Editor's note: Last week, I wrote an article about the Peterson Institute for International Economics, "Yikes, Look at all the Corporate Money Behind This Washington Think Tank." Staff at the institute helpfully shared with me its policies in regard to transparency, funders, and conflicts of interest. However, I chose not to interview anyone there for what I saw as a "short piece." Below is a response from Steve Weisman, Vice President for Publications and Communications at the Institute. - David Callahan
That was some “short piece.” Since your article was effectively an attack on our integrity as a policy research organization, you should not have rebuffed our offer to provide someone for you to interview, allowing us to challenge your erroneous assertions. By not saying that your article would have a strong negative point of view, and not giving us a chance to argue otherwise, you were less than straightforward with us. That is bad journalism and bad faith.
Most important, your assertion that our research agenda is reliably “aligned” with the interests of our donors, and that our research omits work that would go against their interests, is a demonstrably false characterization. If you had taken the time and been fair, we could have listed many cases in which the opposite is true. Just to cite some recent examples:
- We have produced many policy papers and writings (including by our president, Adam Posen) favoring tighter regulation of financial institutions, especially after the 2007–08 crisis, something many of our donors oppose (to say the least).
- Our scholars have opposed limits on US energy exports, including of new natural gas supplies, although such export barriers have been actively advocated by some of our donors.
- One of our scholars has criticized high drug prices, against the interest of donors from the pharmaceutical industry and many multinationals in the healthcare industry.
- Our recent policy paper on NAFTA was far more cautious about its benefits, and far more strongly advocating worker protections, than, say, the US Chamber of Commerce, an occasional funder, and most other business representatives.
- We have published research on the reality and economic impact of climate change, contrary to the stated positions of some of our supporters from the energy industry.
- We have opposed auto import restrictions of all forms consistently, despite receiving support from domestic auto companies that favor them.
- Institute scholars have repeatedly recommended that the US government label China a currency “manipulator,” despite the opposition to such an action by many donors.
These should be sufficient examples to show that your unfounded and insulting thesis is incorrect, if you are open to evidence. These are very high stakes issues for some of our corporate supporters, and obviously their money did not constrain where our independent views lie or the research projects that we pursued.
Thus, it is simply not true that “corporate executives… largely control the place.” Setting of the Institute’s research agenda and quality control of our research for objectivity and replicability is exercised by the leadership of the Institute. The Board of Directors plays no direct role in either process and evaluates backwards whether the Institute has produced sufficient good work of influence in a given year. Of course, Board members can and do suggest research topics, but the agenda is not dominated by those suggestions, as the above examples illustrate.
The term “completely nonpartisan” means that we come to conclusions in our policy papers that both please and displease Democrats and Republicans alike, and that we never set out to support any party or candidate’s agenda. We take stands, issue by issue on their own merits, as best we can determine them through research. The majority of our senior fellows support liberalized trade, making many Democrats unhappy, but with robust worker assistance programs that many Republicans oppose. The majority of our senior fellows support forms of financial regulation and global coordination that most Republicans find suspect, but they also support the role of the IMF in enforcing discipline on borrowers that many Democrats find offensive. By the way, the justified characterization of the Institute as "nonpartisan" has been written by a number of mainstream journalists including Paul Krugman and Doug Palmer, not solicited by us.
Your assumption that anyone who supports removal of trade barriers is prima facie “pro-corporate” is ideological nonsense, not worthy of a serious article. We have supported trade agreements because they create jobs, produce growth, and lower costs for consumers—benefits that our research shows are massive for all Americans. We do not deny the costs to some workers of trade liberalization, which we have always acknowledged and elucidated. Again, please see the recent Policy Brief we published on the record of NAFTA 20 years after its ratification.
Our independence is buttressed by our transparency, diversity of funding sources, explicit covenants against giving donors the right to influence our conclusions, and most of all by the fact that we are a policy research organization that publishes backup materials online so that anyone can try to replicate our research and come to different conclusions. That’s why the one statement in your piece that I agree with is that we are the most influential think tank in our field in town.
We would like you to publish this response to your unfounded mischaracterization of the Institute in your magazine and on your website. You should be willing to give us a fair hearing since you denied us that when you wrote this article.
Steven R. Weisman
Vice President for Publications and Communications
Peterson Institute for International Economics