Monday, 9 June 2014

None of your damn business, apparently

With less than a year to go before I cast my vote in a general election, I came across an old piece by Tim Worstall in The Torygraph, which explains why we, the electorate, shouldn't worry our dear little heads about who funds the think tanks which exist to influence the sort of political policies that get adopted in our democracy:
There's a new little report out today looking at the transparency of the funding sources of various think tanks in London ... It's also true that the Adam Smith Institute, where I am a senior fellow, got an E grade in this same exercise. That's terribly simple to explain: we didn't answer their questionnaire. Nor do we have any intention of doing so, as who donates to us is none of their damn business. We are delighted to be judged on the quality of our ideas and our arguments.
Although it's a short piece, you have to dig through a loose matrix of "how very dare you!" bluster and 'That's terribly simple' sneers of condescension about 'idiot hippes' and the 'little report' that had the impudence to try and follow the money before you finally hit the bedrock of actual argument.

Tim made two substantial points, but both amounted to attacks on the funding of another, more left-leaning, think tank, rather than convincing arguments against the transparent funding of influential think tanks (The New Economics Foundation gets some stick for openly receiving public funds, then gets hit with the tu quoque argument that they got some of their money from The Network for Social Change, which also doesn't disclose who its donors are).

The "you took public funds" argument is a strange one to make, if you also think that think tanks do useful things (an instance of 'useful things' being the idea of a London congestion charge, which Tim credits his own think tank with pioneering). If think tanks really come up with such great ideas, why shouldn't national or local government openly, accountably use public funds to get their advice and make better policy decisions, deliver services more effectively, or make net savings of public money?

And if think tanks turn out to be giving terrible advice that wastes public funds, politicians could use their existing tool set of oversight, scrutiny and public spending audits to hold them to account and use their own common sense to treat policy wonks' panaceas with more scepticism in future.

It might even be worth a bit of public funding to ensure that a think tank is acting in the general interest rather than in the narrow interests of its financial backers. Here's what the nominally 'left-leaning' think tank, Demos, came up with in the depths of the global financial crisis:
Last year a report by Demos made the news by urging restraint on blaming top bankers for the financial crisis.

City Limits: The Progressive Case for Financial Services Reform, published in March 2011, complained there was too much ‘banker bashing’ from senior politicians.

While the report was covered by newspapers, there was no mention of who had funded the report. But in the report’s acknowledgements, Demos’ then-CEO Kitty Ussher wrote: ‘I am particularly grateful to: the City of London Corporation for its financial support and helpful suggestions.’

The City of London Corporation is one of the British financial sector’s most powerful voices.
Maeve McClenaghan of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

When you can follow the money, a lot of these think tanks start to look less like disinterested 'non-party political, independent and non-profit' brains trusts and more like the sort of aggressively partisan PR front organisations described by Chris Dillow:
 Neoliberal policies promised large gains for a relatively small group of people - capitalists. It was, therefore, relatively easy for them to organize to push their agenda - for example by funding think tanks and sympathetic politicians and through ordinary networking.

Supply-side socialism, by contrast, offers smallish gains for many people. And this runs into the problem of collective action. Whereas there was a class able and willing to organize in support of neoliberalism, there's no obvious strong class base for supply side socialism. 
So long as we aspire to be a functioning democracy, (as opposed to a corrupt banana monarchy, for sale to the highest bidder), it's terribly simple to explain why who pays for agenda-setting think tanks is everybody's damn business.