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Editorial: Money talks

Hardly a day goes by in the Canadian media when you can’t find a reference to a think-tank — the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Pembina Institute, the Macdonald Laurier Institute.
Hardly a day goes by in the Canadian media when you can’t find a reference to a think-tank — the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Pembina Institute, the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

Hardly a day goes by in the Canadian media when you can’t find a reference to a think-tank — the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Pembina Institute, the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

They’re all out in the world doing economic and policy research, with their focus on the world or the nation through their own particular lens.

Not only do they do policy work to persuade politicians and governments to follow their lead, but many of them do it with what can essentially be described as the taxpayers’ help: they operate as educational charities, writing tax receipts for donations from their financial supporters.

The idea is that it’s scholarly research, even if the institutes have their own clear ideological bent. In fact, it’s fair to suggest that there might be bias not in how a study was done, but in exactly what you chose to study.

But now, there’s some extremely unsettling news from the United States about how those subjects may be chosen. The New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting have released their work on a trove of memos and emails from the U.S. Brookings Institute, documents that appear to show work being tailored to suit the interests of donors. Now, it is a different country and different tax laws, but the collection of documents is, well, sobering (you can read the entire article here).

It’s far from the first time that the New York Times has raised the issue.

That worry — or at least that concern — should be something we are all aware of, journalists included, even in this country. At least one Canadian think-tank now offers its own “economics for journalists” program, which boasts, “Full bursaries are available to cover all program costs including travel, accommodation, conference tuition, materials, and included meals.”

At least one journalist who attended the session, Jonathan Saas, has written that it was a fine primer for economics, as long as you subscribed solely to the right side of the spectrum.

“For the most part, the economics professors leading the daily seminars … presented a basic round-up of the principles of the neoclassical school,” Saas wrote. “Government intervention in the market leads to failures and distortions, and the world’s most prosperous countries are the most economically free (as evidenced in the Institute's annual Economic Freedom of the World Index)…”

In other words, there may be more — or less — to the picture than you’re hearing, and that could be by design. You don’t have to be a cynic, but in this world of hidden agenda and dueling economic philosophies, a healthy dose of skepticism is far from a bad thing.

What’s that old saying? “He who pays the piper, calls the tune”?

Donors are paying plenty.

They’re all out in the world doing economic and policy research, with their focus on the world or the nation through their own particular lens.

Not only do they do policy work to persuade politicians and governments to follow their lead, but many of them do it with what can essentially be described as the taxpayers’ help: they operate as educational charities, writing tax receipts for donations from their financial supporters.

The idea is that it’s scholarly research, even if the institutes have their own clear ideological bent. In fact, it’s fair to suggest that there might be bias not in how a study was done, but in exactly what you chose to study.

But now, there’s some extremely unsettling news from the United States about how those subjects may be chosen. The New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting have released their work on a trove of memos and emails from the U.S. Brookings Institute, documents that appear to show work being tailored to suit the interests of donors. Now, it is a different country and different tax laws, but the collection of documents is, well, sobering (you can read the entire article here).

It’s far from the first time that the New York Times has raised the issue.

That worry — or at least that concern — should be something we are all aware of, journalists included, even in this country. At least one Canadian think-tank now offers its own “economics for journalists” program, which boasts, “Full bursaries are available to cover all program costs including travel, accommodation, conference tuition, materials, and included meals.”

At least one journalist who attended the session, Jonathan Saas, has written that it was a fine primer for economics, as long as you subscribed solely to the right side of the spectrum.

“For the most part, the economics professors leading the daily seminars … presented a basic round-up of the principles of the neoclassical school,” Saas wrote. “Government intervention in the market leads to failures and distortions, and the world’s most prosperous countries are the most economically free (as evidenced in the Institute's annual Economic Freedom of the World Index)…”

In other words, there may be more — or less — to the picture than you’re hearing, and that could be by design. You don’t have to be a cynic, but in this world of hidden agenda and dueling economic philosophies, a healthy dose of skepticism is far from a bad thing.

What’s that old saying? “He who pays the piper, calls the tune”?

Donors are paying plenty.

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