Friday, September 8, 2006

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The New York Times blows the lid off of pissant think tank contributions

I've been known to question the value-added of think tanks from time to time, so I looked with interest at Michael Barbaro and Stephanie Strom's New York Times story on how Wal-Mart is potentially buying ideological support through it's support of consevative think tanks:

As Wal-Mart Stores struggles to rebut criticism from unions and Democratic leaders, the company has discovered a reliable ally: prominent conservative research groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute.

Top policy analysts at these groups have written newspaper opinion pieces around the country supporting Wal-Mart, defended the company in interviews with reporters and testified on its behalf before government committees in Washington.

But the groups — and their employees — have consistently failed to disclose a tie to the giant discount retailer: financing from the Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s three children, who have a controlling stake in the company.

[Uh-oh, another potential payola scandal in the think tank community. We're talking millions here, right?--ed.] As it turns out, not so much, no:
At least five research and advocacy groups that have received Walton Family Foundation donations are vocal advocates of the company.

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, for example, has received more than $100,000 from the foundation in the last three years, a fraction of the more than $24 million it raised in 2004 alone.

....the Walton Family Foundation gave Pacific Research [Institute] $175,000 from 1999 to 2004....

....the $20,000 Heritage has received from the Walton Family Foundation since 2000 amounts to less than 1 percent of its $40 million budget....

Conservative groups are not the only ones weighing in on the Wal-Mart debate. Ms. Williams of Wal-Mart noted labor unions have financed organizations that have been critical of Wal-Mart, like the Economic Policy Institute, which received $2.5 million from unions in 2005.

In plain English, the Walton Foundation gave AEI an average of $33,000 a year, PRI $35,000 a year, and a whopping $3,667 a year to Heritage.

Besides the fact that the story reveals no link between the donations and think tank outputs, besides the fact that these groups would be ideologically predisposed to support Wal-Mart anyway (just as EPI would support the union position), it's worth stressing that in the think tank world, these are nothing amounts. These sums of money buy a B.A.-level RA and some cocktail shrimp at a reception. After reading the article, I'm not amazed that Wal-Mart is giving money to these think tanks -- I'm amazed they'e giving so little.

This leads to a fundamental question -- what on earth motivated the New York Times to put this article on the front page of its Business section? Properly headlined, an article that blares, "Little Money Flowing Between Wal-Mart and Washington Think Tanks" wouldn't even have run, much less on the front page. Instead, we get,"Wal-Mart Finds an Ally in Conservatives."

In Congress, there's a threshhold below which legislators are not required to report gifts because they are so minor. The sums we're talking about here are below the threshhold to motivate a NYT story.

UPDATE: For the record, I have received no money or gifts from Wal-Mart at any time.

And frankly, I'm a little hurt.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Over at Volokh, David Bernstein also has some fun with the article.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's an example of a Heritage analyst -- the very same one who's cited as pro-Wal-Mart in the story -- adopting an anti-Wal-Mart position. Thanks to Heritage's Khristine Brookes for the pointer. [You remembered to ask her for cash, right?--ed. D'oh!!]

posted by Dan on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM


"The sums we're talking about here are below the threshhold to motivate a NYT story."

Clearly you need to spend more time in New York City, for the Times' decision to put such a story out there is a function of elite New Yorkers' animosity toward Wal-Mart, business, capitalism, wealth, and the persistence of class in American society.

posted by: Dave on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Good heavens. There are a myriad of story ideas in the list of 2004 grant recipients from the Walton Foundation found . Focusing on this is pretty weak on the NYT's part.

Frankly, what interests me is the number of donations to charter schools, school systems, and environmental organizations. "Floridians for School Choice, Inc." gets a whopping $3,287,500 in 2004. Georgia Charter Schools Association gets $406,000. The Brighter Choice Foundation (Charter schools for New York) gets $6,317,131.

Now, if we see Hoover Institution articles supportive of WalMart, we know to be suspicious. They got $628,000 in 2004. If my WalMart-free city also starts being nicer to the smiley face behemouth, I'll also wonder what's up. The Atlanta City Schools got a $100,000 donation.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

No amount of money given by Wal-Mart is too low -- even zero!

Before I surrendered the domain to WM, a few people warned me that handing it over for free looked suspicious! I was giving the corporation something potentially very valuable in exchange for nothing!

Takeaway: I already knew that if you or your employer takes money from WM, you're considered a paid stooge. But I learned that if you don't take money from WM, you might be thought part of a nefarious clandestine operation.

