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October 20, 2006

Left v. Right

Was thinking a bit about the Mercatus Center this morning and stumbled across this Wall Street Journal article detailing the tiny conservative think tank's outsized role in junking regulations:

In 2001, the new Bush White House sought suggestions for government regulations to kill or modify. A small think tank called the Mercatus Center named 44 it didn't like -- among them, rules governing energy-efficient air conditioners and renovations to electric-utility plants.[...]

When it comes to business regulation in Washington, Mercatus, Latin for market, has become the most important think tank you've never heard of. Staffed by veterans of the White House office that reviews and often scales back proposed rules, Mercatus, with its free-market philosophy, has become a kind of shadow regulatory authority. The White House's top regulator, John Graham, was briefly a member of Mercatus's board of advisers before taking the government post.

Also in the article, a liberal counterpart, The Center for Progressive Reform was mentioned. So I checked out their website. Look at that thing -- it's a mess. Even if I saw something I wanted to click on, I wouldn't know how to do it. Now compare that with Mercatus's slick, well-designed page. Any wonder which is the dominant force?

Mercatus's rise owes much to the oil-and-gas company Koch Industries Inc., (pronounced "coke"), a privately owned company in Wichita, Kan., that contributes heavily to Republican causes and candidates. A Koch family foundation has given Mercatus and George Mason University a total of $14.4 million since 1998, according to public documents analyzed by the Public Education Center, a Washington group that tracks environmental issues. A Koch spokesman says about half of the money went to Mercatus. In addition, the company's chief executive, Charles Koch, donated interests in limited partnerships to Mercatus that the think tank sold last year for $6.1 million. Mr. Koch is a Mercatus director.

Meanwhile, CPR explains:

Founded in 2002, CPR is a coalition of university-affiliated academic Member Scholars with expertise in legal, economic, and scientific fields. Scholars are not paid for their contributions to CPR's work, but rather donate their time and expertise to the organization. CPR Member Scholars and staff prepare studies, reports, articles, and other analyses, and participate in educational forums and conferences to promote informed and effective public policy.

Nevertheless, a decent web site doesn't cost more than a couple grand. Someone could raise the money -- or ask their son's best friend -- for some help. I don't know how the left closes the funding chasm with the right -- not when the left tends to harm the interests of the rich folks who could fund it, and the right's funders see their direct interests aligned with the success of their political ideology.

October 20, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

"I don't know how the left closes the funding chasm with the right -- not when the left tends to harm the interests of the rich folks who could fund it, and the right's funders see their direct interests aligned with the success of their political ideology."


Whoa..Are you saying that right leaning thinktanks get more $$$ than left-leaning think tanks?

Posted by: Hederman | Oct 20, 2006 11:04:13 AM

"not when the left tends to harm the interests of the rich folks who could fund it"

While I certainly understand where this type of thinking comes from, it does have a converse.

A billionaire has much less to fear from slightly higher marginal tax rates and labor costs than he would from societal disarray. The cliche is that a millionaire is on the right, while a Democrat is on the left.

In other words, there are rich folks out there to fund the left. They just tend to be further up the economic ladder than the rich folks who fund the right.

Or, perhaps more to the point, if the Democracy Alliance has fundamental problems, they are problems with the mechanics of the Democracy Alliance, not problems with the ability to fund it.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 20, 2006 11:05:41 AM

"The cliche is that a millionaire is on the right, while a Democrat is on the left."

Typo edit: The cliche is that a millionaire is on the right, while a billionaire is on the left.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 20, 2006 11:06:53 AM

"A billionaire has much less to fear from slightly higher marginal tax rates and labor costs than he would from societal disarray."

And there you are.

1)We outnumber the enemy.
2)We have less to lose.

Process liberalism and the welfare state is the negotiated compromise, the DMZ, the truce between capital and labor. It is not the means, the tool, the weapon & threat, and certainly not the goal of the left.
Brinkmanship, game theory, prisoner's dilemma, mutually assured destruction...class war is not beanball. Politics is violence by other means.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 20, 2006 11:20:10 AM

It has always amazed me that the left makes so little use of its natural resources-- after all, we have basically all of the creative classes, including writers, designers, directors, & actors, plus a solid number of technical types and many astute critics. Yet almost everything produced on our side just sucks, while the GOP frequently has better web design, photo ops (i.e., set design), commercials, etc. We have tons of professionals (evident in in the blogosphere) who, while most are willing to phonebank & canvass, could probably make substantial contributions in their areas of expertise, but no one seems to be interested.

Posted by: latts | Oct 20, 2006 11:28:12 AM

Tangentially: W's sister is Dorothy Bush Koch.

