How Corporate Interests Are Shaping the Minimum Wage Debate

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A Scottish poet said over a century ago that, “Politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp-posts — for support rather than illumination.”

Supporters of fast food workers protest outside of Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum as they rally to show support for the employees's of the McDonald's restaurant located inside on December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. The protest is part of a 100-city nationwide fast food strike seeking a $15 livable wage for fast food workers. (Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/ Sipa USA)

That’s what is happening in Washington these days on both sides of the political divide, and little is revealed about who’s behind those “supporting” statistics. As investigative journalist Eric Lipton writes in today’s New York Times, conservatives and liberals are working to get legislatures and the public to take their side in “hot-button issues” with reports issued by shadowy think tanks that “mask the intentions of their deep-pocketed patrons.”

For example, the debate over the minimum wage is being guided, in part, by research coming out of the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a nonprofit group run by a right-wing public relations firm that represents corporate interests, including the restaurant industry.

Reports coming out of EPI, often quoted in articles, usually do not reveal the group’s web of industry ties and the motivated groups or individuals funding its research warning that raising the minimum wage would likely increase unemployment and poverty.

Here’s what Lipton writes about the EPI and Berman:

The Employment Policies Institute, founded two decades ago, is led by the advertising and public relations executive Richard B. Berman, who has made millions of dollars in Washington by taking up the causes of corporate America. He has repeatedly created official-sounding nonprofit groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom that have challenged limits like the ban on indoor smoking and the push to restrict calorie counts in fast foods.

In recent months, Mr. Berman’s firm has taken out full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and plastered a Metro station near the Capitol with advertisements, including one featuring a giant photograph of Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is a proponent of the minimum wage increase, that read, “Teens Who Can’t Find a Job Should Blame Her.”

These messages, also promoted on websites operated by Mr. Berman’s firm, including, instruct anyone skeptical about the arguments to consult the reports prepared by the Employment Policies Institute, most often described only as a “nonprofit research organization.”

But the dividing line between the institute and Mr. Berman’s firm was difficult to discern during two visits last week to the eighth-floor office at 1090 Vermont Avenue, a building near the White House that is the headquarters for both.

The sign at the entrance is for Berman and Company, as the Employment Policies Institute has no employees of its own. Mr. Berman’s for-profit advertising firm, instead, “bills” the nonprofit institute for the services his employees provide to the institute. This arrangement effectively means that the nonprofit is a moneymaking venture for Mr. Berman, whose advertising firm was paid $1.1 million by the institute in 2012, according to its tax returns, or 44 percent of its total budget, with most of the rest of the money used to buy advertisements.

Writing for Slate, David Weigel, says the story is not only about lobbying but 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 … 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.

That’s a lot of leaning on posts at a time when illumination is in short supply. Read Lipton’s entire article at The New York Times »

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