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April 22, 2016

We’re going to have a number of ballot questions to decide this November – legalizing marijuana, expanding charter schools, ending common core, preventing cruelty to animals. The millionaire's tax will be on the 2018 ballot. All of those policy questions are going to look better if they have some authoritative sounding research studies to back them up. The Department of Dubious Research will be working overtime.

The Department of Dubious Research, which is often funded by dark money, is available for all sorts of studies. (As Jane Mayer shows in her book Dark Money, the Koch Brothers have pioneered this sort of thing). For instance, the other day Jack Encarnacao of the Boston Herald reported Teachers union rips educator pay study. Boston Teachers Union head Richard Stutman is furious that a study by Education Resources Strategies comparing Boston teachers’ salaries with those of other communities shows that the Bostonians are vastly overpaid.  Stutman claims that the comparison cities chosen by ERS aren’t reflective of Boston at all – in effect, ERS cherry picked the comps from districts where ERS already had data.

It was an expensive study, according to Encarnacao “The $100,000 study was paid for by Strategic Grant Partners, a nonprofit that gives grants for strategic planning to districts, education reform firms, and charter school groups.” The BPS, which apparently approached SGP looking for a study, is gleefully anticipating using it to drive down salaries and benefits at the bargaining table. (Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member).

ERS and SGP are both 501(c)(3) charitable organizations.  Such organizations may accept contributions that are tax deductible and may keep their donors anonymous. IRS 501(c)(3)s are severely constricted from political activities but they are often organized to influence policy. A 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities and some, like Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, are partisan political outfits operating beneath the 501(c)(4) fig leaf. Their contributors don’t get the charitable deduction though.

I cast no aspersions here, because I don’t know much about ERS or SGP, so put them aside. But let’s say you were a wealthy right winger who ideologically hates unions and some of your business are unionized. Your ideology tells you teachers unions are bad for schools and your self-interest tells you that since labor’s strength is in public sector unions, striking them a blow would help you. And you get a tax deduction and no one will ever know! Is America a great country, or what?

The Department of Dubious Research is protean. As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Obama Doctrine, President Barack Obama and his top advisers are very suspicious that Washington D.C. foreign policy think tanks are influenced by foreign governments that provide funding. Last year Senator Elizabeth Warren went after a research study produced by Robert Litan, a “non-resident fellow” at the liberal Washington think tank, The Brookings Institute (a 501(c)(3)). Litan and a partner produced a report paid for by a giant financial services firm that undermined consumer friendly legislation backed by progressives and the Obama administration. Litan mentioned his Brookings affiliation in congressional testimony, which was against a recent policy that non-resident scholars should not do so. But this sort of thing is common in DC and Warren exposing it caused a massive kerfuffle.

Closer to home, last year when the Retailers Association of Massachusetts wanted the legislature to pass a one day tax holiday, it turned to the Beacon Hill Institute to produce a favorable report. BHI complied, but in a post here at MassPoliticsProfs, my colleague Professor Ubertaccio shredded the report and the usefulness of the tax holiday. The legislature voted the holiday anyway.

And who can forget the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance Fraud Poll (MFA is a 501(c)(4)), winner of the 2015 Award for Fraud in Massachusetts Politics. That supposedly scientific survey was so transparently phony that I wrote about it again and again, but I’d like to issue a formal apology right now. I wrote that no one could possibly take the Fraud Poll seriously, but it actually was picked up by a number of media outlets and even referenced in a Boston Globe op-ed by Jim Stergios of the  Pioneer Institute (a 501(c)(3)) (“T board worthless without power to fix contracts, arbitration snags,” June 15, 2015). I feel like such a fool.

The Department of Dubious Research will be churning out the studies this year. I’d suggest that major media like the Globe invest in a Social Scientist in Residence, someone who can separate insightful research from the dreck. I recommend peer-reviewed research published by academic journals as a credible source.

Beware studies from the Department of Dubious Research.

Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, dark money, Boston Teachers Union

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