Either way, a generally pro-WM opinion is worthless.

[Btw, this comment is only half-serious.]

posted by: Kevin Brancato on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

John Walton, before his untimely death, was a huge supporter of school choice. That explains the charter school donations, and probably why they gave to AEI, Heritage and Manhattan, as well.

posted by: ross on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

"This leads to a fundamental question -- what on earth motivated the New York Times to put this article on the front page of its Business section?"

Walmart spent the last year or so caving to every PC demand that it be more sensitive and caring - because in today's world it's not enough for a large retailer to provide jobs and low-cost goods. Walmart's management has shown it is susceptible to pressure when applied in a public manner. The NY Times is applying public pressure, not because the story is page 1 material but because the editors know that applying public pressure causes Walmart to adopt more PC policies.

posted by: DRJ on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

My guess is that Walmart is selling books debunking Joe Wilson's supposed debunking of the Nigerian uranium story. Since clinging to that is the NYT top priority, all other news must bow to it.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

I bet they did it because Wal-Mart doesn't advertise in the NYT.

posted by: Jim on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

So Wal-Mart gives $295,000 over 7 years to conservative think tanks and thats a failure to disclose a tie. But $2,500,000 from unions to the Economic Policy institute in one year is fine and dandy.

posted by: luke on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Any idea how much money the Tides Foundation gave to the various anti-Walmart activist groups, labor unions, etc in the past year?

I mean, what's fair is fair. Oh, right, that can't be true.

I'd love to see the spider web of interests and money flows from the various liberal foundations to just the most obvious anti-Walmart groups, because I'm betting it's easily in the seven figures. But I'm comfortably certain such a web is so tangled as to be indiscipherable.

posted by: Steve White on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Think tanks are simply an extension of the two major political parties. So Walmart went right due to criticism from the left. What's the surprise?

posted by: Stanford Matthews on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

We conservatives hope, Stanford, that the Republicans will be an extension of the conservative/libertarian think tanks, not the other way around.

I exaggerate, but only slightly.

posted by: Assistant Village Idiot on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

elite New Yorkers' animosity toward Wal-Mart, business, capitalism, wealth

Huh? A very large percentage of "elite New Yorkers" are elite precisely because of success in business, especially finance - the very core of capitalism. Not a lot of Marxists work on Wall Street.

posted by: Bernard Yomtov on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Not a lot of Marxists work on Wall Street.

But many feel guilty, so they play along with fashionably Left issues of the moment.


Part of the deal here is that WalMart doesn't advertise much in magazines or in big city newspapers.

posted by: David Davenport on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Wal-mart hasn't given much to think tanks because it has had no need to generate new policy ideas (or crush existing ones). after all, with GOP control of both houses and the White House, issues like the minimum wage and universal health care have not exactly been at the top of the agenda. With China in the WTO, the trade issue for Wal mart is effectively moot. Why give lots of money to think tanks if your ideas are the flavor du jour inside the Beltway anyway?

If the Dems get control of one or both of the houses, you can bet Wal-Mart will suddenly be funding every Cato/AEI/Heritage paper that points out the evil of paying a living wage and providing health care.

posted by: SteveinVT on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

"you can bet Wal-Mart will suddenly be funding every Cato/AEI/Heritage paper that points out the evil of paying a living wage and providing health care."

Seriously, what kind of a world do we live in where the 16 year old bagging my groceries doesnt make 25,000 dollars a year with the opportunity to stand in line at a government health and wellness facility so Hillary can determine how much free healthcare he needs in this instance? Ah, workers utopia!

posted by: Mark Buehner on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Dan -

Thanks for the addendum. As the person fingered by the Times as a "voice in front of Wal-Mart's money" I'm bemused. Getting essentially smeared by the NY Times feels somewhat like a badge of honor, as I'm sure some movement conservatives will see it. But it's also deeply embarassing. I'm a PhD economist, and I can't help but imagine what my professors would think to read this trashy article. So what is the recommended course of action here?

Clearly, the reporters were too lazy too actually look at what I've written about Wal-Mart, especially when I've taken the company to task, as I would any company that promotes itself over free market principles. So, the NYTimes muffs this badly, right? I get a little smeared, right? What now?

Do the reports or editors of the paper have any conscience? Will they call and apologize and write a pageC1 correction? Do you think they're feeling a little embarassed now? Or do they just keep rolling on towards tomorrow's edition, and pay no heed to the people they step on?

This is a somewhat surreal experience. Any advice is welcome.

- Tim

posted by: Tim Kane on 09.08.06 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

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