Pulling Strings

How much influence can think tank funders buy?

Stephen Harper qualifies for an “ism,” as in Thatcherism and Reaganism, because, according to Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, he has shifted the political culture of Canada incrementally and perhaps irrevocably to the right. Donald Gutstein, a journalist and Simon Fraser University communications professor, focuses on the global network of conservative think tanks that have contributed to this shift. Gutstein, who comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum to Harper, asserts as his thesis: “I believe it was thanks to the persistent efforts of think tanks like the Fraser Institute that radical Reform ideas became ‘common sense’.”

The 2013 “Global Go To” report identifies an astonishing 6,826 think tanks in the world with 1,984 in North America. There are thought to be about a hundred in Canada depending how think tank is defined—not a straightforward task. Two thirds in existence today were established after 1970 and half since 1980. The report names the Fraser Institute as the top think tank in Canada and among the top 25 in the world.

Think tanks do not “self describe” as right or left wing, conservative or progressive. The Fraser Institute according to its website is “an independent non-partisan research and educational organization” with a mission “to improve the quality of life for Canadians … by studying, measuring and broadly communicating the effects of government policies, entrepreneurship and choice on their well-being.” A quick survey of various think tank mission statements confirms that these avoid the use of political categories, preferring adjectives such as independent and evidence-based. Yet it is clear that they do have a political perspective.

In Canada, the Fraser Institute, the National Citizens Coalition, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, the Montreal Economic Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute can be described as conservative. The C.D. Howe Institute, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards and the Conference Board of Canada arguably fall in the centre, with the Broadbent Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy on the progressive end of the spectrum.

Think tanks are funded by donations from corporations, foundations and individuals, from membership fees, and in some cases from government grants or contracts. Most seem to benefit from charitable tax status, which is effectively a public subsidy.

Alejandro Chafuen, president of the Atlas Network based in Washington, writes a column for Forbes magazine about think tanks. In 2013 he commented on the differences between Canadian and American funding models: “think tanks in Canada receive a larger percentage of their income from corporations, usually over 30%, while their peers in the U.S. receive just over 10%. Individuals are the biggest source of income in U.S. think tanks … closely followed by foundations. Foundations play a key role in the Canadian think tank market.”

 

What causes dramatic changes in political culture? Historic events, powerful leaders or breakthroughs in science and technology form the basis of many. But in the age of globalization, the internet and information overload, there are also more subtle and incremental ways to effect change.

Harperism connects the dots by drawing a line between the free market philosophy espoused by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and the global phenomenon of conservative think tanks. Gutstein argues that the dotted line leads all the way to the change in political culture that encouraged nearly 40 percent of Canadians to vote for the most conservative prime minister in Canadian history.

The book traces the history of think tanks back to 1947, a village in Switzerland and the creation of the Mont Pelerin Society. The renowned free market economist Friedrich Hayek invited “a beleaguered minority” of free market intellectuals from the United States and Europe to a meeting to figure out how to counter the challenge of post-war Keynesian economics. In 1949 Hayek wrote an essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” which Gutstein describes as a “grand scheme of propaganda dissemination.” It became a prescription for how to win the battle of ideas by overseeing their spread through what he called “professional second-hand dealers in ideas,” mostly journalists, but also including teachers, religious leaders, writers and artists.

In 1955, a British businessman, Antony Fisher, who had made his fortune selling factory-farmed chicken after the war, founded the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. It became the model for think tanks in the U.S., Australia and Canada. The Fraser Institute, founded in 1974 in Vancouver in the wake of the election of NDP premier Dave Barrett, was inspired by the IEA.

In his Forbes magazine column, Chafuen enthuses over the influence of Canada’s conservative think tanks, noting the Fraser Institute “takes the lead” while the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, established in 2010 by regular media commentator Brian Lee Crowley—a visiting economist at the Department of Finance when Stephen Harper’s first budget was being prepared—was “ranked third in the world in the category of best young institute” in 2012.

To illustrate the considerable success of Canada’s conservative think tanks, Chafuen notes that while:

it is always hard to demonstrate the influence of think tanks. For some it would suffice to show that Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister, was president of the National Citizens Coalition … Similarly, Jason Kenny—a key minister in the Conservative government—was the early president of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) in the 1990’s, before entering politics. There are also countless examples of policies and reforms that began in the boardrooms and halls of Canada’s think tanks and have made their way in to Canadian legislation.

Think tanks at both ends of the political spectrum have refined the process of “public education” begun by Antony Fisher. They research and publish studies promoting ideas and let so-called second-hand dealers carry the message. The media picks up the research reports and turns them into news stories or op ed pages.

In a 2007 report on the relationship between the media and think tanks, George Fetherling takes the media to task for what he calls “the outsourcing of news” and also takes a dim view of think tanks as “merely well-dressed disinformation factories seeking to promote specific political, economic or social goals by generating quasi-news—reports, studies, research papers, conference proceedings and the like—which the media’s leadership stratum feels obliged to report as hard news or at least useful comment.”

It is undeniable that some of the policies promoted by the conservative think tanks have been implemented by the Harper government. These include tax cuts, privatization of government services, curtailment of marketing boards, the promotion of private pension funds and a quixotic but successful one—an end to the long-form census on the grounds that it is an overreach of state power.

Harperism is reminiscent of another book written just over a decade ago by a California cognitive science and linguistic scholar named George Lakoff. His book is called Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives.

