F&OST is part of the economics blogosophere. The economics blogosphere ain't exactly downtown Caracas or South Sudan, but it can still get a little rough by blogging standards. Part of the reason for that is that the issues we discuss have major consequences for billions of people. So arguments can get heated. A style of argument that will quickly convince me you're astoundingly stupid and not worth paying attention to is to say something like "Keynesians say what they do because it rationalizes their attempt to get and wield power, to steal from citizens and call it 'taxes' and to wage wars the consequences of which they are indifferent to". OK, so I mixed several memes in there, but it's all of the same ilk. And it's all pure innuendo, of course - it sounds semi-logical so people try to say it emphatically enough that others might actually buy it.
Well I don't like that at all, and when I can I try to call it out on the my side too. One regular example of this on "my side", if you want to call it that, is commenter 'Invisible Backhand' (hereafter 'IB') who regularly asserts that Austrian economists are bought and paid for by powerful corporate interests. Again, such a thing is certainly not implausible - these sorts of things are known to happen - but IB never offers any proof of it. I've tried to bring this to his attention on numerous occasions and impress upon him that he really has no basis for making such a serious charge. Bob Murphy recently wished I had challenged IB more directly on this point (and it's true - I could have), and I assured him I'd taken up the fight before. For Bob's sake, I wanted to collect a few exchanges between IB and myself (I dare say there's a dozen more like this - just between me and IB - out in the internets somewhere).
Here IB says: "Don't forget Austrians are NOT SINCERE. They are paid by the rich and powerful to spread propaganda."
I responded: "I'm not sure your conclusion follows from that premise, much as I like a lot of your comments at Cafe Hayek. I'd be thrilled to have money from the rich and powerful (in fact my research has been paid for by the rich and powerful before), and I don't consider myself compromised by it. You can't just presume how people are going to respond to financial support like that. Many of the rich and power are likely interested in funding dependably objective researchers and would be less interested in insincere people."
When in this post about Dan Klein's retraction of certain claims he published at Econ Journal Watch, IB suggested to "follow the money"
I tried to push him in a more likely direction to look for an explanation: "Well, one thing I’m wondering is what the editorial process is like at EJW. I disagree with you (and have disagreed with you many times before) that financial support biases GMU economists. However, Klein edits his own publication and any other editors he uses are likely to think a lot like him. A more diverse editorial staff might have caught the first article before it was even published."
Similarly, in talking about these issues at Coordination Problem (not to IB) I stressed the point that it really doesn't matter what billionaires fund. Someone out there is going to agree with them ex ante, and those people are going to be more likely to get the billionaire's money - but that's different from the billionaires actually biasing people. What matters more is the sort of institutional framework that is generated. I write: "Koch and Soros will fund what Koch and Soros will fund - and they're going to fund people that think like them (although Soros - admirably - is casting a somewhat wider net with INET). If they fund whole institutions that will publish papers, evaluations, and reports, this is more of a concern for me. There is little critical review, in that case, from an outside audience. I would rather see Koch and Soros funded scholars publishing in peer reviewed venues and generalist venues. This doesn't mean that anyone that is supported by money from these guys is suspect, of course. It's just an extra layer of guarantee that Koch and Soros are funding excellent research because they want to fund excellent research - NOT that they are providing letterhead, a website, and a printer to people that they expect to say what they want them to say."
And I've made these points to more people than IB.
Here I write something (to an anonymous commenter who I think actually may be IB) that really gets to the heart of my view on this stuff: "Don clearly has a point of view and the Koch brothers have a point of view. How much of Don's view is determined by his politics and how much is determined by objective consideration of the facts is unknown. Clearly a lot of what he says is pure normative claims - which is fine. Everyone's entitled to their opinion.The coincidence of his claims and Koch's views supports at least two causal explanations: (1.) The Koch brothers pay Don to say what they want him to say, or (2.) Don says what the Koch brothers happen to want people to think - so they support efforts that he would have pursued anyway. If the Koch brothers didn't exist, do you think Don would still think and say roughly what he thinks and says today? I think it's likely that he would. Therefore, the second causal story seems to me to be a considerably more likely explanation of what we observe. Sometimes pulling apart causality is tough. It doesn't seem all that tough in this case."
Further down, in response to a challenge by commenter Cahal, I write: "I'm not arguing that the Koch brothers are in the market for objective economic analysis. I agree they are in the market for libertarian analysis. I simply think there is a ready supply of libertarians willing to provide that analysis. I don't think Koch money generates libertarians from scratch, from a malleable supply pool." and I even go on to say "If anyone cares, I'd take Koch money to produce research if they gave it to me." - and actually I did apply for Koch money this winter, and should hear back on it in a couple months. I'm hoping they will fund lots and lots of great research on the labor market for scientists and engineers.
And to bring this full circle, I've even criticized an Invisible Backhandesque comment from Bob Murphy criticizing Mishkin and Hubbard!
And IB has learned to anticipate my response to these comments! Here's a very self-aware, self-censoring comment of his more recently: "It's almost as if someone is fundin--get down, Backhand! Bad Backhand!"
The point is this: People out there with money want to fund research. That's the way it is. I put food on the table for five years with those peoples' money. After a brief academic interlude I'll probably put food on the table for the rest of my life with those peoples' money. There are plenty of people who already agree with them to choose from. The share of people who actually distort a result to please their funders are probably few and far between. This isn't to say there isn't bad research out there. There is. Such researchers may even be particularly attractive to some funders. But they were probably bad researchers before they even got their funding.
Even given all that, you don't know that the person you're criticizing at any given point is actually guilty of this sort of malfeasance.
So don't insinuate it.
There's plenty of crappy arguments out there to debunk without messing around with this sort of thing. How banal. Go for the more intellectually challenging arguments.