David R. Henderson  

Daniel Kuehn on Questions about Funding Sources

PRINT
Friday Night Video: Murphy on... Robin Hanson on Questions...

Ad hominem is contextual.

Daniel Kuehn, a frequent commenter on this blog, defends Senator Barbara Boxer's questioning of who funds the Institute for Energy Research, the organization under whose auspices Bob Murphy testified on Thursday.

His general point is that it's legitimate to point out who funds research and who funds testimony and articles. I agree with him wholeheartedly and I think he said it well.

However, he badly misses the point in this context.

Before getting to that, I'll point out that I "walk the talk." A number of years ago, a fairly well-known economist I respect was consulting for a Fortune 500 company. Call the company "A." A wanted to merge with B and the federal government was putting roadblocks in the way. I favored, you probably won't be surprised to know, allowing A to merge with B. This economist, who knew I was on a roll at the time with the Wall Street Journal, writing 5 to 6 op/eds a year for them, asked me if I would write an op/ed for the Journal arguing that A should be allowed to merge with B. "Sure," I said. "And, in return," he said, "A is willing to pay you $2,500." For those of you who don't know, this is a multiple of the price that the Journal typically pays for op/eds, at least in my experience. "I'm guessing that you don't want me to tell the Journal that I'm being paid," I said. "That's right," he said, "there would be no point." "OK," I said, "then my answer is no."

Now back to the Boxer context. In making his case, Daniel writes:

I agree (on both counts - that it's fine to take money from energy companies and military contractors and that it's important to know where you're getting money to do research) and I think it's a big mistake for people to treat this like some kind of cheap-shot from Boxer.

That's where Daniel loses me. Why? Two reasons. The less-important one is, as I pointed out, that that was all Boxer had. She showed no interest in the content of Bob's testimony and didn't challenge any of it. The only thing she showed any interest in was who funded him.

The more-important one is that Boxer's treatment was not symmetric. She showed zero interest in the funding of any of the people whom the Democratic side invited to testify. That's what makes it a cheap shot.

Interestingly, as Bob Murphy points out and as Daniel admits in the comments on his post, he had originally written the post to say as follows:

Sen. Barbara Boxer raised the issue of the funding sources behind IER (Bob's organization) as well as the other witnesses

Interestingly also, in admitting his mistake, Daniel writes:
Presumably this is something that matters for anyone to her, but I added "Republican" - in any case it wouldn't be wrong to add Republican, so why not :)

That's mistaken. This presumption doesn't follow it all. As I noted, and as Bob noted and Daniel admitted, Barbara Boxer didn't show any interest in the funding sources of the witnesses on the Democratic side. Moreover, not only wouldn't it be wrong to add "Republican," which, to his credit, he did, but more important, it would be wrong not to. When he wrote "the other witnesses," he leads people to think that he means "the other witnesses," not "some other witnesses" or "the other Republican witnesses." (By the way, there was only one other witness on the Republican side, my friend Diana Furchtgott-Roth, whose testimony was also excellent.)

Here's my guess: If you go through every question Senator Boxer has ever asked in the last, say, 10 years, you will find her asking about funding sources of witnesses on her side less than 10% of the time.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Revealed Preference



COMMENTS (19 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't get the Republican thing honestly - she did say that the insurance people got money from the insurance industry, and then after mentioning that talked about the energy industry. The insurance industry people were the Democratic witnesses, right?

Anyway I was happy to change it because I wanted to focus on the main point about the importance of financial disclosures in research, but I think she did mention the Democratic witnesses.

Seth writes:

Perhaps we should then also ask Barbara Boxer's voters for their funding sources so we can understand their potential conflict of interests when they cast their votes.

After reading this post and DK's, I'm not persuaded that funding sources 'is important'. DK claims it is because, "this is how crony capitalism and regulatory capture happen."

I disagree. I think 'conflict of interest' funding is a result of these things, not a cause. One reason crony capitalism and regulatory capture happens is that 'we' are so easily thrown of the trail of the issues at hand when someone drags a red herring across it.

If someone is wrong about something, it should be easy enough to make a convincing case without considering their potential conflict of interests in their funding sources. Why not?

mb writes:

The other issue this raises only through insinuation, private money influences people, but public money is wholesome goodness. The government has not funded a single skeptic in the last 4 years - I wonder if they have an agenda?

