“Phony experts on retainer” at Employment Policy Institute

Thirty year-old Michael Saltsman, director of research for the Employment Policy Institute, whose face is gradually becoming evil

Michael Saltsman, director of research for the Employment Policy Institute, gradually becoming evil

Michael Saltsman has an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan, which qualifies him to be director of research at Employment Policy Institute. You may recognize EPI from virtually every argument over whether to raise the federal minimum wage, or from this New York Times article accusing it of being a purely political operation. The nonprofit has no full-time employees and pays 44% of its budget to the advertising firm Berman and Company, with which it shares an office. EPI pays Berman employees for the time they spend working on its research and advocacy programs, and it spends the rest of its budget on advertising. By all indications, EPI is a full-time disinformation-producing machine.

Of course, it’s very difficult to prove research bias. And from a mildly fatuous perspective, what should bias even matter? If you can make a compelling argument with quantitative data, who cares what you were or were not setting out to prove? An argument is an argument, and it makes sense that, say, a strong case against intelligent design would be articulated by a person committed to advancing the idea of evolution.

The problem with that comparison is that intelligent design/evolution is an argument* about what happened, whereas raising the minimum wage is an argument about what we should do.Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 8.47.37 AM Concrete events and empirically observable processes from the past unify the evidence around them, whereas policy questions depend heavily on context and values. A disingenuous arguer can convincingly advocate for almost anything.

Consider San Diego State professor and EPI researcher Joseph Sabia, who has received $180,000 in grant money from the Institute and concluded that “there is never a good time to raise the minimum wage.” Sabia believes—or, if we’re scrupulously sticking to what we observe, Sabia argues—that increasing the federal minimum wage confers no benefit on the poor.

That is the message that EPI, whose funding comes primarily from the restaurant industry and other employers of minimum-wage workers, wants to spread. It is also one that might be based on inappropriately selected data, as University of Delaware professor Saul Hoffman demonstrated with regard to a paper Sabia wrote in 2004. An  employee who no longer works at the firm sent an email appearing to push researchers toward particular results in 2010, but CEO Richard Berman bridles at the suggestion that EPI produces biased information. Quote:

I get very upset when people say we are putting out junk science and twisted economics, because that happens to be our criticism of other people.

And here we come to the crux of the problem. Those who are not economists, twisted or otherwise, rely on the publicly disseminated claims of experts to participate in American democracy. Only a jerk would base his opinion about the minimum wage on, say, his gut feeling about fast food workers. The ghost of Thomas Jefferson demands that we wait until someone shows us a chart or a study or something that says how raising the minimum wage might affect the country. We decide based on information, not feelings, because feelings are a matter of opinion.

Except now information is a matter of opinion, too. From global warming to economic data, issues in contemporary politics feature sides with not just their own positions but their own evidence, too. And that way lies madness.

Here is how, in this swirling epistemological vortex, you know that EPI is bullshit: all their research is funded by restaurants. They’re a nonprofit with no employees housed in the offices of a PR firm, and that PR firm is paid to advocate for an industry that will lose money if the government makes them pay waitresses more. If it says “EPI” next to it, it is not research but motivated salesmanship.

I could not say, though, how to apply the larger lesson of EPI without falling to cynicism. Surely there is some right or useful information out there, amid the studies of workers funded by management and studies of carbon emissions funded by gas companies. And surely this information can sometimes reach you through advertiser-funded news networks and poorly researched blogs. But probably you should suspect everything and hew to your arbitrary beliefs as if they were fact. Everything is fake anyway.


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  1. What’s missing from this musing on the role of information in policy making is the confession that you’re predisposed to believing the minimum wage should be raised. I wonder if that policy outlook is grounded as strongly as your skepticism of the alternative.

    It’s not enough to point out factors like funding, director’s educational level, and position of office relative to marketing, and be skeptical. Not because you might be mistaken and true information can reach you through advertiser-funded news, but because publicly undermining a group is taking a position. And unless you’re an expert you shouldn’t, because the outcomes are worse for everyone.

    Skepticism is a stopgap used in lieu of expertise. It’s just a starting point. The real solution–if information can be said to have one–is to be an expert, which is only available to the average person for a handful of subjects, contingent on their intellect. For everything one is not an expert on, he should remain quiet, because otherwise he contributes to the clouding of information and sound policy.

    Now, if only I could get everyone who makes internet comments to doubt their own expertise. There’s a lot of confidence out there (and here).

  2. @Attempt #1 I’m not sure I quite follow what you’re saying. Few of us are experts in economics, but in general that doesn’t make us less capable of evaluating sources of information to determine which are more reliable. I don’t think Dan’s argument here relies on any special knowledge of economics; it relies on the ability to sniff out an interested party. And I’m rather glad he didn’t stay silent about it, because he sniffs things out better than I do. If he were trying to make an economic argument, I’d slowclap and click out. But he seems to be making an argument about public rhetoric, instead, and in that arena, I think he’s shown himself to be fairly reliable.

    If I’m missing the point of your response, I apologize. Hate when that happens.

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