[A2k] New York Times: Think Tank Scholar or Corporate Consultant? It Depends on the Day

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Tue Aug 9 02:04:06 PDT 2016


Think Tank Scholar or Corporate Consultant? It Depends on the Day

Acting as independent arbiters to shape government policy, many researchers
also have corporate roles that are sometimes undisclosed.


WASHINGTON — Over the many months that officials in Washington debated
sweeping new regulations for internet providers, Jeffrey A. Eisenach, a
scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was hard to miss.

He wrote op-ed articles, including for The New York Times, that were
critical of the rules. He filed formal comments with the Federal
Communications Commission, where he also met privately with senior lawyers.
He appeared before Congress and issued reports detailing how destructive
the new rules would be.

“Net neutrality would not improve consumer welfare or protect the public
interest,” Mr. Eisenach testified in September 2014 before the Senate
Judiciary Committee.

Intense advocacy by a think tank scholar is not notable in itself, but Mr.
Eisenach, 58, a former aide at the Federal Trade Commission, has held
another job: as a paid consultant for Verizon and its trade association.

And he has plenty of company.


“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the
eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” said Michael J. Copps, a former
F.C.C. commissioner who is a special adviser for the Media and Democracy
Reform Initiative at Common Cause, a liberal group. “They are seeking to
build credibility where none exists.”


I think we have too much influence of funded research with clear interests
at stake that is treated as though it is independent and academic
research,” said Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and
co-director of its Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “There is
no culture in the discipline to mark funded research clearly, or
systematically treat it as less reliable.”

Net Neutral?

Several weeks after Tom Wheeler was sworn in as the F.C.C. chairman in
2013, he received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists
and scholars identified by their affiliations with Washington think tanks
or academic institutions.

The economic evidence, they declared, showed that the internet should not
be regulated as a public utility. They urged Mr. Wheeler to reject “net
neutrality” regulations that would give the federal government additional
powers to oversee the $100 billion market for internet services, dominated
by AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

A footnote on the first page of the letter indicated that none of the
scholars who signed had been compensated by stakeholder companies. But of
the dozen studies they submitted as evidence, more than half had been
funded by telecommunications giants or based on other work for the
companies, industry ties that were disclosed only in footnotes in the
original studies.

No federal rules required broader disclosure. Yet on many highly technical
policy issues like telecommunications regulation, scholarship is dominated
by industry-funded research, according to a review of hundreds of studies,
regulatory filings and other documents.

“Let’s say you’re in legal and you want to have a paper that says what you
want it to say,” said Dennis Weller, a former Verizon economist who
occasionally consults for telecommunications companies and international
organizations. “You could have a bunch of economists in house and ask them
if they agree with you. How much easier would it be to go to an outside
economist and say, ‘How about if I pay you $100,000 to write this?’”

Few policy battles have had higher stakes in recent years than the debate
over net neutrality — a catchall term for proposals to restrict internet
service providers from blocking websites or regulating speed.

To bolster their claims that the regulations would hurt consumers,
companies have financed research that contends the rules would reduce
investment in new services and raise prices. That work is used to shape the
public debate and to build an industry-funded narrative in the regulatory
record, one that the F.C.C. is required by law to evaluate.

Industry-sponsored research has also figured prominently in court battles
over F.C.C. efforts to regulate the internet. When Verizon successfully
opposed an earlier F.C.C. rule on net neutrality, more than half of the 23
studies or expert declarations cited in court filings had been sponsored
directly by telecommunications companies or trade associations, according
to an analysis by The Times. Other studies had been published under the
banner of think tanks but written by scholars who consulted extensively for

The attacks began to grow particularly heated nearly two years ago, when
Mr. Obama called on Mr. Wheeler and his fellow F.C.C. commissioners to
regulate the internet like traditional phone lines.

In December 2014, Robert Litan, then a senior fellow at Brookings, and Hal
Singer, then a senior fellow at the left-leaning Progressive Policy
Institute, released a “policy brief” claiming that such a proposal could
cost $15 billion in new fees. (They later revised the figure to $11

The study mentioned their employment at Economists Incorporated, a
consulting firm in Washington. But a reader would have had to do more
research to learn that Economists Incorporated’s clients included AT&T and
Verizon, companies leading the industry’s charge against the commission
proposal. That was disclosed on a “select client list” on the Economists
Incorporated website.

Mr. Singer and Mr. Litan’s study quickly became central to the industry’s
lobbying campaign. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a
trade group that is listed as an Economists Incorporated client, began
anadvertising campaign, based on the study, that ran in Washington and
beyond. When debate on the proposal started in Congress, the study was
repeatedly cited by lawmakers who wanted to block Mr. Wheeler’s plan.

“People who are running advertisements are not going to say, ‘In a study we
paid for,’” said Mr. Litan, now an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations. “In the public discourse, the disclaimers often do get

Mr. Singer, in a Twitter post directed at critics of the study, was a bit
more blunt.

“None of us works for free,” Mr. Singer wrote. “So let’s focus on the
merits & be nice to each other!”

In an interview, Mr. Singer said he — like most scholars — disclosed when a
client commissioned a particular study published through his consulting
firm. Most specialists in the telecommunications field, he suggested, are
well aware of his business connections and views on regulatory issues.

