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Think tanks wrap-up II

Jan. 16, 2003 at 6:10 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the second of several wrap-ups for Jan. 16.


The Cato Institute

WASHINGTON-- Cato expert: Bush plan should be to end welfare, not fix it

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush urged Congress to increase welfare's work requirements from 30 hours per week to 40. The president's plan also calls for an average of $16,000 per family per year in welfare, childcare and job training resources -- an increase of $9,000 from 1996 levels.

Michael Tanner, the Cato Institute's director of health and welfare studies, had the following comments:

"The first rule of welfare reform should be 'First do no harm.' Current proposals from both the left and right threaten to undermine the success of welfare reform and create an expensive new boondoggle. Already, per capita welfare spending has more than doubled, yet both Democrats and Republicans continue to throw more money at a failed concept.

"It's time to end welfare, not just mend it."

Tanner is the author of "The End of Welfare: Fighting Poverty in the Civil Society and the Forthcoming Poverty of Welfare."


The Reason Foundation

LOS ANGELES -- Activists decry corporate misinformation ... while spreading a bit themselves

By Ronald Bailey

Last fall I sat down at an "affinity table" during lunch at the Society of Environmental Journalist's annual conference. (Affinity tables are sponsored by specific groups and designed to attract reporters interested in particular issues.) The table I chose was hosted by Steve Gurney of the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, and Ashby Sharpe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, known as CSPI.

The topic: Conflicted journalism: Who's buying the science?

Gurney and Sharpe were there to warn unsuspecting journalists about the bogus science being perpetrated by corporations. Gurney was particularly blunt. "The whole industry strategy (to subvert science) was developed 80 years ago by the tobacco industry," he asserted. "The whole aim is to prevent scientific evidence of harm; prevent the adoption of regulations, and to encourage deregulation, all at the expense of public health."

To achieve these nefarious goals, he says, the industry pays unscrupulous researchers to "conduct selective unscientific research designed to undermine public health."

Ashby Sharpe chimed in: "You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to know that industry uses science to sell products."

Sharpe then outlined how industry attempts to shape media coverage. Corporations issue press releases; hold press conferences; publish their own scientific journals; pay scientists to put their names on articles they did not write; sponsor scientific conferences; and establish speakers' bureaus featuring researchers who share their points of view.

Gurney and Sharpe are certainly correct that corporate chieftains sometimes do not tell the truth. We have Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco to remind us of that fact. But politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, lawyers, and yes, even environmental activists also sometimes engage in spin. It is not as though environmental organizations have been laggards in trying to attract the attention of reporters to their causes and their scientific claims. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to try to figure out who is trustworthy and to explain the potential biases of their sources to their readers, listeners, or viewers.

Sharpe also warned: "There's a revolving door between business and government." Indeed there is and activists cycle through it too. Consider just three examples: Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who now works for the National Wildlife Federation; Eric Schaeffer, former director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, who now works as the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project at the Rockefeller Family Fund; and Arlie Schardt, a former director of the Environmental Defense Fund who once worked as Al Gore's press guy and is now the head of the environmentalist PR operation, Environmental Media Services, known as EMS.

Schardt is one of ideological environmentalism's best spin-doctors. EMS is a full-service flacking organization, a mirror image of Hill and Knowlton if you will. EMS is associated with Fenton Communications, the public relations group that launched the NRDC's bogus Alar scare with a CBS 60 Minutes segment back in 1989.

As a full service operation, EMS offers reporters contacts with relevant sources -- including, strangely enough, CSPI and NRDC. It also offers advice and training on how to be effective in flacking your organization's message.

Taking Gurney's warning about paying unscrupulous researchers to "conduct selective unscientific research" to heart, consider the case of "Our Stolen Future," a book alleging that certain chemicals are acting as hormone mimics, essentially turning boys into girls. The "science" in that book was bought and paid for by the environmentalist W. Alton Jones Foundation, which also handsomely paid EMS to roll out a major PR campaign that included a national book tour, an appearance on NBC's Today show by the lead author, Theo Colborn, and multiple news conferences at the National Press Club in Washington.

