Koch Influence Taints New Tufts-Based Think Thank: The Tentacles of the Mercatus Center

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I spied over the weekend a news clip about our old friends, the Kochs, who are some of the organizations that have set up a new ‘nonpartisan’ think tank, the Center for State Policy Analysis, at Tufts University, to perform public policy analysis.

The aim is to function as analogue for Massachusetts as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a respected source of public policy advice, does for the federal government. But the big difference is that the new think tank is funded by private fundraising, while the CBO receives public funds.

Now, I understand that Tufts, just like many US universities, is under financial strain from the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t know that it’s experiencing any especial stress, yet nor do I know that Tufts is well-insulated either.

Over to the clip by Dana Drugmond of DeSmogBlog,, Koch Academic Influence Returns to Massachusetts With New Tufts University Think Tank.

Note that I made an error in the original version of this post, by attributing the reporting to Nation of Change, which only republished the DeSmogBlog version and didn’t add anything to the copy. But I wish to correct the record and highlight Drugmond’s authorship and give DeSmogBlog full credit for originally publishing this excellent work. DeSmogBlog frequently publishes first-rate posts, which I have often cross-posted.

From DeSmogBlog:

When a new Massachusetts think tank housed at Tufts University launched earlier this year, Boston-based media described it as a “CBO-like center” (referring to the Congressional Budget Office) that would offer an “independent analysis” of proposed state policy and legislation.

But one of the main funders of this think tank, called the Center for State Policy Analysis, is a program tied financially to the petrochemical billionaire Koch family. This apparent Koch-linked funding raises questions about just how independent the center’s policy analyses may be.

The Center for State Policy Analysis (CSPA), established in February 2020 and located at Tuft’s Tisch College of Civic Life, says it offers “rigorous, timely, nonpartisan analysis of live legislative issues and statewide ballot initiatives.” In addition to examining the state’s ballot questions for the upcoming November election, CSPA plans to review options for addressing rising prescription drug costs and to undertake an analysis of a proposed regional plan to tackle carbon emissions from vehicles called the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Initial funding for this think tank, as CommonWealth reported, has come from one of the state’s largest private health insurance companies and from a program called Emergent Ventures, which is based at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.].

[Here for the sake of completeness is the Nation of Change citation, Koch academic influence returns to Massachusetts with new Tufts University think tank, which I relied on in the original version of this post.]

Regular Naked Capitalism readers will grasp what that Mercatus connection means, as I have written beforeI about Koch influence on academic institutions  in Tyler Cowen, Koch Brothers Funding, Mercatus Center, George Mason University, and Academic Freedom  and Virginia Supreme Court Upholds Ruling that George Mason University Foundation Is Not Subject to State FOIA Statute, Leaving Koch Funding Details Undisclosed. One thing that surprised me most when I wrote the Mercatus piece is how closely the Koch people draft documents to control academic output. I mean, what academic clever enough to secure a position at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University needs to be excplitly tethered as to the choice of subjects s/he can pursue. Isn’t informal suasion strong enough to keep any academic who might be tempted to diverge from free-market orthodoxy in line? I guess not – or so thought  the Koch paymasters when they drafted and agreed on contracts.

Yet even if they don’t spell out what they expect from this new think tank, I would think that academics are intelligent enough to understand how the funding source limits what may and may not be said.

Now, the Koch are no strangers to attempting to influence Massachusetts academics. Again, over to DeSmogBlog. :

Mercatus also is connected with the State Policy Network, a network of free-market think tanks around the country tied to Koch funding that tend to oppose climate action and clean energy. One of these SPN-affiliated groups, the Beacon Hill Institute, published an analysis in March this year—and recently touted by the climate denying Heartland Institute—claiming the costs of the Transportation and Climate Initiative would outweigh the benefits. This is an argument that Koch and oil industry allies have repeatedly raised in attacking the “cap-and-trade for cars” program.

The Beacon Hill Institute was hosted for years at Suffolk University in Boston, until 2016 when the school’s leadership changed policies to restrict from whom BHI could take money. Today, Koch-funded policy analysis once again has a veneer of academic credibility in the Bay State, with the CSPA at its new home in Tufts’ Tisch College.

It is unclear at this point whether the CSPA will produce an analysis similar to the one from Beacon Hill Institute on TCI, but given CSPA’s and BHI’s shared funding ties to Koch foundations, it is not far-fetched to wonder.

Koch Industries is, after all, in the oil refining business, one of the main industries that stands to lose profits from initiatives like TCI aimed at cleaning up the transportation sector, now the largest source of carbon pollution in America.

