On Disclosure

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Writing about the Koch confab referenced in today’s morning links, my friend Dave Weigel points out that Mother Jones has published profiles of some top donors to various Koch organizations. Dave comments:

And it’s just a disgrace that this information is smuggled out of a meeting like a heroin shipment, instead of being disclosed. The Tea Party movement, the GOP, etc — no one who benefits from this disagrees with the goals of these people in making more money. Why hide it?

First, I wouldn’t assume that everyone who donates to these causes does so to enact policies that will make them more money. The Kochs themselves, for example, spend money advocating for an end to ethanol subsidies, even though their business benefits from those subsidies. You could certainly call that hypocrisy. But it doesn’t fit the narrative that their political activism is all about enriching themselves. The easier explanation is simply that they’re free market ideologues. And if you’re not a free market ideologue, that’s a fine reason to criticize them.

But I also want to address Dave’s point about disclosure. I can think of lots of reasons why someone wouldn’t want their donations to political causes to be made public. For example, there’s a bi-partisan history in this country of using the IRS to target the political opponents of the party in the White House. I could also see a business executive not necessarily wanting a regulatory agency to know that he’s donating money to groups that would like to dismantle or diminish that agency’s power.

I suppose those two examples aren’t going to win much sympathy from Koch critics. So let me offer a couple more: I could also see why a progressive-minded businessman in, say, Salt Lake City, would want to keep secret his donation to a group advocating for gay marriage in California. Or why the trust fund kid of a Raytheon executive may not want his family to know he gives to anti-war organizations.

But the best example of what I’m getting at here may come from Mother Jones itself. Mother Jones is published by a non-profit organization called the Foundation for National Progress, which “exists to publish and support Mother Jones.” Which means that the magazine is mostly funded by donors. So who donates to Mother Jones? Good question. They won’t say!

From the magazine’s privacy policy:

We do not share your name, address, email address, or any other personally identifiable information about your donation with anyone else.

So like quite a few other progressive organizations, Mother Jones doesn’t release the names of its donors, even as they criticize free market groups (often falsely) for the same thing. Put another way, the magazine reserves the right to protect the anonymity of the people who fund the magazine’s investigative journalism, which this week included exposing the identity of donors to political causes—who wished to remain anonymous.

I can certainly conceive of reasons why a donor to Mother Jones’ (often excellent) investigative journalism may want to donate anonymously. I can also see why Mother Jones would want to offer them the option of anonymity. I also support the legal right of both to do so. (I oppose mandatory disclosure laws.) What I don’t quite understand is why anonymous giving to politically-minded organizations only becomes a threat to democracy (or substitute your own favorite hyperbole) when it’s done by free market organizations.

One final point, which I’ve made before. The fun irony here is that the most well-known Koch-funded groups actually are quite transparent. Cato, the Reason Foundation, and Heritage, for example, are all much more forthcoming with donor names than the progressive organizations who criticize free market groups for their secrecy. Better yet, not only do all three of those free market organizations disclose voluntarily, they also oppose mandatory disclosure laws that would force an organization like Mother Jones to disclose the names of its donors. That strikes me as a pretty principled (and self-handicapping) position.

These progressive groups, on the other hand, are exactly the opposite. They’re demanding transparency from their political opponents while keeping the identities of their own donors a secret.

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28 Responses to “On Disclosure”

  1. #1 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Of course the progressives at Mother Jones believe in one rule for themselves and another for their opponents. In the first place the preponderance of Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressives in the media means that they haven’t actually HAD to have any principles for some time. In the second place an awful lot of the heritage of the Progressive Left is tainted by a heritage of Stalinism, which always operated on a “rules for thee, nor for me” basis.

  2. #2 |  Brandon | 

    Your dedicated progressives are generally more political than principled, just like your dedicated conservatives. It’s one of the reasons libertarian-leaning organizations have such a hard time gaining political power. They handicap themselves by adhering to principles.

