Mainstream media help to establish Koch-financed professor as an economic guru

I have been scratching my head as to why the mainstream news media has seemed to lionize George Mason professor Tyler Cowen over the past few years. It seems that everywhere you turn—Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsweek, New Republic—you can see an article by Cowen.

Stupid me, I just wasn’t digging deep enough into Cowen’s professional background. I want to thank Twitter follower Alan Parker for his tweet to me that states flatly that the Koch Brothers “bought and paid for” the university at which Cowen teaches, the ostensibly public George Mason University.

As it turns out, “bought and paid for” is not entirely hyperbolic: Koch gave $30 million to George Mason in the mid-80’s (roughly $66 million today) and in return, George Mason took over a right-wing think tank now called the Mercatus Center. The Kochs, and other ultra-rich ultra-rights, continue to fund Mercatus, which means “market” in Latin.

The Center comprises more than 70 professors and an additional staff of more than 50, all dedicated to churning out research and reports that “advances knowledge about how markets work to improve people’s lives,” as the Mercatus mission statement puts it. In other words, all Mercatus work begins with the false premise that free markets can solve every social and economic problem.

Here are some examples of untrue assertions by Mercatus scholars:

  • Three years ago, Charles Blahous infamously predicted that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) would worsen federal deficits. In reality, ACA has saved more money than was originally anticipated.
  • As I have reported on OpEdge, Tyler Cowen continually argues for a deregulated free market by focusing on individuals and ignoring large groups, as when he claims that workers have nothing to worry about in the shared economy since a few of them will flourish economically or when he states that because individual families gain and lose wealth over generations inequality of wealth has not increased.
  • Richard Williams ridiculously compares trans fats to water in an opinion article that appeared in The Orange County Times. Both are bad for you in large amounts, so why ban trans fats from foods until we know for a fact that they are bad for you in small amounts. What a completely scurrilous analogy, especially considering that 50-75% of the body is water. Unlike trans fats, we have no reason to test to determine whether water is inherently safe before we allow it to be consumed, although we do demand tests that it be safe water! Just as we demand our food be safe.
  • Four Mercatus scholars combined on a white paper that asserts that consumer rating systems provide enough protections that Internet, smart-phone and shared economy markets do not need consumer protections. The paper calls for an end of consumer regulations, ignoring the fact that consumers may not be aware of what safety or quality entails in a good or service.

Let’s take a look at a small excerpt of this last example of Mercatus twisted reasoning to support a one hundred percent free market:

“Regulations…are not as effective as market solutions, and may harm consumers instead of helping them. Regulators can be influenced by regulated industries, erecting barriers to keep out new competition, stifling innovation, and imposing higher prices and reduced quality on consumers. By making it more difficult to do business, regulations can have the unintended consequence of entrenching already-established businesses while closing the market to entrepreneurs with innovative ideas.”   

Pure rhetoric that we’ve heard from conservatives since Congress passed the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906. This standard rightwing cant ignores the cost to individuals and societies when vendors sell substandard goods. The public is willing to pay more for safety.

I’ve given just a few examples of bogus “analysis” and “research” I found on the Mercatus website. There are literally hundreds of published opinion and analysis pieces, white papers and books spewing out of Mercatus “scholars” every year.

And who is the chair and general director of Mercatus?

Yes, you guessed it. It’s Tyler Cowen.

We have to wonder, then, whether there is a connection between Cowen’s consistently weak arguments and the fact that he’s on the payroll of Koch Industries?

Nothing would delight me more than making a case against George Mason’s involvement with Mercatus, but they can’t censor these guys, and plenty of scholars spin fantasies and garbage in the social sciences and humanities; it even happens from time to time in the natural sciences. There is nothing wrong with rich folk giving money for university research, as long as the money is earmarked for answering questions and not asserting conclusions. But what we have with Mercatus is rich folk paying for an elaborate academic cover for a bunch of policies that hurt everyone but them.

I can make a good case against the mainstream media for publishing the claptrap of Mercatus employees while pretty much ignoring the solid research of legitimate scholars who either self-identify as progressives or demonstrate progressive ideas. It just demonstrates that 1) the mainstream media seek out research that will confirm their existing prejudices, even if the research is suspect or ultimately financed by special interests; and 2) far from being liberal as politicians often aver, the mainstream media are at best centrist looking right.


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