Oligarchs and Influence, Clueless Journalists 

I’m not surprised to see Koch attempt to exert influence at Tufts. In fact, I don’t think you can be a self-respecting oligarch unless you attempt to influence public policy in some shape or form. I admit such influence is not necessarily malign – but I’ve also yet to see where that is fully the case. I’ts certainly not innocent or independent, and there’s always a hidden agenda, whether it be for the Gates Foundation, or one of the many family foundations scattered around the country.

Nonetheless, I was surprised at what the press wrote when the Tufts think tank launched.See this Commonwealth magazine account, New Tufts center to offer independent analysis of legislation, ballot questions:

AFTER YEARS OF inaction on Beacon Hill on proposals to create an agency to bring the sort of independent assessment of state legislation that the Congressional Budget Office provides at the federal level, a new research center at Tufts University is being launched to play that role from a perch outside government.

The Center for State Policy Analysis, which will be based in the university’s Tisch College of Civic Life, is aiming to fill that information void by providing rigorous analysis of legislative proposals and ballot questions facing voters.

“It’s immensely helpful to federal policymaking decisions, and I think an entity like that would be very helpful to state policymaking,” said Evan Horowitz, a former data-journalist at the Boston Globe, who will serve as the center’s director.

The new center has already identified a set of initial issues it plans to study and release reports on. They include an analysis of the likely impacts of the Transportation Climate Initiative, the multistate effort Gov. Charlie Baker is pushing to establish a cap-and-trade system for gasoline and diesel fuel wholesalers; an examination of the implications of various approaches to rising prescription drug costs; and an evaluation of the November ballot questions that voters will decide. Those could include measures regulating auto repair businesses, expanding sales of beer and wine in food stores, and a proposal to adopt ranked-choice voting.

The center plans to enlist experts at Tufts and other Boston area universities to carry out the analyses it undertakes.

Horowitz said the reports won’t pull any punches, but will be firmly based on sound research and data and, like the federal office that serves Congress, will steer clear of an ideological leaning. “Preserving the nonpartisan reputation of this center is everything,” he said.

No one denies Massachusetts suffers from its lack of a government office to perform rigorous analysis of public policy initiatives. Again, according to Commonwealth magazine:

Massachusetts is one of just six states without a government office that carries out some type of independent analysis of the fiscal impacts of proposed legislation, a situation that former Boston Business Journal editor George Donnelly once wrote often leaves lawmakers either in a state of “numeric ignorance or fiscal wishful thinking.”

It’s not for lack of effort by voices across the political spectrum to change that.

Sen Jamie Eldridge, who has expressed frustration over the years at the lack of detailed information on the impact of tax cuts and initiatives like the state film tax credit, has filed bills in each of the last three legislative sessions to create a state office to analyze the impact of bills and state policy.

But the solution, I’m afraid, is not to try to create with a privately financed  entity to fill the gap. Because- and I am being charitable here – however well-meaning, and committed to being ‘non-ideological’ the think tank might be, non-ideological is itself a form of ideology.

The Commonwealth magazine article clearly identifies the private financing for the new think thank, but this admission comes near the end:

Tufts is providing office space at both its main Medford campus and at its medical school campus in Chinatown because of its proximity to Beacon Hill. But operating funds for the center will come entirely from fundraising efforts. Horowitz said the center has received initial pledges from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Emergent Ventures, a grant program for social entrepreneurship projects based at George Mason University.

Are the journalists naive, less-than clever- or corrupt – or a combination thereof? There’s no attempt to tease out what private financing means for the  bias of the analysis –  itself a serious lapse, given the history of dark financing at Tufts (see  Dark Money at Tufts and here for links to the the original Tufts Daily four-part series).

The assumption seems to be continue to assert how independent the new entity will be, and it will be so – regardless of where its funding comes from:

Alan Solomont, the dean of the Tisch College at Tufts, said he’s prepared for the fact that, as with the Congressional Budget Office at the federal level, analyses issued by the new center may well please those on one side of a given issue while drawing criticism from those on the other side. “Our role is to educate,” said Solomont. “We’ll put out the facts as a result of what we plan to be rigorous analysis of the sort that you would find in academia — and then come what may.”

I should mention that Tufts is by no means unique among private American universities in this regard. IIRC – it must now be nearly forty years ago – a paper by David Noble documenting how private money had influenced the development (e.g., corrupted), every single MIT department at one time or the other.While not all sources of potential bias are necessarily problematic, what is crucial is that we follow the money, and know where it comes from, so as to determine in what direction that cash might lead the analysis.