Daniel probably does not think so, government is good - but everyone has an agenda - it is there arguments that matter.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

mb -
Government can be good but researchers with government grants usually disclose those too for the same reason - potential conflict of interest.

My view of things is less adversarial than yours. Government can be good, energy companies can be good, insurance companies can be good. They can all be bad too. Just disclose it.

mb writes:

So you can not evaluate an argument without disclosure, when disclosure seems to tell you nothing (if all can be good or bad or biased - what exactly do you gain?)

You probably failed logic, so I will stop now.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

You can evaluate arguments without disclosure, but it's good practice because of the possibility of conflicts of interest. We're not all perfect argument evaluators (for that matter, no single argument is going to be completely persuasive anyway!), so it's just good practice particularly when high stakes are involved. It avoids crony capitalism.

You don't have to be a jerk to me about this. I'm taking the same position that David did with "Company A" and that Bob Murphy did when he was criticizing Fred Mishkin a couple years back.

And I'll also point out that for the most part this is standard practice. Most econ journals will ask about your funding sources and conflicts of interests. I'm not putting out some kind of goofy idea.

James writes:

Daniel,

If a senator had wanted, malevolently, to draw attention to funding in order to draw attention away from the substance of Murphy's argument we would have observed questions about funding, but absolutely no questions addressing the substance of the argument.

What did we observe Barbara Boxer doing when Murphy testified?

Tom West writes:

A few points:

(1) It's pretty hard for an outsider to distinguish between someone who is paid to find a particular conclusion and one who finds a particular conclusion and is paid to publicize it.

(2) I think we're all familiar with the adage about being hard to make someone understand something when their living depends on not understanding it. If someone is on the payroll of a particular company because they have a particular position, I think we can assume there's going to be a strong bias against finding or believing information that goes against that position. Lest people believe I am belittling that tendency, let me point out that it's usually called loyalty.

(3) I think we all understand that if congressional testimony is a trial, the politicians aren't the judge, they're either the prosecutors or the defense. As with lawyers, we can expect attacks on credibility on opposing witnesses and to give "their side" a free pass. The only thing I'm not clear on is just who is the jury...

Delphin writes:

A story might clarify this for Kuehn.

Alan Dershowitz tells of the head of Harvard long ago explaining why he didn't like admitting Jews.
"They cheat."
"I'm sure some do, but so do some Episcopalians" was the reply.
"We were talking, sir, about Jews."

Boxer was talking, sir, about Republicans.

Yancey Ward writes:

I find myself agreeing with mb- if you lack the ability to judge something without knowing who funded it, then knowing who funded it won't help one whit. I find it interesting information, but essentially useless.

Wojtek Grabski writes:

Each time a heated conversation starts about a point that Daniel has made (which is pretty often), it's usually roughly the same point:

- An accusation is made by "person A" that someone's argument is ridiculous and malicious. We'll call the subject of the accusation "person B" (usually it's either PK, or some politician)
- Daniel rushes to B's defence, arguing, typically, that suspicions of malevolence or bias are unwarranted, and that only the best of intentions can be assumed, as well as the most favorable interpretation of substance; that "A" is essentially engaging in an ad-hominem.
- Everyone (persons C through Z) piles on Daniel, insisting that a history of obvious bias and lack of argumentative substance make baseless Daniel's defence of B.

In this case, it's sort of the same. Except this time, Daniel is coming to the defence A, on the grounds that the ad-hominem, isn't really an ad-hominem, but a relevant point of fact, and B should be castigated for their apparent bias.

Daniel, you are arguing against your usual position -- which is commendable, I guess. But you've probably also created a whole new level of the class "apologist".

And you make my head hurt.

Brandon Berg writes:

In a world of ideal Bayesians with the critical thinking skills and educational background needed to evaluate arguments competently, I think that information about funding sources is an unmitigated good, which is likely to reduce bias.

Unfortunately, that kind of person is not well-represented in Congress or among the general public. In practice, the introduction of information about funding sources is very likely to increase bias. People treat funding by a disfavored source an excuse to dismiss arguments without consideration, rather than as one factor among many.

