Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Sneers About “The Koch Brothers” and "Koch Money"

It’s disheartening that name-calling is sometimes accepted as a serious argument in modern political discourse. There are plenty of examples of this behavior, but I have in mind the sneer that some commentator or some piece of scholarship is “Koch funded.” Sometimes it is sufficient to merely insinuate that there is a tenuous connection to the Koch brothers. For example, a scholar who once published something with Cato but is now working for some other outlet, perhaps even speaking his own mind, not on behalf of any institution, can be permanently slapped with the “Koch money” sneer. Of course, this sneer isn't specific to the Koch family; there are plenty of morons droning on about "Soros money" instead of engaging meaningfully with the arguments.

This behavior is so infantile I’m tempted to just not react to it, just as I would ignore a tantrum-throwing child. But then again it happens often enough that it’s worth responding. I recently saw Michael Cannon at Cato on a C-SPAN event. He was discussing health policy. A viewer called in just to say that Cannon shouldn’t be listened to because he’s associated with Cato, and that the Cato voice shouldn’t even get a hearing in our political discourse. Of course he babbled something about Koch money. The insinuation is always that these commentators are being paid by the Kochs to distribute their message, thus rendering them unreliable as sources of information. I want to explain just how utterly wrong this is.

I recently had my name on a paper published at Cato, something for which I am very proud. It was a short paper on the so-called opioid epidemic, basically explaining why the standard narrative is wrong and the policy implications are pretty much the opposite of what some careless commentators have inferred. I have been writing about this since early 2016. I have numerous blog posts explaining why I’m skeptical of the standard story. I have done a deep dive on the CDC’s mortality data, and on the pages of this blog I have posted some novel (novel as far as I can tell) pieces of analysis on that data.  I’ve been happily giving it away for free. I began an e-mail penpalship with the lead author of my Cato paper in early 2016. He asked me two years later to help write a paper with him. I jumped at the chance. Not at all because I was expecting to earn some kind of royalty for having written a paper. (I wasn’t expecting any such compensation, and anyway didn’t receive anything and didn’t dream of asking.) That never entered my mind. I got a chance to work with one of my personal heroes and earned a tiny bit of name recognition in libertarian circles.

Here is what didn’t happen. I did not get an e-mail from the Koch Brothers saying, “We need a paper defending proposition X. We will compensate you for writing said paper, as long as it toes the line.” I did not get any e-mails from Cato’s donors dictating the content of the paper or any other such interference. My guess is that this almost never happens. Most academics and commentators in the think tank space come to their interests and policy positions long before they ever find steady employment doing it. Alex Nowrasteh didn’t suddenly become pro-immigration because the Koch Brothers paid him off. Jeff Miron and Jeff Singer didn’t become anti drug prohibition because Cato cut them a check. Michael Cannon didn’t become an advocate for free-market health policies because he was bought out. These people came to their interests and policy positions and ideologies first. Of course these people are going to end up working for something like The Cato Institute. The best and brightest minds, the people with the deepest dedication to libertarian principles and the sincerest interest in policy wonkery, are going to pair up with institutions with the resources and connections that allow them to do the best work. It is simply not the case that Cato picks bland vanilla academics and pays them off to write policy papers.  The notion that these people are somehow tainted by their connection to funding is silly.

Suppose that someone’s work really is compromised by its underlying funding. I’m not saying this never happens. For example, studies published by pharmaceutical companies have a clear bias in favor of those companies’ medicines. (There is a long exposition on this topic in Medical Nihilism by Jacob Stegenga, an excellent book btw.) It’s not crazy on its face that this could happen elsewhere. I recall Michael Chertoff defending the use of body scanners on Fox News. It’s conceivable that he’s just a very principled defender of national security, but the fact that his lobbying firm represents the manufacturers of those scanners represents a clear conflict of interest. Even well-meaning people can self-deceive with a bias in favor of their own financial interests. You know what you can do about this problem? You can check their work. You see, Cato doesn’t just put out a paper outlining its conclusions and say, “We had some smart people look at some data and do some analysis, so take our word for it. This is the answer! We're the experts!” No. They publish policy whitepapers that outline and explain their arguments, provide citations defending their various claims, and generally attempt to lead a neutral outsider to the conclusions. If you know how to read and aren’t paralyzed with intellectual laziness, you can read, understand, and critique their arguments. You can point out that “this citation is irrelevant” or “this data is incorrect, and anyway doesn’t distinguish the Cato conclusion from the main alternatives” or “this argument is a non-sequitur.” Forget “follow the money”. Try “follow the argument.”

Let’s take this one concession further. Suppose you really do identify someone whose work was definitely compromised by their funding source. Maybe an e-mail gets leaked that exposes the funders putting pressure on a scholar to make a misleading argument, and the scholar caved and changed his paper because of it. Does this permanently impugn the scholar? Or the institution? I say “No.” It’s usually considered a logical fallacy to impugn an argument because of its source. It’s called an ad hominem, and anyone who has spent five minutes reading internet message boards and comments sections knows you’re not supposed to do it. Besides, “check their work” still applies here. You can uncover the bad argument just by reading the paper. Someone with a truly atrocious record of untruthfulness might reasonably be written off. But if public discourse has any kind of future, we’re going to want to avoid situations we permanently write off sources of contrary information or refuse to listen to someone’s argument. If a single dime of inappropriate funding is thought to taint someone's scholarship or integrity, I think that locks us into an impasse where we all just ignore each other's arguments and nobody ever changes their mind. If you're a skeptical-but-progressive-leaning voter or policy wonk seeking contrary information on, say, how we should run our public schools, you're going to find the highest quality evidence at some libertarian or conservative think-tank. That's naturally where the most convincing counter-arguments are being crafted and published. If you reflexively count them all out because they have a deep pocketed donor, you're going to lead a dull intellectual existence. 

Highly qualified scholars are expensive. Cato’s scholars tend to be doctors, lawyers, and economists, who can all make a lot more money working in the private sector than they can earn in the policy analysis space. (So writes this accredited actuary.) Cato doesn’t have the money to just buy these people up and keep them on staff as full-time employees. These scholars do the work because they love it and they feel like they’re fighting for a good cause. That’s how they get the Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard and a practicing surgeon from Arizona to do scholarship for them. The notion that they’d be able to buy these people’s integrity and compel them to make bad arguments is pretty absurd. If these individuals devoted their time and energy to professional pursuits rather than distracting themselves with Cato projects, they'd be able to make a lot more money.

Maybe this post was a waste of time. People who flippantly make ad hominem arguments generally aren't reachable. Or maybe not. I wanted to explain how a piece of "Koch funded" research feels from the inside. The nefarious influence of money just isn't there. 

No comments:

Post a Comment