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December 20, 2005

Doug Bandow, Capitalist Hero

Doug Bandow has resigned from CATO and has had his column temporarily (likely permanently) terminated by the Copley News Service because it has come to light that he was accepting funds from the arch-evil lobbyist Jack Abramoff in return for writing positive editorials that promoted the interests of Abramoff’s clients.

If Mr. Bandow worked for Downsize DC, he would, almost certainly, still have a job. If he offered to quit when this revelation came to light, I probably would’ve tried to talk him out of it.

CATO took a different approach. Bandow agreed to resign. CATO is characterizing his actions as a self-admitted lack of judgment. I respect CATO and value their work. They have the right to choose whatever employment policies they prefer – to hire and fire at will. But I disagree with them on this one.

CATO’s Director of Communications, Jamie Dettmer said, “Our scholarship is not for sale.” But that just isn’t the case.

First, you can click here and see that CATO sells reports, books, audios, and subscriptions to journals. They also grant access to more publications and better events with increased financial support. If you give $10,000 to CATO, you’re almost guaranteed to meet leading policy wonks, talking-heads, and prominent government officials. I’m sure Mr. Bandow, a long-time employee of CATO, has been paid to appear at events put on for donors.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

Well, you argue, that’s not what Dettmer really meant. Which brings me to my second point of refutation, Doug Bandow wasn’t working for free.

Neither am I. Nor is anyone who works for Brookings, Heritage, American Enterprise, Reason, etc. Better columnists get paid to write their opinions. Those of who don’t get paid, wish they were getting paid for their “scholarship.”

But maybe that’s not what Dettmer meant either.

The best way to get paid to write a column is to be employed by a prominent organization. It could be a media outlet, academic institution, think-tank, or other policy organization. The entity that employs you gives you a platform.

  • Most of us who work in the sector in which Bandow was employed (non-profit public-policy) have multiple employers. For example, since joining my present employer I’ve done “side-work” for a political campaign, a prayer ministry, a TV show, and a public policy organization focused on education. I presently host a radio show for which I am paid by a sponsor. And one of the guys who works here is approached routinely by others looking to hire him for his expertise.
  • But the same is true of members of the media. They are paid to give speeches and – don’t miss this – they attend briefings, receive books, get showered with gifts and invitations to the best parties in town where they hobnob with lobbyists, as well as members of the legislative and executive branch. They even get “briefed” by celebrities like Bono of U2. Bono wouldn’t give them the time of day were it not for the podium their employer provides for them.

Near as I can tell the difference between the aforementioned cases and the one Mr. Bandow finds himself in is… cash. Cash is a capitalist commodity. But any economist can tell you that cash is not the only trade commodity.

  • Personally, I love getting books and I’m more likely to say something about them on my radio show or at this blog if I possess them, and I’m more likely to have a book if someone buys it for me.
  • But it’s also a perk for many folks to get invited to the right parties and to meet celebrities (that stuff doesn’t do much for me, but if it would benefit my employer, I’d certainly do it).

CATO is a libertarian think-tank and there are bunches of economists in the building. That is why I find their response ironic.

Either they believe in consensual capitalist acts between adults, or they don’t.

The real issue is whether or not Mr. Bandow took positions in those columns that are contrary to his employers goals. Since they didn’t terminate him at the time of publication of Abramoff-influenced articles, I’m assuming that wasn’t a problem.

But it gets even more interesting. In my experience, networking is a valuable commodity for employers. Earlier in this article I mentioned…

  • A campaign I worked for… resulted in a donor who also served for a year-and-a-half as a board member.
  • Another public policy organization focused on education… they retained the services of our team and allowed us to keep our doors open at a particularly tight time financially. The leader of that organization liked my work so much he has since helped me begin a personal relationship with a very wealthy potential donor.
  • A TV Show (which will soon produce a pilot)… asked for R&D work. We produced a report. They made a four-figure donation and I’m a possible guest for one of the episodes.

Each of these relationships enriched Downsize DC!

Let’s pretend that Mr. Bandow worked here at Downsize DC. Then, there are only four ways (that leap to mind as I write this, perhaps there could be others) for which Mr. Bandow could’ve been fired for moonlighting like he did…

  1. He accepted money to take a position contrary to our mission to reduce the size of the federal government – to Downsize DC! (Important note: If Mr. Bandow was using his columns to shill for increased government funding of unconstitutional projects, then CATO should’ve stepped in sooner.)
  2. He took money from one of our donors to do a side-project that was competitive with Downsize DC.
  3. He took money from someone else and neglected the work he had to do for Downsize DC.
  4. He took money from the federal government (which would be hypocritical given Downsize DC’s intent).

And that’s what matters. Is Mr. Bandow undermining his employer? If not, then it’s just more money for a good cause or a good guy. After all, we’re all more interested in those issues which are profitable to us.

For example, if you offer us a million dollars and me a brand new mini-van to put the Downsize DC resources to work on expanding the Department of Education, you’ll get nowhere. However, if someone wants to donate $100,000 on the condition that we will work to end the income tax, we’ll launch a campaign! After all, as Morton Blackwell says, “You can’t save the world if you can’t pay the rent.”

I’ve never met Mr. Bandow. I would like to. I have long admired the parts of his work that I’m familiar with, and I am amazed at the breadth of public policy issues with which he is intelligently conversant.

I don’t have the budget to hire Mr. Bandow. But if he’d like to write for Downsize DC, I’d certainly welcome it.

Additional note: After writing my thoughts, I found the Business Week article that broke this story. In addition to Bandow the article says that Peter Ferrara with the Institute for Policy Innovation also received Abramoff money for columns. He’s unapologetic. “It’s a matter of general support,” Ferrara says. “These are my views, and if you want to support them, then that’s good.” And his boss says there’s a naïve policy standard at work here and they stand by Mr. Ferrara.

In other words, they get it!

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