Come to think of it, both the Alar campaign and Our Stolen Future are perfect examples of the kind of science by press release that Gurney and Sharpe warned us reporters against. I wonder why they didn't use them as illustrations of what they were concerned about at the affinity table?

CSPI is a Naderite spinoff that has not been above a bit of sensationalism in trying to get its nutrition message across either. Famous as the self-styled "food police," CSPI launches highly publicized jihads against foods that it feels are not up to snuff nutritionally. That's their right, of course, but others feel that CSPI exaggerates its claims and is misreporting scientific results.

Gurney also advised, "It's essential for reporters to ask sources where their funding comes from."

"Follow the money" is probably the hoariest maxim of journalism, but it's still very good advice. CSPI makes most of its money from foundations and sales of its nutrition newsletter. NRDC obtains grants from foundations and government funding. It is widely acknowledged that most philanthropoids are left-leaning, so it's not surprising that they nurture groups like the NRDC and CSPI.

Wanna bet what would happen to their foundation funding if CSPI all of a sudden announced that biotech crops are fine and NRDC declared that synthetic chemicals don't pose a major cancer risk? Other activist groups of course raise money by sending out bulk junk mail warning little old people that if they don't send in their $25 contribution, the world will come to an end.

Reporters need to remember that however sincere, environmental activists make a living by scaring people -- if there's no scare, there's no livelihood. And media attention to the causes they're pushing is just another way to raise money. By the way, to help "follow the money" for activist groups, check out the activistcash.com Web site.

"We need your participation as journalists to disseminate the truth," declared Gurney to the assembled journalists at his affinity table. So do we all, Steve. So do we all.

Reporters should follow Gurney's and Sharpe's advice and be skeptical. Corporations often pay a price for exaggerating or lying whereas "lying for justice" is a modus operandi for some activists. So let's go get those corporate malefactors. But don't forget to check for your wallet after talking with an activist.

(Ronald Bailey is reason magazine's science correspondent and the editor of "Global Warming and Other Eco Myths" (Prima Publishing) and "Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet "(McGraw-Hill).)


LOS ANGLES -- Monster truck madness: Blaming SUVs is the new national pastime

by Nick Gillespie

In just the past few weeks, sport utility vehicles, SUVs, have been unmasked -- at long last! -- as the single greatest automotive threat to the American Way of Life since Daisy Buchanan took the wheel in The Great Gatsby, C.W. "Convoy" McCall improbably glamorized the trucking industry, and supernaturally evil tractor-trailers terrorized Emilio Estevez in "Maximum Overdrive," that filmic equivalent of the Edsel.

Much of the animus against the SUV takes the form of standard-issue environmental concerns -- they are gas guzzlers! -- and what might be called automotive McCarthyism -- they are unpatriotic! Increasingly, though, SUVs are coming in for abuse on the symbolic level, for what they purportedly reveal about the sorry, fallen state of the American soul.

SUVs, thunders a latter-day the Rev. Dimmesdale, are "the very emblem on contemporary selfishness." The first two criticisms don't pack as much horsepower as they seem to at first, and the last is interesting mostly because it participates in the centuries-old tradition of demonizing consumption choices not merely as mistaken but morally deranged and leading to the destabilization of decent society.

While it's true that new SUVs get rotten gas mileage compared to new cars, it's equally true that they match up pretty well against the older cars that do most of the real polluting. As Hans Eisenbeis wrote in Reason last summer: "New SUVs ... are a far sight more (environmentally) responsible than the 15 million used cars that become obsolete each year. Even the greenest autos built in the 1980s, for example, are 90 percent dirtier and less efficient than new SUVs."

As relevant, emissions from all cars and light trucks (a category that includes SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks) account for just 1.5 percent of all global greenhouse gases annually.

Hence, as Jacob Sullum has suggested, even completely getting rid of all cars and light trucks is not going to massively alter the global environment (which keeps getting better and better anyway; even Southern California, the legendary Kingdom of Smog, is setting records for air quality).

And if someone really wants to target gross polluters, he would do well to focus less on broad classes of automobiles and more on individual vehicles, since 5 percent to 10 percent of vehicles account for about half of all tailpipe emissions in the United States. If you want to clean the air, dither less over what Jesus would drive and fund a jalopy buyback program instead.