Posted by: J Bean | Oct 20, 2006 12:23:20 PM

Here's a small, entirely tactical suggestion: evocative language.

Make a list of the various fax-mill-cum-website "think tanks", and at the top of the list, title it "policy brothels". Heritage: policy brothel. AEI without Norm Ornstein: policy brothel. Hoover: the policy brothel attached to Stanford University.

Calling things what they aren't is the favorite tactic of the extreme Right; calling things what they are is the most powerful tool of the moderate progressive.

A complete loss of respectability has to be the price a "scholar" pays to take the Big Money. Intellectual prostitution has to be identified, along with its deleterious consequences for truth-telling, and, of course their role in the spread of diseases, like neo-conservatism, should forever be complained of.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Oct 20, 2006 1:01:37 PM

This is why I'm skeptical of the likelihood of true progressive reform under the current conditions of massive inequality. The rich class is so much wealthier than everyone else that they have wildly disproportionate power for their numbers. This is a similar situation to the pre-Depression era, which was also characterized by inequality, minimal regulation, routine exploitation of workers, etc. The latter included police shooting at strikers, which demonstrated how the rich had been able to capture government and have it do their bidding--again similar to today (though thankfully without the shootings). Unfortunately, I think it will take another Depression-level event to level the playing field enough for true reform to be possible.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD, ARNP | Oct 20, 2006 2:22:19 PM

While left's ideas are bankrupt, the money flows very well. Ever heard of Joe Trippi? George Soros? Jeff Skol? Ted Turner? Need I go on?

The Mercatus Center kicks ass because its research and ideas are top notch. Little has to do with the Website. And by the way, one could easily find a crappy right-leaning site as an exemplar of underfunding.

Posted by: Anno Nemus | Oct 20, 2006 2:26:28 PM

Calling things what they aren't is the favorite tactic of the extreme Right; calling things what they are is the most powerful tool of the moderate progressive.

OK, then. How is a think tank like EPI or the Hoover Institute more like a brothel than, say, a university, except in amount of pay and volume and identity of clients? The difference you might have in mind between think tanks and universities is that is that there may be different kinds of pressures to reach certain conclusions in your writing, but it's all for money, whether the client tells you what to do or not. And how is the right different from the left on this respect?

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 20, 2006 4:01:18 PM

"How is a think tank like EPI or the Hoover Institute more like a brothel than, say, a university, except in amount of pay and volume and identity of clients?"

Tenure?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 20, 2006 7:31:52 PM

Tenure?

Well, universities would be unionized brothels, of course.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 20, 2006 8:44:15 PM

sanpete, are you trying to say that think tanks are like universities in significant respects, or just that the analogy to brothels doesn't hold up in detail (since it's not that think-tankers expect to be paid for services that academics offer out of love)?

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 20, 2006 11:26:04 PM

The latter. Over the top, no?

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 21, 2006 1:17:45 AM

Hyperbolic, but the point is really rhetorical. And it isn't too hard to make a case that Heritage, AEI minus Ornstein, and the folks who fired Bruce Bartlett (NCPA) are considerably more hackish than EPI, Cato, Brookings, and others. The latter just do better work, while the former just don't seem committed to the truth, not even the truth as it serves their political viewpoint. (That is, EPI is going to produce left-leaning stuff, but it's at least constrained by reality.) And academia is just leagues beyond the think tanks in producing reality-based research.

(I'd like to come up with more honest right-leaning tanks besides Cato but I don't know the conservative tank world so well. Hoover is an interesting case; unlike NCPA they brook dissent, since Larry Diamond is still there, and some of their conservative fellows do excellent work; but Victor Davis Hanson is going to tip the average to hackishness no matter what. And he's not the only one.)

So, it's hyperbolic, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a figure of speech that points out that some places are considerably less pure and more beholden to politics than others.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 21, 2006 9:25:34 AM

First, I generally dislike needless offensiveness and the demeaning of people, whether they're political opponents or not. Second, I think it's ridiculous to use hyperbolic rhetoric in the supposed interest of calling things what they are. Those are two very different things that don't go together well, and the fault is made all the more glaring by claiming the Right calls things what they aren't while we good Lefties do the opposite. What a great example! Further, as the reference to universities shows (and I could have chosen pretty much any line of work), the hyperbole is ill-chosen for other reasons. In addition to continuing the stigmatization of prostitution (complex subject), and being a slur against way too many good people in think tanks, it's an uncomfortably broad metaphor to those who get paid for services they would prefer not to provide except for the money. And last, in regard to your defense of this metaphor, there's an important difference between apologetics, which a fair number of people at think tanks (and blogs) on both sides of the political divide engage in, and not being committed to the truth (another complex subject). The former is generally taken to be the latter by those who don't share the purposes of the apologist, and that may be happening here.