  3. #3 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I can think of at least one reason for anonymous donations. I am sick to death of the barrage of junk mail and telemarketing calls that come to my house as a result of some donation I’ve made to a cause I believe in. Most often, the very organization I donated to, repaid my generosity by selling my name to other organizations under the title, “List of Easy Marks”. To them, I just want to say thank you. You have seen your last dollar from me, assholes.

    Yes, I know this was slightly off topic, but now I feel better.

  4. #4 |  Roy | 

    Actually, Dave, that’s not off topic in my opinion. And you’re absolutely right.

    I have cut off quite a few charities and other organizations that I had donated to – some for years – for that exact reason.

  5. #5 |  Sam | 

    Presumably the Kochs believe that even though they’d lose the ethanol income, they’d gain it back elsewhere in their businesses when the regulations that strangle them (read: do things like protect the environment) are loosened. This assumption that anybody, anywhere is working against their own goals is absurd. Libertarians, free-market ideologues, socialists, liberals, conservatives: everybody’s out for what they believe will be best for them.

  6. #6 |  M. Steve | 

    @#2 Brandon

    Spot on. Modern lefty progressivism is much more accurately called “hedonocracy” — rule by what feels good. It doesn’t matter the track record of a program, the Constitutionality of said program, or even if there is a basic philosophical/political justification for the program. As long as the program makes them feel better about themselves, it gets advocated.

  7. #7 |  jrshipley | 

    The link was to the privacy statement for subscriber information to Mother Jones, unless I’m misreading it. Reason has a similar statement for their subscribers stating “Your personally identifiable information is kept secure. Only authorized employees, agents and contractors (who have agreed to keep information secure and confidential) have access to this information.” The main difference is not that MoJo’s subscriber lists are secret while Reason’s are not. Both are secret. It’s just that Reason shares the secret with some other organizations it has contracts with; it certainly doesn’t make them public knowledge.

    In any case, I’m not quite clear on why keeping subscriber information for a magazine private and secure is supposed to be analogous to hiding massive contributions to organizations dedicated to tilting political outcomes in favor of private interests. I’m not trying to make an argument for or against mandatory disclosure here, but I’m just not seeing the analogy that would support the point you’re making here.

    Furthermore, quite apart from mandatory disclosure requirements it seems like an obvious thing for an left-leaning investigative journalist to want to dig up who is contributing to these organizations, regardless of whether their magazine publicly lists subscriber information. It’s perfectly consistent to think there’s a public interest in knowing who’s funding the Heritage Foundations climate change denial propaganda but no real public interest in knowing who’s subscribing to MoJo. You may disagree with that judgment about the public interest, but I’m not really seeing how you get to tu quoque based on that disagreement (which is a fallacy anyway).

  8. #8 |  Radley Balko | 

    jrshipley:

    Writing over and over again that the policy only refers to subscribers doesn’t make it true.

    Did you not see the word “donors” in the MJ privacy statement? It applies to donors to the foundation that publishes MJ. The foundation itself does not have a website — web donations are taken through the MJ website. Elsewhere on the page, they use the word “subscriber” or “subscription” when referring to subscribers.” The passage I quoted from uses both words. So when they use the word “donation” or “donor”, I think it’s safe to assume that’s what they’re referring to donors to the foundation.

    In any case, I’m not quite clear on why keeping subscriber information for a magazine private and secure is supposed to be analogous to hiding massive contributions to organizations dedicated to tilting political outcomes in favor of private interests.

    Again, it’s not just subscriber information. It’s also the identity of donors. If you think I’m wrong, then show me where I can find the names of the top donors to MJ’s parent foundation. Reason publishes the names of everyone who gives the Reason foundation more than $1,000 in the magazine. Cato lists the names of its top 200 donors in its annual report. Heritage publishes the names of its top donors on its website.

    More to the point, are you arguing that MJ does not want to tilt political outcomes in favor of its own progressive ideology? What about the various Center for American Progress organizations, who also keep secret the identities of their donors? What’s different about them advocating for specific issues while keep their donors secret versus Heritage, or Reason or Cato doing the same thing?

    I can’t think of any real difference, other than that I’m guessing you probably agree with the positions the progressive groups are advocating.

