The right’s other information disadvantage

Conor Friedersdorf has a brutal piece about the right wing’s self-inflicted information disadvantage that is a must-read. In addition to all the information disadvantages Friedersdorf mentions, there is another realm where the right-wing is hampered: the world of think tanks. When it comes to think tanks, the right-wing’s failures mislead not only their base, but also the right-wing leaders and policymakers that rely upon the think tanks for analysis.

Take the Heritage Foundation for instance. On the merits of their publications, Heritage is a complete joke. But it is clear that many right-wing leaders and politicians look to them for information and analysis. The problem is that the analysis — by so desperately aiming to adhere to a right-wing narrative — is often terrible. Heritage has its impressionistic index of economic freedom, which is nothing more than some people slapping numbers with unspecified meanings on to countries based upon their general feelings of them. Heritage constantly releases utter nonsense as analysis (recall the debacle involving its estimation of Obamacare’s effect on employment). I could list other examples all day.

Among other things, this analysis really does put the right-wing in a serious informational disadvantage. I suspect Heritage’s goal is purely persuasive: put out reports that, to the lay person, are not clearly ridiculous, and then get those reports pumped through the clueless media and other informational channels. But in the process of trying to delude the public, they also end up deluding their own policymakers who often do not appear to have any idea that they are being fed garbage.

I use Heritage as an example, but basically all of the conservative think tanks have the same problem. American Enterprise Institute occasionally puts out something serious, but also hosts a considerable amount of jokish analysis like the Wallison and Pinto publications concerning the causes of the housing crisis. CATO is perhaps the slight exception to the rule on this, but its failure to shoot out streams of false, ideologically useful trash has simply pissed off conservatives, so much so that they have been the target of a hostile takeover attempt from the conservative Koch brothers.

An ideological think tank presumably serves two roles. The first is holding itself out to the media for comment. Since the generic journalist template requires including unhelpful comments from people of different ideological stripes, think tanks become efficient ways for lazy journalists to produce generic copy. The right-wing think tanks do that part pretty well. The second role however is to inform your side with intelligent and meaningful policy analysis. Conservative think tanks fail on that front, and in the process badly handicap their own side by depriving them of the honest policy information they need.

The think tank problems seem to follow the same script as all the other self-inflicted, right-wing political delusions. What starts as a public relations effort to delude and mislead the public ends up deluding and misleading the establishment itself

The federal government should just borrow money and invest it

One of the most interesting ideas that comes out of Gar Alperovitz’s America Beyond Capitalism is using the government as an investor. The government already invests in infrastructure, education, and so on, but with the exception of pension funds, the government rarely invests directly into the stock market or other conventional investment vehicles. Alperovitz thinks they should. A government investment fund would allow the government to raise revenue without taxation, and capture some of those pesky capital gains that seem to so many to be unjustly earned.

Alaska already has such a fund, out of which they pay dividends to every Alaskan citizen. Interestingly, the Alaska Permanent Fund is essentially a basic income system, which is funded by government ownership over some of the means of production. The returns on such a fund could of course go to any number of other things including direct government spending.

Generally, to get such a fund off the ground, one would need to capture revenue through taxation, ideally some sort of wealth tax. But right now the federal government can borrow at absurdly low rates. For instance, the federal government can borrow money for 5 years at 0.65%, 7 years at 1.04%, and 10 years at 1.58%. Although unorthodox, I see no reason why the federal government could not start building a government investment fund right now. Assuming such a fund could get higher returns than those interest rates — and if professionally managed, surely it could — borrowing money to invest it could be a big profit center for the federal government in the short term.

The federal government could take its earnings from this borrow-and-invest scheme and use them as the starting point for an Alaska-style Permanent Fund. It could also use it to finance other spending.