nothing. I want to see someone else's private emails before I give you more information about mine! Something actually exciting - like private communications between government officials and corporations showing the extent of regulatory capture, corruption, revolving door government and misuse of public funds.
And it has to be something you got access to yourself. Not something that's already out there! No cheating. Then I will write a story about that which will probably be way more exciting than whatever you're writing. And in exchange for your troubles, I will give you more fodder for your high school newsletter gossip column.
That's it now! You can't get something for nothing! Pay up!
Seth Smith, a librarian who has written several articles for Brownstone including one titled, “The Cure Was Vastly Worse Than the Disease,” recounting his own mild case of COVID, jumped into the conversation to offer a critique of compulsory education and note that he had a job at age 9.
“I think there is nothing more threatening to the establishment than school choice and most especially home and unschooling I would even argue it is a threat to the military-industrial complex,” he wrote. “I also started working, delivering weekly shoppers, at 9 years old with my brother in a town just south of the Iowa border in the late 1970s, early 1980s in some of the worst winters of the 20th century. It did nothing but good for me.”
The next morning, another Brownstone contributor weighed in. Roger Koops, a Ph.D. chemist and pharmaceutical and biotech industry veteran who has cast doubt on research suggesting vaccines have saved millions of lives, recounted how he’d worked when he was 10-years-old.
“I started mowing lawns at the age of 10 for money,” he wrote. “Many of my friends ran paper delivery routes getting up at 5 am, going to the newspaper outlet, rolling the papers, and then taking off on their bicycles to throw the papers at each doorstep. Then they went to school.”
Koops concluded: “Children have been taught that they will always be provided for at no cost to themselves. What a horrible upbringing! It is no wonder they now think that they are all the center of the universe.”
In his response, Tucker went full throttle, openly expressing his support for repealing federal prohibition on child labor.
Despite the fringe perspectives and misinformation Brownstone routinely features, the group has gained influence. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, the group has a national platform with which to promote its agenda.
It was Brownstone that organized the so-called Norfolk Group, a group of COVID contrarian scientists that released an 80-page outline for a congressional inquiry into the pandemic. In late February, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic held a hearing signaling the start of such an investigation. The Republican expert witnesses were all members of the Norfolk Group.
Brownstone also wields influence at the state level. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his Public Health Integrity Committee to investigate the federal pandemic response and COVID mitigation measures, the members were overwhelmingly affiliated with Brownstone.