If Toke had said anything like Bruce W did, even in making a supposedly valid point, would you have adopted this defensive attitude to my remarks? I think I know what your impulse will be in answering that, but what's the real answer?

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 21, 2006 1:13:32 PM

If Toke had said anything like Bruce W did, even in making a supposedly valid point, would you have adopted this defensive attitude to my remarks? I think I know what your impulse will be in answering that, but what's the real answer?

You're the one who's saying that the first answer I produce can't possibly be the honest one, and I'm defensive? Oh dear. I don't see what I said that was "defensive," unless by "defensive" you mean that I was defending someone else's point, to which I plead guilty.

There is an important difference between apologetics and not being committed to the truth. I think there's a lot of evidence that many rightwing "think tanks" do the latter. Here and here, for Heritage, here for CEI, and any association with John Yoo pollutes AEI to the fifth generation. (Yes, Berkeley's law school is also shamed by this, but it's not likely they hired him for ideological convenience.) You seem to have a deep commitment to never saying anything bad about anyone, but sometimes it's not warranted.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 21, 2006 2:06:38 PM

unless by "defensive" you mean that I was defending someone else's point, to which I plead guilty.

That's right. I don't think what you said was defensive in that other sense. Bad choice of words. It's your initial impulse I suspected knowing, not your considered response, first or otherwise.

I don't reach the conclusions you do from the links you provide. The ones about the Heritage Institute don't show that anyone involved is saying anything he doesn't believe. I've seen similar stories about NPR, The News Hour, and so on, showing supposed links between sponsor money and reporting. I take them all with a degree of skepticism. The lobbying/education thing is hardly unique to conservative groups. As I understand it think tanks on both sides do these educational junkets. I don't agree with Yoo on several points, but in the many interviews I've heard with him I don't think I've noticed him saying things I think he doesn't believe. I don't know much about CEI. I wouldn't be as surprised by a lower degree of intellectual honesty there, to the extent of taking things out of context, being willfully careless and so on, though I don't expect to see even them lying.

I should stress the idea that people giving their true views often looks like they aren't committed to the truth to their opponents. Many people believe that if everyone were as honest and intelligent as they, everyone would agree. I don't know if you believe that. I used to, but decided it wasn't true based on experience.

I do have a neighbor whom I've never heard say anything bad about anyone, the only such person I've ever known. I admire him a great deal, but I'm not committed to that ideal. I don't like overstating people's defects, being more offensive than necessary, being unfair, things like that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 21, 2006 6:42:21 PM

Well, Sanpete, I believe that all of the following are true:
Certain conservative think tanks produce a disproportionate amount of shoddy work (in the second Heritage link, "A growing number of scientists believe" is outright false; John Yoo's torture memoranda are notoriously poor as legal opinions), if that work is seen as a contribution to the pursuit of truth.
This shoddy work is not unrelated to their overwhelming desire to produce work of a certain political orientation, or to please their funders.
Given this, they are in an entirely different intellectual category from more respectable think tanks and academics.
Calling them by an opprobrious name is therefore not the worst crime in the world. (I share some of your worries about 'brothel'; 'spin tanks', which I saw in some comments, seems good.)

I do not believe that if everyone were honest and intelligent they would agree. I could hardly praise both Cato and EPI if I did.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 22, 2006 12:39:52 AM

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 20, 2006 1:01:18 PM OK, then. How is a think tank like EPI or the Hoover Institute more like a brothel than, say, a university, except in amount of pay and volume and identity of clients?

Which EPI? I wouldn't use either phrase for the Employment Policies Institute ... I bet that I would Sourcewatch and call them:

one of several front groups created by Berman & Co., a Washington, DC public affairs firm owned by Rick Berman, who lobbies for the restaurant, hotel, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries

When you have an institution established in order to generate dire predictions of the effects of raising the minimum wage, based on a number drawn from non-refereed comment on previous refereed research that is shown to be shoddy work in the reply following in the same issue ... its not a think tank, its a front group.

As to whether someone is engaged in an honest intellectual work (whatever their "views" are), or is whoring, I reckon I'd have to know someone to guess. Someone could be doing stellar work that gains universal acclaim in the top peer reviewed journals in his field because he reckons stellar work that gains universal (etc.) is the best way to an ongoing series of checks as lead author of a big textbook with junior authors doing most of the grunt work. Someone doing the kind of hack work cranked out by the Employment Policies Institute might be sincerely and honestly doing their best, and just not trained in seeing more dimensions to the problem nor capable of doing more than hack work.