In a less charitable mode, I’m reminded of an apt prewar ditty about British journalists:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(thank God!) the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

(Humbert Wolfe, “Over the Fire”, in The Uncelestial City (1930))

The sentiment equally applies to much of the American media. And I come back to the points raised in the DeSmoBlog piece.Koch money is Koch money, and we know – or should know – what sorts of public policy positions fossil fuel interests take, on pressing issues the think tank intends to address, such as transportation and emissions policy, or what to do about rising prescription drug costs.

Even at this stage, we can more or less predict what a think tank that traces funding back to the Kochs- noted fossil fuel interests – and one of Massachusetts largest private health insurance companies will say on such issues. But I could be wrong. Surprise me!

I’m sure there are more details about this episode that can be disclosed, and I encourage anyone who might want to share them to contact me here at Naked Capitalism.

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  1. L

    I suppose the three essential questions will be staffing, standards, and transparency. Who gets to decide who is hired for the center? Who decides what bills are scored when, and crucially, how? And what aspects of the “internal deliberations” will be known. As the article rightly notes the Mercatus center isn’t exactly big on openness. And other Koch-adjacent initiatives have been the same but to me staffing is more, and they know it. As an older MSN article notes:

    At Florida State, a promise of a gift of at least $1.5 million from the Charles Koch Foundation to the economics department included establishment of a Koch-appointed board to scrutinize research funding, the hiring of five professors and review professors’ work to ensure it followed the board’s “objectives and purposes” – or risk losing the money.

    Since the controversy, which erupted after the 2008 agreement was revealed in 2011, the Florida Legislature has made it easier, not harder, to conceal donor agreements by exempting university foundations – often the conduit for gifts – from open government laws. The Legislature renewed that law last year.

    I note, without endorsement, that the rating system outlined by Scott Galloway in USS University rates Tufts as “Survive” I’m not familiar enough with his method to determine the validity but some of the linked data is interesting.

    1. flora

      Plutocrates waiting for economic disaster to buy up valuable properties cheap is well known. Now they can buy up the valuable property of intellectual discourse and ideology formation centers cheap. What a deal.

      See the Law and Economics movement that has corrupted the thinking of enough judges that it’s hard to win what looks like obvious anti-trust and anti-monopoly cases in the US because by L&E theory breaking up monopolies and near monopolies would create economic inefficiencies. That would interfere with ‘market efficiency’. Can’t have that.

  2. shinola

    “This apparent Koch-linked funding raises questions about just how independent the center’s policy analyses may be.”

    As well it should.

    Is there any reason to believe this will be anything other than a Libertarian propaganda production facility?

    1. Dirk77

      No there isn’t. It’s getting to the point where most people now understand what Teachout calls dependency corruption. Don’t vote for people who take large donations and don’t believe anyone who takes private money.

      1. Tom Doak

        Well, drug dealers are known to give away samples of their product to get people hooked, and within private university administrations, there is no drug more powerful than $$$.

        And OF COURSE they are going to sign detailed contracts about how the money is to be used, because you can’t take the chance that tenure will prevent an offending professor from being made an example of.

        1. flora

          Jane Smiley wrote a satirically funny book, “Moo”, about university admin, the university caste system, and money.

  3. flora

    Ah, yes. The octopus never sleeps. I cannot be reminded too often the remaining senior Koch, Charles, is a member of the Mont Pelerin society. Hayek, von Mises, and Friedman would approve.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. flora

      an aside:

      Koch money is Koch money, and we know – or should know – what sorts of public policy positions fossil fuel interests take, on pressing issues the think tank intends to address, such as transportation and emissions policy,

      Sometime before the TPP and TPIP were ever proposed, my state lege passed an act that said the state should aim to increase to 20% its use of renewable energy – wind, water, solar. The local fossil fuel barons were not pleased and lobbied against but lost. The issue sat quiet for a few years until TPP and TPIP came up and looked like they might have momentum to pass in Congress. Then, all at once there was a huge lobby push to roll back the renewables energy Act in my state before the year it was guessed the new trade deals would pass.

      Why? Because if those trade deals passed then no state could enact new laws or regulations if it might hurt existing business at the time of passage. So, if my states rolls back renewable act before TPP passes, then TPP passes, then my state later tries to enact renewable energy support, that would either be illegal per TPP due to causing business harm to existing fossil fuel company, or the state would have to pay fossil fuel companies ‘reparations’ , er, a huge fine for private business ‘damage.’

      I know string diagrams, per ‘A Beautiful Mind’, are sometimes silly. But with the octopus you can never be too cynical, imo.

  4. allan

    Thank you for this piece. The corruption of academia by the forces of darkness continues apace.