Really, do you have any doubt that that was the point of Boxer's question--to discredit rather than to illuminate?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Wojtek -
I think you're thinking too hard about this. I'm not defending Boxer. I'm really not nearly as interested in Boxer as most people seem to be here. I do care about the role of research in public policy because that has been my professional life. And I have thoughts on it. One of them is that disclosure of funding is an important and frankly a commonplace thing.

Nathanael writes:

Saw this at Daniel Kuehn's blog, and I think you need to think about this harder. A LOT harder. Because you made a really bad mistake in the past. One where you didn't think things through.

If company A wants to merge with company B, *but company A is interested in paying bribes* to economists to write favorable articles without acknowledging the bribes...

....maybe you should reconsider your approval of A merging with B. A may be an institutionally toxic company, a Kellogg Brown Root, which poisons anything it merges with.

An institution which is interested in offering money on these "but don't tell them we paid you" terms is an institution which you should reassess.

Maybe you not only don't want A to merge with B.... maybe A should have its corporate charter revoked and be liquidated and shut down.

Please think about this. Hard.

Because until you think about this, you're going to fail to understand what's wrong with the Republican "deregulation, let corporations do whatever" point of view.

Nathanael writes:

Before getting to that, I'll point out that I "walk the talk." A number of years ago, a fairly well-known economist I respect was consulting for a Fortune 500 company. Call the company "A." A wanted to merge with B and the federal government was putting roadblocks in the way. I favored, you probably won't be surprised to know, allowing A to merge with B. This economist, who knew I was on a roll at the time with the Wall Street Journal, writing 5 to 6 op/eds a year for them, asked me if I would write an op/ed for the Journal arguing that A should be allowed to merge with B. "Sure," I said. "And, in return," he said, "A is willing to pay you $2,500." For those of you who don't know, this is a multiple of the price that the Journal typically pays for op/eds, at least in my experience. "I'm guessing that you don't want me to tell the Journal that I'm being paid," I said. "That's right," he said, "there would be no point." "OK," I said, "then my answer is no."

This is actually worse and worse the more I think about it.

(1) The moral thing to do was to *report the attempted bribe*. To a *journalist*. And see how the general public reacted. (They might well have been really very angry and ready to kill the merger.) Did you do this? It doesn't sound like it.

(2) You say the fellow who forwarded you the offer of the bribe is an economist you respect. I sincerely hope you respect his intelligence but think he is an evil man, the way I "respect" Stalin.

Because you just described him forwarding an offer of a bribe, without a second thought... and the implication was that he was getting similar bribes 5, 6 times a year. That's pretty deeply unworthy of respect on a moral basis.

Most of the commenters here seem to have missed the way you damned yourself morally with that story.

Nathanael writes:

OK, misread the story, minor correction: The man was not getting his own bribes, he was simply offering you a bribe.

Tom West writes:

Nathanael, as the story is told, David has made his willingness to write the story before the offer was made. In other words, the money was an inducement to make the effort to write, not to solicit an unwarranted opinion.

Presumably the WSJ needed to be kept out of the loop because it can't tell between an inducement and 'purchasing an opinion'.

Thus, while rather skeezy that they didn't want the WSJ informed, I wouldn't call it bribery. Thus I don't think in a similar circumstance I'd feel it a moral necessity to report the behavior. It would, on the other hand, damage my opinion of both the company and the offerer of the money.

Brad Petersen writes:

I find Nathanael's supposed moral superiority laughable -- seeing as he apparently favors using state violence to interfere with the voluntary efforts of two companies to merge. Talk about immoral.

And his description of David Henderson's economist friend as "evil" is simply absurd. His so-called "bribe" may not have been the right or smart thing to do, but "evil" is a stretch, especially when this economist is only trying to protect his client from a bunch of no-good regulators and politicians.

The real evil in all this is the federal government's interference in the private affairs of the two businesses in question. The government has zero business interfering with their desire to merge. It is simply none of their business. Nor is it the business of anyone other than the owners of the two companies.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brad Petersen,
Thanks. Well said. I found Nathanael so nasty, and so lacking in good will, that I decided not to respond. But your response is right on.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top