Sunday, 16 February 2014

Something to watch for in the penalty rates debate – bogus think-tanks

The push to remove penalty rates for things like late night and weekend work is under way again in Australia. The argument of employers that seems to have the support of the Coalition government is that the extra dollars put into the pockets of workers are destroying job opportunities for others.
On National Public Radio in the US this weekend there was an interview with New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lipton that gives a warning of something to look out for as the debate continues.
INTERVIEWER TERRY GROSS: You cover lobbying for the New York Times, but if I were to give your beat a name, judging from what you’ve been writing lately, the beat would be the secret corporate influence on American policy and public opinion. Does that work for you?
ERIC LIPTON: Yeah, I mean I sort of think of it as self-interested parties trying to influence the system to their own benefit. And that’s sort of like what I’m looking for when I think about what’s an interesting story.
GROSS: So one of the things you’ve been investigating is how corporate lobby groups are funding research that will influence both lawmakers and popular opinion. And one of the ways they’re doing that is by funding think-tanks. And give us an example of a think-tank that is funded by a lobby group, although you wouldn’t know that if you were reading the research that the think-tank turned out.
LIPTON: Well, there’s – for example, there’s a group called the Employment Policies Institute, which puts out reports that examines what would happen if we raise the minimum wage, what impact will it have on unemployment and on poverty in the United States. And if you look at the reports, they’re very academic-looking, and they say they’re, you know, a nonpartisan research organization.
But in fact, as you learn more about the group, you find out that one of their main supporters financially is the restaurant industry and that when you look at the reports…
GROSS: And the restaurant industry opposes raising the minimum wage.
LIPTON: Right. They find that it would be sort of hurtful to their bottom line and perhaps would reduce employment. So they’re actively lobbying Congress to try to avoid legislation that would increase the minimum wage. And the thing is, when you look at their reports, there’s just this consistency to them that they again and again are putting out reports that make a similar point.
And then their reports turn up on the National Restaurant Association website, which then uses their reports to kind of reinforce their opposition to the legislative proposal. So it becomes this sort of Washington echo chamber where the think-tank makes an argument, then the organization that is trying to block the legislation then points to the think-tank as an authoritative source, and it buttresses its argument and tries to, you know, modestly change public opinion and perhaps modestly impact some of the moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats whose votes are still potentially up in the air.
GROSS: So the lobby group funds the think-tank, the think-tank turns out research that supports the lobby group’s point of view. The lobby group quotes the think-tank as being impartial.
LIPTON: Yes.
GROSS: Now, in the Employment Policies Institute, the group that you mentioned that turns out research that opposes raising the minimum wage, they’re actually directly connected to a PR firm led by somebody named Richard Berman. The PR firm is called Berman and Company. And this is an interesting group because they actually have created several, you know, think-tanks and, you know, consumer groups that are created because they’re funded by a special interest.
LIPTON: For the most part. I mean there’s, you know, the Center for Consumer Freedom. You know, there’s ActivistCash.com. There’s MercuryFacts.com, Teachers Union Facts, Employment Freedom Org, IncomeTaxFacts.org. There’s, you know, more than a dozen websites or nonprofit groups that Berman and Company has set up that then typically have had some industry funding and then make arguments that are opposing sort of what you would consider, you know, consumer groups, and they become a part of the public debate.
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