  9. #9 |  M. Steve | 

    @#7 jrshipley

    Excellent water muddying! You managed to confuse in the reader’s mind “subscribers” and “donors” and get a huge reply from Radley over an issue that could have resolved with remedial reading comprehension skills. From the very link that gave you such a “hard time”:

    “When you donate, we use the information you provide to process your donation. Online donations made to Mother Jones are processed by Convio. We do not share your name, address, email address, or any other personally identifiable information about your donation with anyone else.”

    Nice sidetrack, though. Well done.

  10. #10 |  Publius | 

    My wife is up for tenure at a local university. If it became public knowledge that I donate to free-market organizations, what do you think her chances for getting tenure would be?

    Just a couple more years, then it won’t matter to me. But there are many, many others in similar situations.

  11. #11 |  James | 

    The real difference would be that monies collected by a 501c3 cannot be used as campaign contributions nor advertising in support of a candidate. This would apply equally to Cato as it would to Mother Jones. There is an exemption for limited lobbying but TFNP has no registered lobbyists.

    The monies collected through these Koch brother ‘seminars’ or whatever, can and will be used as campaign contributions as well as third party advertising for specific candidates. Not to mention paid lobbying.

    So yes, there are entirely distinct from one another. Like… fer reals yo… they’re entirely different. Apples and oranges. Cats and dogs. North and south. Von Mises and legitimate economic theory.

  12. #12 |  jeff | 

    Publius hit on another good point: the Koch’s ultra-wealthy donor pals may be donating to free-market causes purely out of self interest, but they may wish those donations to be anonymous ALSO purely out of self interest.

    As a libertarian, I’m not a huge fan of Focus on the Family and its agenda. The founder of Chik-Fil-A, a guy named Samuel Truett Cathy, has been a financial supporter of Focus on the Family for quite some time. Although I enjoy their food, I must say this connection makes me slightly less enthusiastic about eating at Chik Fil A than I might otherwise be.

    By that same token, Koch Industries owns Georgia Pacific, whose brands include, per a quick look at their website, Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, Brawny, Dixie Cups, and Mardi Gras, among others. Knowing this, and knowing the Koch brothers’ ideological bent, are there a few left-leaning paper products consumers out there who might be inclined to reach for the Charmin or Cottonelle the next time they’re in the market for some toilet paper? I would assume the answer is yes. Now, the Kochs, filthy rich as they are, apparently don’t much care. But you can easily imagine that their slightly less wealthy chums might feel differently. Or they might simply be bowing to pressure from business partners, fellow shareholders, boards of directors, etc.

    The point is that lots of business people try to keep their personal political beliefs and activities separate from their professional activities, again purely out of self interest. That Weigel overlooks this relatively obvious answer is simply a ploy. By rhetorically asking “why hide it?” he is not-so-subtly insinuating that they must have something to hide. Why else would the hide it!?!?!?!

    Come on, Weigel. You used to better than that.

  13. #13 |  jeff | 

    Unrelated tangent: looking at Georgia Pacific’s website, they say they have over 40,000 employees worldwide, and I see they have multiple brands listed for their paper towel, toilet paper, and napkin products, printer paper, copier paper, etc. But conspicuously absent is any sort of nasal tissue brand like Kleenex or Puffs.

    So if you need something to wipe your hind parts, wipe your mouth, or wipe your countertops with, they’ve got you covered. But if you come down with a case of the sniffles…hey, sorry pal. Can’t help you.

    How does that make sense? I should be in management consulting.

  14. #14 |  jrshipley | 

    I’ve never written that before. I don’t see where you get that I’ve written it “over and over again.”

    In any case, thanks for the response. I still think ad hominem tu quoque is a fallacy and I still think it’s not necessarily hypocritical to think there’s a public interest in knowing who’s contributing to an organization like Heritage, which spreads blatant lies about climate change, but not necessarily a public interest in knowing who donates to every charity. Hence, I’m not sure I even get what the argument is supposed to be for the conclusion that MoJo is being hypocritical, even if tu quoque were not a fallacy. As I said, you may disagree with the judgment about what is/is not in the public interest but that doesn’t make them hypocrites.

