Rick Berman and the Libertarian Shell Game

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 10 2014 8:46 AM

Rick Berman and the Libertarian Shell Game

Every few years, when a political battle becomes a slog for the left, the media recalls the existence of Berman and Co. The venerable right-wing marketing firm and its related network of "think tanks" (bare-bones organizations that place ads and op-eds) are not especially mysterious. Berman sat for a 60 Minutes profile in 2007, happily revealing how he churns donations from corporations into conveniently pro-corporate libertarian activism.* In 2010 the New York Times took a hard look at Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom and related organizations, cheeky groups that attacked animal rights and nutrition campaigns at the behest of the restaurant industry.

Berman's time has come again; today he's the subject of an A1 investigation and shaming from Eric Lipton, one of the best public interest journalists there is. Fittingly, it's probably the best "what the hell with this guy?" pieces in the Bermania genre. The hook is the Employment Policies Institute's push against a possible minimum wage hike, which Washingtonians have encountered every time they disembark at Capitol South Metro and see signs blaming Nancy Pelosi when teenagers can't find jobs. (Capitol South is the station closest to the House, which demonstrates how pointless the spending is—the House is not going to bring up a minimum wage hike.) Lipton buries EPI's** research with a few lines.

[EPI research director Michael] Saltsman, 30, who has an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan and previously worked for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, drafts dozens of letters to the editor and opinion articles for newspapers, arguing that increasing the minimum wage would hurt more than help. Other special institute projects included a recent survey of lawmakers who support the minimum wage increase asking if they pay their interns — a report The Daily Caller, a conservative online publication, then released, calling out the lawmakers with unpaid interns as hypocrites.
The major reports released by the institute are prepared by outside academics, like Joseph J. Sabia, an associate professor of economics at San Diego State University, who has collected at least $180,000 in grant money from Mr. Berman’s group over the last eight years to deliver seven separate reports, each one concluding that increasing the minimum wage has caused more harm than good — or at least no significant benefit for the poor.
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This is a story about lobbying, sure, but it's mostly a story about lazy journalism. Why would journalists grab quotes from EPI? Because they need to get "anti" quotes in their stories, and because the EPI is there. The group's spin is incredibly easy to see through. The Metro ads are too cute by half. (A previous Berman group campaign against animal rights activists featured pictures of cute dogs in states of surprise.) In his Twitter bio, Saltsman describes himself as a "Defender of the Minimum Wage"—meaning, he defends the current rate and doesn't want it going higher. The genius of EPI, like other Berman groups, is that it produces research for ideologues and donors who know what they believe already but need to balance coverage in the press.

*Correction, Feb. 10, 2014: This post originally misstated that Rick Berman appeared on 60 Minutes in 2009.

**EPI shares initials with the Economic Policy Institute, a left-wing think tank whose staffers are very unhappy with the alphabetical confusion. 

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.