Ethics Heroes: Five Democratic Economists

Senator Warren, who is always right.

Senator Warren, who is always right.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass)  was annoyed that Robert Litan, a nonresident and unpaid economics fellow at the reliably liberal Washington think tank, the Brookings Institute, dared to author a study critical of financial advisor regulations being pushed by Warren and the White House. Thus she sent a letter to Brookings last week, challenging the independence of the study and the integrity of Litan, since the study was, as Litan states up front, “supported by the Capital Group, one of the largest mutual fund asset managers in the United States.”

Warren called the report “highly compensated and editorially compromised work on behalf of an industry player seeking a specific conclusion.”

You know, unlike the various donors to Warren’s political war chest, who are not trying to buy specific policies and votes from her.

Literally hours after receiving the letter, Brookings, knowing which side of the bread its butter was on, dutifully forced Litan to resign.

The issue isn’t whether the policy Warren wants is a good one or not; personally, I tend to agree with Warren on the need for the regulation, which would make 401(k) and 403(b) advisors as well as other compensation-related retirement plan advisors be subject to fiduciary duties. the issue is Warren’s embrace of the increasingly popular tactic from the Left of dealing with adversaries by silencing them.

Calling out Warren’s tactics are five Democratic economists: former Clinton economic advisers W. Bowman Cutter and Everett Ehrlich; Harvard University international trade and investment professor Robert Z. Lawrence; former Clinton chief budget economist Joseph Minarik; and former Clinton economic adviser Hal Singer, who co-authored the report in question with Litan. In a letter submitted to The Washington Post, the economists wrote that Warren’s attack and Brookings’ submissiveness in response validates ad hominem tactics against any researcher or scholar who may be associated with an industry or interest whose views are contrary to hers. They wrote in part:

“Those who differ with Litan instead should offer a substantive rebuttal to the paper in question, which would do much more to clarify the issue than implicitly depicting him as being inherently corrupted by the sponsorship of his work…Businesses sometimes finance policy research much as advocacy groups or other interests do. A reader can question the source of the financing on all sides, but ultimately the quality of the work and the integrity of the author are paramount.”

Noting that Litan’s quality and integrity as a scholar has been “impeccable over a career of four decades,” the economists continued,

“In keeping with those standards, he has been completely transparent about the support for, and conduct of, the study in question, as both Brookings and Senator Warren were well aware from the day he first testified before the Congress on the matter.To attack him as being ‘bought,’ or to sever ties with him over an incidental bureaucratic issue, is below the standards that support free and open policy debate.”

But ideologues and social justice warriors like Warren aren’t interested in the least in “free and open policy debate.” They already know they are right, and just want to win by any means necessary: the ends justify the means. Thus while their supporters are completely altruistic and searching for the Truth, the supporters of their adversaries are corrupt and controlling.

The latter assertion is technically known as “bullshit.”

What was so frightening to Warren about Litan’s study is that he is a liberal, and yet reached a position that defies liberal cant. Since it cannot be admitted that an ally is objective and open-minded and might just have the ability any ethical analysts should have to recognize that his “side” may not be correct about everything, Litan had to be impugned and destroyed.

The unpleasant fact is that all research is polluted to varying degrees by bias, and to pretend that this isn’t true, as Warren does, is dishonest and misleading. The trick, therefore, is to try to generate convincing, objective research that overcomes assumptions of bias. For six years I ran a policy research group, The National Chamber Foundation, for the incredibly pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce. My charge: run studies that were completely objective on topics where the Chamber was confident that its position would be borne out by independent research. I was not required to come up with a particular result, and the Chamber knew that I was not going to slant the studies to make them happy. Why did they do this? As it was explained to me by my boss, now the President of the Chamber, Tom Donohue: “Research that is rigged won’t convince anyone. But if honest research by independent scholars backs our position, it is a powerful tool.” Indeed, business interests paid for the Foundation’s studies, and they did so because they believed that honest research would support their positions.

Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t, and yes, I lost my job when an adversary of the Chamber’s position on the minimum wage pulled a Foundation study on the then-Chamber head in a televised debate. Still, if a researcher is ethical, the fact that a researcher funder is hoping for a particular result means nothing. I am hired as an expert witness by law firms seeking an opinion that supports their clients, but I will not guarantee one. Am I aware that I will make my client happier if I reach the result they are hoping for? Sure. And I know that if I don’t, they won’t hire me again. The fact that they hired me, however, doesn’t prove that my opinion was “bought.” It either stands up, or it doesn’t.

It’s a great game that Warren is playing, you see: she can’t lose. If a business interest hires a liberal scholar who slants his research to reach a position the business funder opposes, it’s obviously reliable, since the research came out differently than the funders were hoping. If the research supports the funder, however, it must be phony, polluted by self-interest. With those as the rules, business interests should fund research at all—which is exactly what Warren and her gang want. No, all research on policy should be funded by several advocacy groups and universities, since they are so objective.

Ethics kudos to the five Democratic economists who have faith in their theories and believe that they can win policy debates without rigging them.


Sources: Washington Post 1, 2; Bloomberg, The Hill, Inside Philanthropy

4 thoughts on “Ethics Heroes: Five Democratic Economists

  1. I think you’re entirely right on this one. Ad hominem attacks are just part of the slippery slope, and integrity has to be key not only to expert testimony but to research in general. Well said.

  2. Bill Clinton wasn’t a dummy regarding economics. His triangulation strategy worked pretty well and it’s hard to believe that he would have let this nation get deeply in debt as Obama has. He was of course helped by Steve Jobs and the technology revolution that made many people rich.

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