Friday, September 08, 2006

Are think tanks prostitutes?

Wal-Mart bashing is not uncommon especially from the Left. Any business that grows large enough will inspire the envious hatred of the socialists. And the New York Times, which does have a bias on the Left, is no exception. Witness this article “Conservatives Help Wal-Mart, and Vice Versa:”

The article mentions how “conservative” think tanks, by which they mean free market, have written articles in defence of Wal-Mart which has been under constant attack from the loony Left. True to their bias the paper says: “But the groups -- and their employees -- have consistently failed to disclose a tie to the giant discount retailer: financing from the Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s three children, who have a controlling stake in the company.”

The article does note that these think tanks have a “pro-business” philosophy which can “dovetail with the interests of Wal-Mart.” But even this is incorrect. It is pro-market not pro-business. When big business demands favours from government, which they do a lot, the free market community tends to oppose those measures. Sometimes major corporations want free markets and sometimes they don’t. I don’t know of many think tanks who promote an agenda that goes back and forth depending on the issues.

Wal-Mart, for instance, is the subject of some unfair and stupid legislation promoted by the Left to harm the company. Free market groups would oppose such measures. But there have been cases where eminent domain was used by government to take private property in order to build a shopping complex which will house a Wal-Mart. The very same think tanks which are portrayed as being in the pocket of the company oppose such measures. They tend to be driven by their beliefs and not by their financing.

And often the “links” which breathless journalists discuss are rather tenuous at best. Richard Vedder is a well know economist and scholar and has been an advocate of free markets quite consistently. He wrote an article mentioning the benefits of Wal-Mart on the economy for the Washington Times. Yet this NYT article says: “But neither Mr. Vedder nor the newspaper mentioned American Enterprise Institute’s financial links to the Waltons.” Vedder has worked with the AEI. But Mr. Vedder, like most writers who work with such think tanks, is not privy to the list of donors.

The fact is that the authors of research papers for most think tanks don’t know who is funding the think tanks with which they work. The typical think tank does not rely on one or two main funders but on hundreds or thousands of them. This is just good planning. Why do they do it? Because they never want to be in the position of having anyone dictate to them what positions to take. Large numbers of donors mean they spread the risk. While one article may be considered favourable by a corporate donor another article could be equally unwelcome. Believe it or not, most think tanks, of all political stripes, prefer their independence. And that means not relying on any one donor too much of the time.

I have done writing while working at one of the think tanks mentioned in the article. I never knew who was funding the institute then and I still don’t. My positions were not dependent on the donor since I didn’t know who they were. In fact that institute is chided because it did not reveal it received $175,000 in donations from the Walton foundation. But the money was given over a 5 year period amounting to $35,000 per year, which is hardly a significant contribution to a major think tank. In fact the institute in question has an annual budget of around $4 million. So over the 5 year period the contribution from the Walton foundation doesn’t even come to 1 percent of the Institute’s budget. Hardly enough if one is selling their soul to corporate America.

And the AEI, which was specifically mentioned in the article got about $100,000 over three years. Yet they have a budget of over $20 million per year. That means the donation from the Waltons amounted to 1/600th of their budget. Insignificant and hardly noteworthy.

The New York Times pats themselves on the back saying they have “a policy of asking outside contributors to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, including the financing for research groups.” But this could encourage the very problem they are inventing. Mr. Vedder says he knew nothing about the insignificant donation from Wal-Mart to a think tank where he has some affiliations. Let us assume that all newspapers required what the Times says they require. Now all writers with any affiliation with any organisation would need to know the finances of all those organisations. One scholar could work with a dozen different tanks and each one of the institutes could have thousands of donors.

First the scholar would be spending inordinate amounts of time trying to gather this information. Second what might happen if he discovers that his article is contrary to the preferences of a major donor to one of the groups he works with? Oblivious of this information he might just send off his article. But could the discovery of major donations from a company he criticises in his article cause him to think twice about sending it out for publication? This full disclosure policy is not practical and counter productive. In fact I suspect it’s bull from the get go.

The Times no doubt has run articles by people who have “financial links” which are never mentioned because the writers have no knowledge of them. And that is precisely what someone from Heritage Foundation told the paper. She said writers there would have no knowledge of funding unless they specifically research the topic. The best policy to guarantee independence is for those writing policy to have NO knowledge of the donors. What this article wants is the opposite where they need to have full knowledge and reveal it.

After 30 paragraphs about the issue of Wal-Mart giving paltry donations to free market think tanks the New York Times has one paragraph about how trade unions finance left-wing think tanks. No sums are mentioned and no think tanks are named.

In some few cases a think tank might be an industry front. In fact the one left-wing group the article quotes, attacking Wal-Mart, is a subdivision of a labour union. But most think tanks, be they on the Left, the Right or in the Libertarian middle are based on their ideas and donations don’t determine policy. But policies may attract donors. That one defends the rights of business owners to keep the wealth they produce may cause some business owners to contribute. Just as green oriented think tanks get money from people who see themselves as environmentalists

The think tank world, for the most part, is not the domain or ideological prostitutes selling their views to the highest bidder.

So why the article? The same reason you get articles about tobacco industry donations. It’s meant to smear ideas. Instead of debating whether an article like that written by Vedder is correct you can dismiss it entirely by claiming “conflict of interest”.

Can there be legitimate concerns? Of course. If you find that a group entirely funds a think tank you might wonder. If you find the author of policy reports know who are the donors you might wonder. But you would also have to show they are taking a position which they normally wouldn’t take. If you find a policy writer who reverses his positions dependent on who donates to the groups with whom he works then you have a real story. What the New York Times had here was not a story but insinuation and innuendo.

Consider the fact that a man gives money to a woman he sleeps with. Is she his partner? Or is she a prostitute? It all depends on whether he gives her money because he loves her or if he gives it to here to specifically have sex with him. If she would has sex with him for free then she's not doing it for the funding. If the think tank would take the same position even in the absence of the donation then they are not prostituting themselves. After all the New York Times takes advertising revenue for products produces by companies they have attacked or lauded as well. In regards to this "story" I would say: "Go on home folks, there's nothing to see here." But I bet the Left will be quoting this article as "proof" of their conspiracy theories.

And finally consider what it would mean if the underlying premises of this article were true. Instead giving money to free market think tanks Wal-Mart ought to be giving donations to their critics. If policy follows donations then donating to your enemies, not your friends, would be the fastest means of changing things. One individual quoted in the article calls the issue of donations and policy a "chicken and egg" sort of thing implying you can't tell which is which. In fact you can. If policy positions were actually determined by donations then corporations would be donating to the Greens and environmentalists would be showering funds on free market think tanks. Does anyone really believe that the reason the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force defends the rights of homosexuals is because they get funding from gay donors?