Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wal-Mart Funding

This story overreaches considerably:
Wal-Mart Finds an Ally in Conservatives

Published: September 8, 2006
As Wal-Mart Stores struggles to rebut criticism from unions and Democratic leaders, the company has discovered a reliable ally: prominent conservative research groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute.

Top policy analysts at these groups have written newspaper opinion pieces around the country supporting Wal-Mart, defended the company in interviews with reporters and testified on its behalf before government committees in Washington.

But the groups — and their employees — have consistently failed to disclose a tie to the giant discount retailer: financing from the Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s three children, who have a controlling stake in the company.

* * *

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, for example, has received more than $100,000 from the foundation in the last three years, a fraction of the more than $24 million it raised in 2004 alone.

Richard Vedder, a visiting scholar at the institute, wrote an opinion article for The Washington Times last month, extolling Wal-Mart’s benefits to the American economy. “There is enormous economic evidence that Wal-Mart has helped poor and middle-class consumers, in fact more than anyone else,” Mr. Vedder wrote in the article, which prominently identified his ties to institute.

But neither Mr. Vedder nor the newspaper mentioned American Enterprise Institute’s financial links to the Waltons. Mr. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University, said he might have disclosed the relationship had the American Enterprise Institute told him of it. “I always assumed that A.E.I. had no relationship or a modest, distant relationship with the company,” said Mr. Vedder, who has written a forthcoming book about the company.
John McWhorter responds:
Last Friday I opened the Times to be greeted by a photo of me illustrating a story arguing that conservative think tanks instruct their writers to shill for corporations that give them contributions. My sin was saying on a radio show a year ago (in passing amidst a discussion of several issues) that Wal-Mart provides jobs for lower-income black people. At least the photo was good — black don't crack! However, the notion that the Manhattan Institute sits its writers down and instructs us to speak in favor of corporations that give us money is fiction.

I had no idea Wal-Mart was one of our funders and have never been apprised of a list of such — nor have any of my colleagues. Rather, naturally as someone employed by a free-market think tank, I do not see Wal-Mart as the scourge to humanity that it has become fashionable to claim. The less-than-generous health insurance they offer is a problem, and to me suggests a new discussion about national health insurance. But I said Wal-Mart offers gainful employment to poor blacks because it is, quite simply, true, as plenty of black community representatives have been noting for years.
Two points:

1) The Times' story lends itself to ad hominem arguments. I.e., it doesn't identify anything substantively wrong with Richard Vedder's argument about Wal-Mart. Instead, the notion is that he's somehow discredited because he is associated with a think tank that gets around a tenth of one percent of its money from the Wal-Mart Foundation.

2) Disclosure is a good thing. But you can't disclose what you don't know. Does anyone really expect all of the scholars at think tanks -- or universities, for that matter -- to keep track of every donor who gives a sum so small that it amounts to a tenth of a percent of the institution's income? And isn't the scholars' lack of knowledge a good thing? How can they be skewing their analysis when they are simply unaware of the donors' identity?


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