... And how is the right different from the left on this respect?

Bigger pots of money on offer from the right than the left for reaching specific conclusions desired by people outside the field, with both opposed to the smaller pots of money on offer inside Universities reaching general conclusions currently in favour inside the field.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 22, 2006 1:19:56 AM

Matt, I wouldn't know if the Heritage Foundation's work is disproportionately shoddy because I see so little of it, and not so much from others to compare to either. I'd expect that the stuff culled from Heritage at liberal blogs isn't their best work, and isn't always given proper context. The blog you linked to seems to overreact, to put it mildly, to these tidbits.

I also have no way to know whether a growing number of scientists are buying into this intelligent design approach to the origin of cellular life. That isn't a new idea, but there has been a strong push for it lately. Is there some kind of longitudinal polling of scientists on this question that you're referring to?

This shoddy work is not unrelated to their overwhelming desire to produce work of a certain political orientation, or to please their funders.

As I said, I've seen similar charges against NPR and other sources, but where is the real evidence? Do you think that liberals in general are less interested in producing work of a certain orientation, and pleasing funders? Hard to see why that would be.

I don't doubt that some think tanks are better than others, just like universities.

Bruce, I've never heard of the EPI you refer to, at least not that I can recall. Will the real EPI please stand up?

Bigger pots of money on offer from the right than the left for reaching specific conclusions desired by people outside the field, with both opposed to the smaller pots of money on offer inside Universities reaching general conclusions currently in favour inside the field.

That sounds about right.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 22, 2006 1:54:18 AM

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 21, 2006 10:54:18 PM
Bruce, I've never heard of the EPI you refer to, at least not that I can recall. Will the real EPI please stand up?

There are two EPI's. The Economic Policy Institute claims to be a

The Economic Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that seeks to broaden the public debate about strategies to achieve a prosperous and fair economy.

They are non-partisan in the same sense of right-wing non-partisan think tanks, which is to say that they are happy to pursue research of interest to progressives of whatever party ... Democratic, Green, etc., just as there is work pursued at some non-partisan conservative think tanks that is of interest to Republicans, Libertarians, etc.

The Employment Policies Institute claims

The Employment Policies Institute is a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth.
, and they are a front group set up by a lobbyist on behalf of an industry organization. They tend to be widely quoted in newspaper "Pro and Con of Minimum Wage Increase" articles because every time there is a state proposal to increase the minimum wage, they crank out a prediction of how many jobs will be lost based on a slip-shod number from a non-refereed comment on a refereed journal article in the American Economics Review.

In the sense of the term partisan as understood in, say, the Federalist Papers, it would be absurd to say they are non-partisan. Its just that their party is an industry group rather than a political party.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 22, 2006 2:08:26 AM

And now I'm thinking this blockquote needs closing.


Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 22, 2006 2:09:27 AM

When I said "EPI," I meant the Economic Policy Institute, which I think of as on the left. Sorry for the confusion.

I also have no way to know whether a growing number of scientists are buying into this intelligent design approach to the origin of cellular life. That isn't a new idea, but there has been a strong push for it lately. Is there some kind of longitudinal polling of scientists on this question that you're referring to?

There's an overwhelming consensus against "intelligent design," which you ought to be able to learn about without taking too much trouble. Raising doubt about this is pretty much into "Some people think Iraq isn't going well, some think it is" territory. If you don't know the facts here, it's either because you aren't paying attention or because you're so open-minded that your brains have fallen out.

I'm going to feel free not to engage you in the future.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 22, 2006 5:15:57 PM

Matt, we may have different ideas about what it means for something to be "outright false." I don't think what you say shows the Heritage Foundation blurb to be false. At most it could be misleading for some.

For what it's worth, I'd guess there are far more scientists who fit what the blurb says than you probably imagine, though I have no idea if their numbers have been increasing (which is the relevant point for the blurb). These scientists accept Darwinism and aren't interested in teaching intelligent design in school, for the most part, but they do take seriously the basic premise as some kind of supplement to Darwinism. There was a piece on NPR about an editorial that appeared in some important science journal in the last year or so that indicated that a substantial minority in science faculties at universities do take intelligent design seriously but are quiet about it because the idea is treated with such scorn by their colleagues.

About EPI, I understood who you meant; actually used to visit their offices once in a while. I didn't know there was some pretender that had borrowed the same initials to confuse matters. I suppose Bruce was just educating us about that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 22, 2006 9:30:33 PM

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