    Anyway, thanks for the clarification that that MoJo page applies to both subscribers and donors. I guess I didn’t read it very carefully.

  15. #15 |  Radley Balko | 

    I still think it’s not necessarily hypocritical to think there’s a public interest in knowing who’s contributing to an organization like Heritage, which spreads blatant lies about climate change, but not necessarily a public interest in knowing who donates to every charity.

    Seems to me you’re saying you think donors to organizations that advocate positions contrary to yours should be disclosed. But donors who give to organizations that advocate positions you support have the right to remain anonymous. If that isn’t an accurate statement of your position, please feel free to clarify.

  16. #16 |  "What I don't quite understand is why anonymous giving to politically-minded organizations only becomes a threat to democracy...when it's done by free market organizations" - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine | 

    [...] Welch | September 8, 2011 Radley Balko notes some double standards over at Mother Jones (and [...]

  17. #17 |  Julian Sanchez | 

    Like most supposed logical fallacies, (what looks like) tu quoque is often perfectly legitimately deployed in real world arguments, precisely because it isn’t offered as some kind of conclusive deductive syllogism, but as a type of evidence weighing in favor of a position. It is obviously logically possible that disclosure is the best policy, and that MoJo is correct in their advocacy but wrong in their practice. Maybe so long as anonymity is legally permitted, they can’t resist donor pressure to offer it even though they think it would be better to (be required to) disclose. Pointing out the practice plainly doesn’t *logically entail* that the argument is wrong. But it’s also possible that the editors and board members at MoJo recognize legitimate reasons for respecting anonymity for their own donors (perhaps precisely because they have had occasion to hear those reasons directly from their donors) but uncharitably fail to seriously consider the equal legitimacy of parallel reasons that exist for donors on the other side. The fact that, in practice, intelligent foundation or editorial boards who are publicly committed to transparency ultimately find the case for extending anonymity to their own donors wins out on net does not logically entail, but does make it more probable, or count as circumstantial evidence for the proposition, that strong reasons for anonymity exist.

  18. #18 |  seriousfun | 

    no, no, no, and no.

    Koch Industries makes far more from oil than they do from ethanol.

    You seem not to know the difference between a think-tank (like Kochs’ Heritage, etc.), journalism (even biased, like MJ), and a outside political expenditure group like the Kochs’ hosted in Vail.

    Learn, then rewrite this totally wrong piece.

  19. #19 |  Zeb | 

    There seems to be a strong assumption on the left that what is good for business is not good for people in general or “ordianry people” (whatever that means). Of course, whatever is good for a particular business is not always going to be good for people in general. But there is a good argument to be made that what is good for business generally is good for people in general. It is possible to do good in the world and make a profit at the same time. I would argue that more good has been done in the world by people trying to make a profit than has been done by all of the charitable giving and welfare payments put together (not that I think charity is a bad thing).

  20. #20 |  John Thacker | 

    I got into a dispute with the Sunlight Foundation over this. They were very upset that Sen. Ensign tried to attach an amendment to a funding disclosure bill that would have basically attacked NAACP v. Alabama. However, they were completely unable to articulate why certain types of anonymous donations were okay but others were bad, other than Supreme Court precedence and simply defending the idea of groups that they liked being anonymous but not ones that they didn’t.

  21. #21 |  BakedPenguin | 

    The real difference would be that monies collected by a 501c3 cannot be used as campaign contributions nor advertising in support of a candidate. This would apply equally to Cato as it would to Mother Jones. There is an exemption for limited lobbying but TFNP has no registered lobbyists.

    Wow, James, I hope you don’t work for MJ, because your investigative skills leave a lot to be desired. (Actually, I’m sure you don’t, b/c/ even if I don’t often agree with them, RB is right in pointing out they do high quality investigative journalism)

    About CATO: “The Cato Institute is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt educational foundation…”

    support Reason: “Contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations are welcomed. Reason Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization…”

  22. #22 |  Juice | 

    If we want true full disclosure, then we should abolish the secret ballot.

