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Reporting from the Institute of Made Up Institutes

A scientist
A scientist
A scientist at a think tank, hard at work crafting some lobbying. / Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich

What might be the top buzzword inside the Beltway? There are so many candidates! “Spox.” “Double Down.” “Save the Middle Class.” “Money.” “War.” Ooh—what about “Strategic Communications” (a.k.a. unlicensed lobbying)?

All of these are, indeed, very stylish words in boomtown D.C. But how about this: “institute.”

Institute comes with very serious, wonkish connotations. A professional building where scholars and researchers with no senses of humor compile and analyze data to better proximate the truth on any given issue. Scientists in lab coats with test tubes performing envelope-pushing experiments to better understand the nature of the universe and humanity’s place within it, too busy for lunch breaks. Important people, our finest men and women, serving on boards and panels to promote the neutral, emotionless pursuit of objectivity.

If connoting seriousness and legitimacy is the goal for an organization, “institute” is a fine word to select. And so many groups in D.C. do select it, over the much more accurate, but less appealing, names like special interests, lobbies, or corporate PR vehicles.

And using the word “institute” also gives a shady group access to that other prized title: “think tank,” a term that no longer has any meaning, as The Baffler has gone into great detail to document:

The thing about modern think tanks, or advocacy organizations, pressure groups, whatever you call them now—the line has been blurred enough by this point to send IRS investigators into panic attacks as they try to determine a group’s taxable status—is how cheap and reproducible they’ve become. Lawmakers frequently grumble about the need to spur twenty-first-century entrepreneurship in our economy, and in the think tank sector, all by itself, we find a true American success story. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s most recent Global Go-To Think Tanks Rankings report, as explained by former George W. Bush policy aide Tevi Troy, the number of think tanks has grown “from about 45 after the Second World War to about 1,800 today, including nearly 400 in the Washington, D.C., area alone.” Wherever a federal, state, municipal, or company-level policy decision is to be made nowadays, a think tank is there to offer its opinion.

We also recently looked at the case of Elizabeth O’Bagy, who was fired from the Institute for the Study of War for lying about having a PhD. The institute had previously turned a blind eye to this because she was successfully getting in newspapers and on television to advocate for intervention in Syria. The “Institute for the Study of War,” of course, was just a collection of war-hungry hawks looking for more war, everywhere.

And now Salon brings us the story of the Employment Policies Institute, which has been manipulating lazy reporters into believing it’s an objective think tank, when, more accurately, it’s a vehicle funded by the restaurant industry to push back against arguments for an increase in the minimum wage. Or, even more accurately: The Employment Policies Institute is a room in some notorious PR flack’s office suite.

…as the bona fide academic study rolled out, multiple media outlets ran comments criticizing the report’s numbers and methodology from the scholarly sounding “Employment Policies Institute.” The Austin Business Journal characterized EPI as a think tank “which studies employment growth,” while the Miami Herald ran a quote from Michael Saltsman, whom the paper named as EPI’s “research director.”

For his part, Saltsman ran aggressive Op-Eds against any minimum wage increase in papers such as the Missoulian, where he was described as EPI’s “research fellow.” In an Op-Ed he wrote for the Washington Post, his title was listed as EPI’s “research director” but with a notation that EPI “receives funding from restaurants, among other sources.” But even this partial disclosure provides a disservice to readers in the nation’s capital.

In fact, the Employment Policies Institute operates from the same office suite as Berman and Co., a public relations firm owned by Richard Berman. This is not an opinion; it’s a fact anyone can verify by viewing EPI and Berman and Co.’s websites. In such a depressed media environment—where there are four public relations flacks for every reporter, compared to a 1-to-1 ratio in the 1960s – it is not surprising that a P.R. company could successfully rebrand itself as a think tank and capitalize on an acronym held by an actual think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, with 20 staff and 36 respected research associates.

Berman knows how to throw around a good “institute.” He’s also the creator of the American Beverage Institute, a lobby “dedicated to the protection of responsible on-premise consumption of adult beverages. ABI’s strength stems from its composition—ABI is a restaurant trade association, representing America’s favorite restaurant chains as well as hundreds of individual restaurants and on-premise retailers.” Right now, ABI appears to be lobbying the Utah state government not to lower its legal blood-alcohol limit for drinking and driving.

There are other “institutes” in the liquor world, too. The Beer Institute sounds like a nice thing, doesn’t it? Like they study new microbrews or “hops” or other stuff to make Better Beer. If only. It’s the beer lobby, advocating for brewers.

“Institute” may just be America’s greatest word. You might say it grants legitimacy to charlatans. But let’s put a little PR spin on that: “institute” democratizes legitimacy! What? Why do you hate democracy so much?