How to think about “think” tanks

Kady O'Malley Tweet on Think Tanks 1

It is sometimes said that think tanks are good for democracy; indeed the more of them, the better. If there are more ideas in the public arena battling it out for your approval, then it’s more likely that the best idea will win, and that we will all have better public policies. But intuitively many of us have trouble believing this, have trouble knowing who is being truthful, and don’t know who to trust.

This battle of ideas, studies, and statistics has the potential to make many of us cynical about the whole process, and less trusting of all research and numbers. If a knowledgeable journalist like the Canadian Kady O’Malley expresses a certain exasperation that think-tank studies always back up “the think-tank’s existing position,” what hope is there for the rest of us? A flourishing of think tanks just let’s politicians off the hook, always allowing them to pluck an idea that suits their purposes, and making it easier to justify what they wanted to do anyways.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that think tanks produce studies confirming their (sometimes hidden) biases. After all this is something we all do. We need to arm ourselves with this self-awareness. If we do, then we can also be more aware of the things in a think tank’s make-up that can help in judging its credibility, and also how public policy discussion should be structured to help promote a sincere exchange of facts and ideas.

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Three rules for good pundit behaviour, or if you like: how to obstruct the debate on inequality in three easy steps

Inequality is increasing in Canada. Or is it?

A short report on the topic released by a major Canadian bank includes the bold heading “Income inequality has been unchanged in Canada — say what?”. This apparently contrarian finding has been seized upon by at least one influential pundit in a way that only serves to obstruct constructive public policy discussion.

A debate is in order, not over whether inequality has increased—because it has—but why this is important, and what could, or for that matter should, be done about it.

But this sort of discussion requires the best of our public commentators, and in this post I offer three rules for good pundit behaviour. Economic statistics can be confusing and they can be used in confusing ways, purposely or not, and so these rules might also be a set of general guideposts for the average reader to help separate fact from fiction, since after all we can’t expect pundits to always follow them.

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Inequality and CEO compensation are more important than the CBC suggests

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s senior correspondent Terry Milewski does a disservice in conveying the facts about inequality in his coverage of the now infamous report released earlier this week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The report graphically documents the income gap between top earners and the rest of the population, the so-called average Joe, by pointing out that by noon on January 3rd—the first working day of the year—the top 100 CEOs in the country made as much as the average Canadian will during the entire year.

Continue reading “Inequality and CEO compensation are more important than the CBC suggests”