Are SUVs -- often derided as a cartoon version of the grand old American land yacht --unpatriotic? Do they, as a series of controversial, semi-serious TV commercials imply, funnel oil-stained dollars directly into the hands of Middle Eastern terrorists?

If this tortured logic is to be taken seriously, then there's plenty of blame to go around. More precisely, everyone who buys gas, oil, Vaseline, and other petroleum products is one-quarter as guilty as Mohammed Atta for Sept. 11. After all, according to the Department of Energy, in 2001, Persian Gulf states accounted for about 25 percent of net oil imports, as calculated in barrels per year.

Those pushing the "Do you now or have you ever driven a car that gets less than 27 miles per gallon?" line stress the need to end America's dependence on nefarious "foreign oil." Yet no one in that crowd -- certainly not Arianna Huffington, the Elizabeth Bentley of such automotive McCarthyism -- seems the slightest bit interested in ramping up domestic oil production. Which suggests that, in this case anyway, patriotism is simply the last refuge to which an environmentalist clings.

If neither the environmentalist nor the nativist condemnation quite drives the anti-SUV argument across the finish line, there's still the symbolic attack. In a review of Keith Bradsher's new book, "High and Mighty" -- which is poised to become the Bible of the anti-SUV crowd --Gregg Easterbrook makes it clear that these popular vehicles are nothing less than pure evil. Indeed, they are "sociopathic cars" and "anti-social automobiles" that create "the very emblem of contemporary selfishness."

Along with a generally fascinating recounting of the how federal industrial policy (as played out most clearly in the tax code) has affected automotive design, Easterbrook rehearses versions of the other two arguments, writing that SUVs "emit far more smog-forming pollutants and greenhouse gases than regular cars" and that they "keep American society perilously dependent on Persian Gulf Oil."

He also writes that contrary to common perception, SUVs are unsafe, both for their passengers and other motorists. Respectable researchers differ on that point, but Easterbrook also throws in a class-based caveat that recalls recurrent aristocratic fears of the lower orders rising up against their betters.

"As the first generation of monster SUVs gets traded in," he frets, "these behemoths will begin entering the used-car market, where they will be purchased by immigrants, the lower middle class, and the poor, who generally speed, run lights, drive drunk, and crash more often than the prosperous classes ... This segment of the population is about to be armed with 3-ton SUVs and enormous pickups."

In the true spirit of noblesse oblige, however, Easterbrook doesn't argue that the huddled masses should have their driving privileges revoked. Instead, he implies that the vehicles beyond their weak impulse control should be barred from the mean streets of America. "Since when," he asks, "is there a 'right' to imperil others? ... Driving an SUV or a light pickup is a public act that creates avoidable public risk."

Yet despite his nods to the environmental, nativist, and safety debates, Easterbrook ultimately seems more interested in what he calls the "existential fiasco of the SUV." The SUV isn't a response to "road rage" but rather a "cause" of that dubious but newsworthy social problem. Automakers market "hostility" via menacing SUV grills and are "guilty of advancing the fiction that SUVs are intended for off-road adventures."

Curiously, customers don't seem to be in on the con; rather, they're simply passive dupes of such a "romantic deception," not willing participants. "There are lots of self-centered and self-absorbed people with little interest in their neighbors," declares Easterbrook. "Somebody finally made a class of vehicles to bring out the worst in them."

Is there any way out of the SUV crisis? Or will America slowly be taken over by driving machines that are slowly reprogramming us all -- even the poor and the foreign-born! -- into increasingly hostile drivers and bad citizens of some coming Road Warrior republic?

This is an age of terror and preventive war; perhaps it's time we start preemptively arresting the domestic terrorists hiding behind the darkened windshields of SUVs. If Easterbrook is right that SUVs declare of their drivers, "I have serious psychological problems," maybe Attorney General John Ashcroft can find room for such subversives at Camp Gitmo or some other laboratory of democracy.

(Nick Gillespie is Reason magazine's editor-in-chief.)

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