Koch Influence Taints New Tufts-Based Think Thank: The Tentacles of the Mercatus Center
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
I spied over the weekend a news clip about our old friends, the Kochs, who are some of the organizations that have set up a new ‘nonpartisan’ think tank, the Center for State Policy Analysis, at Tufts University, to perform public policy analysis.
The aim is to function as analogue for Massachusetts as the Congressional Budget Office, a respected source of public policy advice, does for the federal government. But the big difference is that the new think tank is funded by private fundraising, while the CBO receives public funds.
Now, I understand that Tufts, just like many US universities, is under financial strain from the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t know that it’s experiencing any especial strain, yet nor do I know that Tufts is well-insulated either.
But one of the main funders of this think tank, called the Center for State Policy Analysis, is a program tied financially to the petrochemical billionaire Koch family. This apparent Koch-linked funding raises questions about just how independent the center’s policy analyses may be.
The Center for State Policy Analysis (CSPA), established in February 2020 and located at Tuft’s Tisch College of Civic Life, says it offers “rigorous, timely, nonpartisan analysis of live legislative issues and statewide ballot initiatives.” In addition to examining the state’s ballot questions for the upcoming November election, CSPA plans to review options for addressing rising prescription drug costs and to undertake an analysis of a proposed regional plan to tackle carbon emissions from vehicles called the Transportation and Climate Initiative.
Initial funding for this think tank, as CommonWealth reported, has come from one of the state’s largest private health insurance companies and from a program called Emergent Ventures, which is based at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.].
Yet even if they don’t spell out what they expect from this new think tank, I would think that academics are intelligent enough to understand how the funding source limits what may and may not be said.
Now, the Koch are no strangers to attempting o influence Massachusetts academics. Again, over to Nation of Change:
It is unclear at this point whether the CSPA will produce an analysis similar to the one from Beacon Hill Institute on TCI, but given CSPA’s and BHI’s shared funding ties to Koch foundations, it is not far-fetched to wonder.
Koch Industries is, after all, in the oil refining business, one of the main industries that stands to lose profits from initiatives like TCI aimed at cleaning up the transportation sector, now the largest source of carbon pollution in America.
Oligarchs and Influence, Clueless Journalists
I’m not surprised to see Koch attempt to exert influence at Tufts. In fact, I don’t think you can be a self-respecting oligarch unless you attempt to influence public policy in some shape or form. I admit such influence is not necessarily malign – but I’ve also yet to see where that is fully the case. I’ts certainly not innocent or independent, and there’s always a hidden agenda, whether it be for the Gates Foundation, or one of the many family foundations scattered around the country.
AFTER YEARS OF inaction on Beacon Hill on proposals to create an agency to bring the sort of independent assessment of state legislation that the Congressional Budget Office provides at the federal level, a new research center at Tufts University is being launched to play that role from a perch outside government.
The Center for State Policy Analysis, which will be based in the university’s Tisch College of Civic Life, is aiming to fill that information void by providing rigorous analysis of legislative proposals and ballot questions facing voters.
“It’s immensely helpful to federal policymaking decisions, and I think an entity like that would be very helpful to state policymaking,” said Evan Horowitz, a former data-journalist at the Boston Globe, who will serve as the center’s director.
The new center has already identified a set of initial issues it plans to study and release reports on. They include an analysis of the likely impacts of the Transportation Climate Initiative, the multistate effort Gov. Charlie Baker is pushing to establish a cap-and-trade system for gasoline and diesel fuel wholesalers; an examination of the implications of various approaches to rising prescription drug costs; and an evaluation of the November ballot questions that voters will decide. Those could include measures regulating auto repair businesses, expanding sales of beer and wine in food stores, and a proposal to adopt ranked-choice voting.
The center plans to enlist experts at Tufts and other Boston area universities to carry out the analyses it undertakes.
Horowitz said the reports won’t pull any punches, but will be firmly based on sound research and data and, like the federal office that serves Congress, will steer clear of an ideological leaning. “Preserving the nonpartisan reputation of this center is everything,” he said.
Now, no-one denies Massachusetts suffers from its lack of a government office to perform rigorous analysis of public policy initiatives. Again, according to Commonwealth:
Massachusetts is one of just six states without a government office that carries out some type of independent analysis of the fiscal impacts of proposed legislation, a situation that former Boston Business Journal editor George Donnelly once wrote often leaves lawmakers either in a state of “numeric ignorance or fiscal wishful thinking.”
It’s not for lack of effort by voices across the political spectrum to change that.
Sen Jamie Eldridge, who has expressed frustration over the years at the lack of detailed information on the impact of tax cuts and initiatives like the state film tax credit, has filed bills in each of the last three legislative sessions to create a state office to analyze the impact of bills and state policy.
But the solution, I’m afraid, is not to try to create with a privately financed entity to fill the gap. Because- and I am being charitable here – however well-meaning, and committed to being ‘non-ideological’ the think tank might be, non-ideological is itself a form off ideology.
The Commonwealth article clearly identifies the private financing for the new think thank, but this admission comes near the end:
Tufts is providing office space at both its main Medford campus and at its medical school campus in Chinatown because of its proximity to Beacon Hill. But operating funds for the center will come entirely from fundraising efforts. Horowitz said the center has received initial pledges from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Emergent Ventures, a grant program for social entrepreneurship projects based at George Mason University.
Are the journalists naive, less-than clever- or corrupt – or a combination thereof? There’s no attempt to tease out what private financing means for the bias of the analysis – itself a serious lapse, given the history of dark financing at Tufts (see Dark Money at Tufts and here for links to the the original Tufts Daily four-part series).
The assumption seems to be continue to assert how independent the new entity will be, and it will be so – regardless of where its funding comes from:
Alan Solomont, the dean of the Tisch College at Tufts, said he’s prepared for the fact that, as with the Congressional Budget Office at the federal level, analyses issued by the new center may well please those on one side of a given issue while drawing criticism from those on the other side. “Our role is to educate,” said Solomont. “We’ll put out the facts as a result of what we plan to be rigorous analysis of the sort that you would find in academia — and then come what may.”
I should mention that Tufts is by no means unique among private American universities in this regard. IIRC – it must now be nearly forty years ago – a paper by David Noble documenting how private money had influenced the development (e.g., corrupted), every single MIT department at one time or the other.While not all sources of potential bias are necessarily problematic, what is crucial is that we follow the money, and know where it comes from, so as to determine in what direction that cash might lead the analysis.
You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
(Humbert Wolfe, “Over the Fire”, in The Uncelestial City (1930))
The sentiment equally applies to much of the American media. And I come back to the points raised in the Nation of Change piece. Koch money is Koch money, and we know – or should know – what sorts of public policy positions fossil fuel interests take, on pressing issues the think tank intends to address, such as transportation and emissions policy, or what to do about rising prescription drug costs.
I’m not sure that we can’t at this stage predict more or less what a think tank that traces funding back to the Kochs- noted fossil fuel interests – and one of Massachusetts largest private health insurance companies will say on such issues. But I could be wrong. Surprise me!
I’m sure there are more details about this episode that can be disclosed, and I encourage anyone who might want to share them to contact me here at Naked Capitalism.