Flack Catcher


"The Think Tank As Flack," an article in the November issue of The Washington Monthly, suggests that people who work for public policy research organizations that receive corporate funding are little more than pretentious publicists. I take this charge a bit personally, since I work for one of the think tanks mentioned in the article.

Warning that "money…can buy scholars as well as politicians," David Callahan questions the honesty and integrity of many people whom he does not know, and whose minds he assuredly has not read. Yet he never substantiates his claim of intellectual corruption.

Exhibit 1 in Callahan's case against what he calls "right-wing think tanks" (a category in which he includes libertarian organizations such as my employer, the Reason Foundation) is a full-page ad sponsored by the Oakland, California-based Independent Institute. The ad, which appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post last June, features a letter signed by 240 economists who criticize the application of antitrust law to cases where there is no evidence of harm to consumers.

The letter argues that businesses are misusing antitrust law to attack their competitors. It cites government actions against Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Visa and MasterCard as examples of such "antitrust protectionism."

Three and a half months after the ads appeared, The New York Times ran a front-page article noting that the Independent Institute had used money from Microsoft, one of its donors, to pay for them. The story, which appeared just as closing arguments were being made in the Microsoft case, was based on purloined documents provided by "a Microsoft adversary associated with the computer industry."

The Independent Institute had long acknowledged donations from Microsoft, which it says amount to about 8 percent of its budget. But the economists who signed the letter were not told that Microsoft's money would be used to publicize it, and neither were reporters.

David Theroux, the Independent Institute's president, emphasizes that Microsoft had no role in producing or circulating the letter and did not know about the project until after it was under way. Theroux also notes that the institute's interest in antitrust law goes back to 1990, before the Microsoft suit was a glimmer in the Justice Department's eye.

Although the lack of full disclosure made the institute look bad, it had no bearing on the merits of the argument made in the letter. If the economists (who received no compensation for their participation) did not even know about the Microsoft money, it's hard to see how they could have been doing the company's bidding.

Yet in describing the letter, Callahan says it "purported to be a scholarly, unbiased view," implying that it was later revealed to be neither. Referring to the signatories, he puts the word "experts" in scare quotes, as if their knowledge of the issue has been called into question.

Callahan also tries to discredit Winners, Losers, and Microsoft, a critically acclaimed book by economists Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis, whose work in this area predates the Microsoft case. Since the book was published by the Independent Institute, "Microsoft money helped pay" for it. Enough said, in Callahan's view.

But it soon becomes clear that Callahan cannot back up his insinuations. Although he implies that money from businesses transforms think tanks into "corporate propaganda machines," he admits that people like David Theroux, far from being flacks, actually believe what they say.

"Given their world view," Callahan says, "Theroux and his colleagues at the Independent Institute would probably be bashing the government prosecutors after Microsoft regardless of who gave them money." This is no small concession, since Callahan's argument hinges on the idea that corporate funding influences the conclusions that think tanks reach.

"Corporate executives like Bill Gates are not giving away their money for nothing," Callahan warns. "They expect a return on their investment." True enough, but it makes more sense for them to support think tanks that already agree with them than to bribe others into changing their positions–a phenomenon so rare that Callahan cannot cite a single example of it.

Even before Callahan starts complaining that more money should be flowing into "progressive think tanks," his concern for rigorous scholarship seems hollow. If he really cared about intellectual integrity, his reckless assault on the motives of people with whom he disagrees would be hard to understand.