“Everybody is on different teams,” Mr. Singer said. “So long as you tell
the audience what team you are on, you can then offer the opinions.
Disclosure is the antidote to all of this.”

Few scholars have been as active in the net neutrality debate as Mr.

At least a dozen times between 2007 and 2016, Mr. Eisenach published
studies — including one analysis later released under the American
Enterprise Institute’s banner — that were underwritten by Verizon or a
Verizon-supported trade association. (He also wrote two papers last year
for Facebook, which has declared its support for net neutrality.) In the
fall of 2013, he became the director of the think tank’s new center on
media and internet policy. A few months later, he joined NERA, one of the
country’s oldest and best-known economic consultancies, as a senior vice
president of the firm’s telecommunications practice, the latest in a string
of jobs at industry consulting firms.

“Jeff is good at linking big theoretical ideas to policy, and he’s been
good at making money doing that,” said Mr. Weller, the former Verizon
economist. “He’s been good at moving from think tank to think tank and
company to company, and I don’t think he’s ever lost money doing it.”

Mr. Eisenach has testified before Congress, filed comment letters to the
F.C.C. that mention his status as an American Enterprise Institute scholar,
and met privately with F.C.C. commissioners, according to emails obtained
through an open records request. He has also organized public briefings
featuring, among others, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota,
the chairman of the Senate commerce committee, which oversees the F.C.C.
Mr. Eisenach used his position as a think tank researcher to help rally
opposition to net neutrality regulations.

At a given moment, it can be difficult to determine which hat Mr. Eisenach
is wearing.

In September 2014, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on net
neutrality, the formal meeting agenda listed Mr. Eisenach as a visiting
scholar at the institute.

His written testimony mentioned that he also served as “co-chair of NERA
Economic Consulting’s Communications, Media and Internet Practice,” but
included no explicit reference to clients like Verizon. As he opened his
testimony, Mr. Eisenach suggested that his opposition was based purely on
his personal views.

“While I am here in my capacity as a visiting scholar at the American
Enterprise Institute, the views I express are my own, should not be
attributed to A.E.I. or to any of the organizations with which I am
affiliated,” he said.

He then detailed his vehement opposition to further federal regulation of
the internet.

“The potential costs of net neutrality regulation are both sweeping and
severe,” he said. “It is best understood as an effort by one set of private
interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state.” Both the
institute and his consulting firm posted his testimony on their websites.

Mr. Eisenach was similarly ambiguous when he interacted with members of the
F.C.C., according to dozens of emails obtained by The Times, all but one of
which was sent from Mr. Eisenach’s email address at the American Enterprise

On behalf of the think tank, he sought meetings with F.C.C. commissioners
and lawyers to discuss the rules, and briefed the commission’s Republican
members on what its general counsel was telling him about Mr. Wheeler’s
thinking. Mr. Eisenach offered speaking slots at American Enterprise
Institute events to the two Republican members on the commission, urging
one to use a January 2015 forum to speak out against the proposed

“Net neutrality is obviously top of mind,” he said in anemail to that
commissioner, Michael O’Rielly. “I’d be delighted if you would use the
opportunity to lay out the case against.”

Ms. Stecker, the institute spokeswoman, said it should be no surprise that
the opinions of experts like Mr. Eisenach were in demand. The think tank
requires scholars to submit an annual report on any “outside activities,”
she added, and A.E.I. has “not as an institution sought to influence or
constrain” this work.

Other technology companies like Google and Comcast have also underwritten
research by think tank scholars, whose findings typically dovetail with the
companies’ lobbying agenda. Geoffrey Manne, for example, who runs the
Oregon-based International Center for Law and Economics and is a senior
fellow at the Washington-based think tank TechFreedom, has frequently
written pieces questioningfederal antitrust investigations of Google while
accepting financial support from the company.


Ms. Browner, a former E.P.A. administrator under President Bill Clinton,
has traveled to cities around the world — including Chicago and Davos,
Switzerland — where introductions of her included her credential as a
distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. But she is
also a member of the leadership council of Nuclear Matters, an
industry-funded group that pays her to promote nuclear energy. At these
stops, she has argued that any solution to climate change must include
nuclear energy because it generates power without producing emissions that
are blamed for global warming, even though, as an environmentalist, she was
once a critic of nuclear power.

She said that her change of heart on nuclear power had predated her
engagement with Nuclear Matters, and was motivated by her desire to combat
climate change, not by payment from the industry.

“Obviously, the single most important thing any individual has is their
reputation,” she said in an interview. “I have worked really hard to be
forthcoming about what I stand for and believe in. I am who I am.”

Ms. Browner has since resigned as a senior fellow at the center, but she
remains on the board.


Still, not everyone is worried about the multiple roles played by think
tank scholars.

Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, oversaw a House hearing
on the F.C.C.’s net neutrality rule early last year. Among the evidence he
submitted into the congressional record was a Wall Street Journal op-ed
article co-written by Robert M. McDowell, a Hudson Institute scholar who
also serves as a telecommunications industry lawyer at a firm retained by
AT&T to lobby on net neutrality.

“Everyone’s got their point of view,” Mr. Walden said in an interview last
year. “And some of them get paid to have that point of view.”

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