Lakoff explains his title by relating how he teaches students to understand the concept of a frame by asking them to close their eyes and not think of an elephant. They cannot do it. The “elephant frame” is too powerful.

According to Lakoff, people do not make voting decisions based on facts. They make decisions based on values, identity and frames. A prime example is the phrase “tax relief,” which has meaning within an established frame of taxes as a burden or an affliction, not as a public good. “Pro-life” would be another example of effective framing.

So, if conservative think tanks are leading the way in changing political culture in Canada, how do they do it? Lakoff argues that much comes down to issues of language and framing. He introduces Frank Luntz, pollster and former advisor to Ronald Reagan who was the president’s “language man.” Luntz advises on ways to talk about, for example, the environment. Say “climate change” not “global warming”; it is less threatening. Gutstein notes that Luntz was the Reform Party’s official election pollster and strategic advisor in the 1993 election and was an advisor to the first Harper government. His briefing memo for Republicans on how to talk about the environment is linked to former natural resources minister Joe Oliver’s attack on “radical environmentalists” who “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.”

The bulk of Harperism is taken up with zeroing in on the issues, ideas and social institutions in which, according to Gutstein, conservative think tanks have influenced political discourse and policy in Canada—incrementally and in ways difficult to roll back. These include economic freedom (good), trade unions (bad), private property on First Nations reserves (good), environmentalism (bad), scientific knowledge (bad), income inequality (good) and understanding history as social history (bad).

Arguably the most important topics that Gutstein covers are environmentalism and income inequality.

Denying the existence of global warming or climate change has met with considerable success over the last decade. According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, in 2013 an astounding 70 percent of Republicans in the U.S. Senate denied the existence of climate change. Gutstein outlines how tens of millions of dollars were donated over a 25-year period by corporations such as Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries to climate change–denying think tanks such as Chicago’s Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute.

Why would think tanks wish to discredit the science of climate change? The argument, according to Gutstein, goes like this: if global warming is real, then governments will intervene in the free market to combat it and that would be a disaster for free markets. The solution is to let the free markets solve the problem of global warming, if it turns out that it does exist.

And, again, language matters.

The phrase “ethical oil” popped into the climate change debate in the media a few years ago. Gutstein traces how in 2010 this phrase existed only in the title of a book by journalist and conservative activist Ezra Levant, but within four months was emerging from the mouths of Cabinet ministers and appearing all over the media. Like the best of frames, the phrase appealed to Canadian values, suggesting that Canadian oil, unlike oil from the Middle East or Nigeria, comes from a country without corruption, with human rights and fair working conditions. The use of ethical oil was meant to re-frame environmentalists’ use of “tar sands” or “dirty oil.” An individual’s position on climate change has become, like gun control in the United States, a kind of cultural litmus test, a way to identify a range of political views.

Another dividing line is on the question of the gap between the rich and the poor. In Canada, according to The Globe and Mail, the wealthiest 10 percent of Canadian families held almost half of the country’s net worth in 2012.

The general line coming from the conservative think tanks is that either there is no significant change in the gap between the rich and the poor or, if there is, it is not something to worry about.

Even if income inequality is on the rise, the conservative think tank philosophy is summed up by an article written by Fraser Institute insiders that Gutstein quotes: “taking more money from successful Canadians and redistributing it to lower income Canadians will only decrease the incentives for lower income Canadians to become successful.” When it comes to reducing the power of trade unions, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is right-to-work legislation, meaning the end of the closed-shop system in which, once an organization is unionized, all employees deemed to be in the bargaining unit must pay dues. It is the principle behind the Rand Formula established by a 1946 Supreme Court of Canada ruling—employees benefit collectively so they pay collectively. Some years ago, the National Citizens Coalition fought this principle all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. The NCC also supported the Association for the Right to Work in Quebec during a challenge to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which also failed. But Harperism is nothing if not determined. At its October 2013 convention, the Conservative Party of Canada passed a resolution supporting right-to-work legislation.

There is an uncompromising point of view and a bitter tone to Harperism that undermines the power of Gutstein’s case. The ideas and themes dovetail with his previous book, Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda is Hijacking Democracy, which was reviewed in these pages.

Nonetheless, he does make the case. While less influential than their American counterparts, Canadian conservative think tanks have increased in numbers, financial clout and capacity for research and sophisticated communication over the last couple of decades. That trend, combined with opportunities arising from cutbacks in media budgets, has meant greater influence. Appearances by think tank representatives as talking heads on television, through op ed pieces in newspapers and before parliamentary committees all influence public opinion. As Antony Fisher identified more than 50 years ago, that is how ideas spread to create a political culture in which political parties become elected governments and ideas become policies to be implemented. Veteran journalist Robert Fulford has called think tanks “social agents” and, although he is concerned about media tendencies to take what they say at face value, sees think tanks as a positive phenomenon.

In Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes, University of Western Ontario professor Donald Abelson suggests that not only do they matter but more academic work needs to be done to measure and analyze their impact in Canada.

So much public discourse and debate consist of highly polarized bickering among experts citing their chosen research. Unable to figure out what to believe based on these heated debates, citizens end up relying on their feelings, their intuition. They try to figure out who they can trust.

Much has been written recently about the psychology of decision making—from New York Times columnist David Brooks’s The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens to New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink to Nobel Prize–winning behavioural economics professor Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow. They all point to the power of the subconscious and how irrational humans are—and lead to the suggestion that we are probably more easily manipulated than we would like to think, fair game for the increasingly numerous and sophisticated spinmeisters from the think tanks.