So far, my work on the problems for our democracy caused by corporate- or other special interest-funded think tanks has emphasized that the media has a special responsibility – and ability — to help solve them. How? By making sure that whenever they quote staffers from these organizations as experts on this or that issue, they reveal who’s signing the tankers’ paychecks.
But another major segment of society also needs to play a role in preventing what I call think tank idea-laundering – posing as objective, academicky-type organizations in order to portray their staffs’ findings as the products of disinterested scholarly research rather than exercises in agenda-pushing. That segment is government.
Legislatures at the local, state, and federal levels should pass what might be called “Truth in Testifying Acts.” That is, whenever they invite input from think tanks in hearings they hold, or in public comment exercises they conduct, the law-making bodies should require these organizations to disclose all their funders with a financial stake in the subject being examined, or the decision that’s pending. As a result, the public or any other consumers of these analyses would have the information they need to judge how much credibility they feel the information deserves, and what kind of material has been deliberately exaggerated or spotlighted or downplayed or ignored altogether.
In fact, these requirements should be imposed on so-called civil society groups, foundations, labor unions, academic institutions, and business organizations, too. Sometimes their biases are obvious from their names, but only sometimes. Best to err therefore on the side of caution – and more disclosure.
Further, while we’re on the subject, I’d like to see something else added to these Truth in Testimony Acts, or follow-on legislation, which is especially relevant to the trade issues I follow so closely: requirements that business groups and their think tank fronts lay out comprehensively their own domestic and international operations and structures, and those of their major funders. They’re needed because representatives of these organizations have long gotten away with literal intellectual murder by presenting legislators with shamelessly cherry-picked data.
For example, when trade agreements and other trade policy decisions are being examined, it’s become standard operating procedure for witnesses in favor of greater liberalization to present figures on exports from the country as a whole, from individual states or Congressional districts (always of major concern to Senators and House members), or from whatever company or industry they represent. And typically, they’re allowed to ignore the import and trade balance sides of the equation. Talk about a total crock.
Similarly, these individuals and organizations are happy to report on how many workers they employ nationally, and in various states and localities, and how many of these jobs depend on exports at a given moment. But they have no interest in discussing how these trends have changed over time, or how many jobs and how much production they’ve sent overseas or have lost to imports, or how these situations have evolved, say, over the life of a certain trade deal.
The companies and industries justify this selectivity by contending that information on imports and offshoring is proprietary, and that keeping it confidential is crucial to their commercial success. That’s often true. But the Truth in Testimony Act should specify that if witnesses wish to keep close to their vest information on one side of the trade ledger (e.g., their firm’s imports), then they can’t brag about their performance on the other side (e.g., their firm’s exports). There’s simply no reason to allow these businesses to play, “Heads, We Win; Tails, You Lose.”
Nor need there be anything the slightest bit coercive about such requirements. If businesses and industries and their various representatives feel so strongly about the secrets to their success, they should be free to decline invites to appear before lawmakers.
Actually, I’d like to extend these requirements to the financial statements public companies need to file with the feds. As with their testimony, such businesses often include flattering trade-related information in quarterly and annual financial statements. If they’re not willing to give investors the full picture, they should need to drop the whole subject.
And why restrict such disclosures to public businesses? Companies of all kinds are required to report all sorts of information to Washington. Their submissions form the basis of much of the economic data that is made publicly available by the federal government. The shield of anonymity provided by the Census Bureau and other statistical agencies to prevent rivals from using the data to gain advantage is entirely reasonable from the standpoint of these businesses. But from a national standpoint, it makes no sense at all. Indeed, it puts policymakers and the public in the position of flying largely blind when it comes to evaluating the impact of trade policy decisions.
The same kind of problem is created by the narrow range of trade-related info that businesses are legally obligated to share. Why not force them to specify their job and production offshoring, the wages of their U.S. and overseas workers, their foreign and domestic procurement, the foreign and domestic content of their products, and similar statistics? And why not demand time series, so that long-term patterns can be identified? BTW — content information has been required of auto-makers selling in the United States since the 1990s, so major precedent exists.
The business secrets problem is easily solved: If all firms wishing the privilege of operating in the United States need to share the same information, no one company is put behind the eight-ball. And again, no coercion is involved. Companies would be perfectly free not to comply – and exit the world’s most lucrative market by far in the process. And what about the regulatory burden that would be placed on smaller firms? There’s a strong argument for exempting them, as larger firms dominate U.S. trade flows anyway.
Such a sweeping “Truth in Globalization Act” would probably be a heavier legislative lift than the “Truth in Testimony Act,” so I’d focus first on the former. But both are urgently needed to ensure the soundest possible U.S. policymaking process. And how could anyone genuinely devoted to the national interest object?