  23. #23 |  Dave | 

    Juice, I couldnt have said it any better or clearer myself, if my political donations are foreclosed, simple reasoning will tell you who I’m voting for. I do believe tho that at some levels there should be disclosure. Is my union supporting a pro-abortion, anti-marijuana, anti-2nd amendment candidate? I think personal disclosure vs corporate disclosure are 2 different things. The Kochs are evil, but Soros is not. RIIIIIGHT. Whenever the left talks I always hear how wealthy conservatives are bad, but liberals apparently go into business to what?, lose money? I dont think so. Obama wants corporations to be limited in donating? Why corporations, why not ALL organizations, take the union money away from the liberals and watch their campaigns go broke. Climate change?…seriously, how many people that scream about climate change DON’T carpool, use mass transit, or bike/walk? The hypocrisy of the left far exceeds the right.

  24. #24 |  James | 

    I said both MJ and Cato are 501c3′s. Hence the ‘would apply equally to…’ comment.

    So… I dunno… yer really, really stupid I guess. Congrats on having shit between yer ears, bro.

  25. #25 |  Majuscule | 

    @jrshipley

    I find it troubling that you use the terms “public interest” with regard to certain organizations and not others. You acknowledge that people may disagree as to what may or may not be in the “public interest,” but that doesn’t allay my concerns with this word choice.

    Correct me if I’m misunderstanding your point, but you are saying it is acceptable to demand a listing of donors to private organizations that hold positions that are detrimental to the “public interest.”

    Who gets to define the “public interest?”

    Based on your previous statements regarding the Heritage Foundation’s “blatant lies” and “propaganda” regarding the topic of climate change, you imply that it is in the “public interest” to know who donates and supports them. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but from your perspective these donors are supporting a cause that you find objectionable. And since it is harmful to your definition of the “public interest,” everyone should know who they are so “society” or “the public” can silence their “propaganda” and “blatant lies.” This is the part I find most disturbing.

    The worldview of a Heritage Foundation donor or supporter (I am neither) may see your stance on environmental topics as detrimental to their definition of the “public interest.” One of their concerns is that the environmental lobby tends to disregard or minimize the economic costs of their policy positions. So based on your logic, a Heritage supporter can demand Greenpeace or the Sierra Club disclose their donor lists.

    From my libertarian vantage point, it is apparent to me that the left is more prone to this approach. The Koch Brothers are incessantly caricatured as evil bogeymen. The left becomes apoplectic at the very thought of Fox News’ existence. It seems to be a “shoot the messenger” vibe that makes me uncomfortable. Debate with conservatives till you’re blue in the face. Tell them they’re wrong and misguided. This is what free speech is all about.

    Partisans on both sides of any issue are often convinced they are unilaterally correct in their position. Anyone who disagrees must be wrong. If you convince yourself that they are not just wrong but are somehow harming society, the justifications for stifling their speech become easier. It also cracks open the door to autocracy. This is why I find your “public interest” argument to be so chilling.

  26. #26 |  Jeremy | 

    The Kochs themselves, for example, spend money advocating for an end to ethanol subsidies, even though their business benefits from those subsidies.

    Well, that could be because they’re just nice guys (Radley has certainly taken this position. if I understand his many tweets and posts on this correctly). Or it could be a calculated move: it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the costs incurred by environmental regulations, for instance, exceed the subsidies they get. So a “principled” stand could actually still be self-serving.

  27. #27 |  John Q. Galt | 

    In other words, the people at Mother Jones are hypocritical fucktards that deserve a punch to the neck.

  28. #28 |  We’d Like You To Anonymously Donate to Our Efforts To Expose Anonymous Donations | The Agitator | 

    [...] I’ve pointed out that Mother Jones, a magazine with a clear political perspective and clear political agenda*, keeps secret the identity of its donors. So I was clicking over to read this excellent Adam Serwer piece on the new federal bill that would allow for the deportation of domestic abuse victims, and I got this pop-up ad. [...]

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