    A little off topic, but one nitpick: near the top, it says

    the Congressional Budget Office, a respected source of public policy advice

    but in fact the CBO is no model to want replicated at the state level.
    Despite (or because of) its nonpartisanship, for decades the CBO’s scores have been used
    as a neoliberal anchor to hang on progressive legislation.
    The CBO has a terrible track record at economic forecasting,
    but that hasn’t stopped it being cited as a reason we can’t have nice things.
    How often has “We’re waiting for the CBO score” been used to delay legislation
    and “It didn’t score well” been used to defeat it?

  5. chuck roast

    Gee, nice of Tufts to offer to thumb the policy lever for the poor ole’ Commonwealth. Here we have a state famous for all the PhD cab drivers in it’s most populaced city, and we find that the legislators on Beacon Hill have been operating in a state of “numeric ignorance or fiscal wishful thinking” all of these years. Allow one of your long term neighbors to rephrase this: “willfully turned a blind eye to fiscal responsibility.” After all, where is the gain in fiscally scoring economic policy when it’s absolutely clear to the makers of the policy who gets the grift? But in the interest of employing that great disinfectant sunlight in these shameless days, why not let Tufts put the Ruling Class Stamp of Approval on a policy?

    It’s lost on no one with an understanding of Masshole dynamics that UMass Amherst has had a high functioning department of Political Economics for many years. Let us recall that it was a lowly graduate student at 2nd rate UMass that put the kibosh on the 1st rate Harvard Reinhart/Rogoff government debt/GDP intellectual scam. What Mass pol with a functioning brain cell and wallet would ever want this nest of commies on the fiscal economic policy case? They are out in bumphuck Amherst for a reason.

    And so, fellow travelers, let us all fully embrace this forward thinking as we willingly lie down in this fine bed of Procrustes and take our nap knowing that ever non-partisan Tufts is on the job.

    1. Lost in OR

      A definition I remember from many decades ago…

      A third-world country is one that exports raw materials and imports finished goods.

      1. JBird4049

        We’ve been one for several decades now. Don’t forget the oversized “security” organization that many third world oligarchies and dictatorships have. Plus a pyramidal society with a tiny group of ruling families, a larger but still small class of courtiers and artisans, and then the remaining 90% who are the poor.

        Never really thought that I could legitimately start comparing my class notes on neo-colonialism with the United States of America in mind. But seeing the shambolic federal, state, and municipal governments cover themselves in shame, often unapologetically, I do. Fraaaaaak!

  6. Maritimer

    Thanks for that excursion into Academic Reality.

    With 2100 Billionaires in the World, this is certainly not limited to the Kochs. MIT MediaLlab, for instance, in bed with Jeffrey Epstein. In our criminogenic society, as the takings/lootings mount for the criminals, the money must go somewhere, Academia is a high value target.

    At :https://www.corp-research.org/pfizer
    You can find the rapsheets for many of US corporations at the above link, this one for Pfizer, a leading vaccine developer.

    To my knowledge there is no similar centralized site for the sins of Academia, listing the various skullduggery, criminal activity, etc. that goes on at our revered, esteemed, hallowed, etc. Universities and Colleges. Too bad, as this would be a, as they say, “target rich environment”.

    Here is one example regarding the, reverent silence please, University of Oxford which is a vaccine developer with extremely dodgy partner AstraZeneca (look them up at above link):

    “How fake award for a tycoon left Oxford University open to Chinese influence”


    What remains of The Hallowed Halls of Academia are up for sale and all their Science along with them.

  7. bobswern

    Jerri-Lynn, as the original founder of the Tufts Daily (but I very rarely get any credit for it, because the paper closed down for one semester, about a year after I left, and then reopened), it was my experience that, like just about everywhere/everything else in this country, corporate money ALWAYS talked loudest when it came to everything, both inside and outside of the classroom. End of story.

    And, yeah, the Tufts Daily is–hands-down–the most reliable source for “the real skinny” about the school.

    Perhaps more to the point, Tufts is about as entrenched as it gets within the Bay State’s status quo, and the same holds true for it in Washington, D.C.. Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, last I checked (which was a long time ago, LOL!) is one of the most prominent graduate schools (along with Georgetown) in the U.S. for all things related to America’s intelligence services, the State Department, and (to a significant extent) world trade.

    See here: https://fletcher.tufts.edu/academics/dual-joint-exchange-programs/joint-dual-programs

    Corporate and government grants rule–as they do throughout academia in America–when it comes to just about everything at T.U. But, perhaps a bit moreso at Tufts than at most major U.S. academic institutions.

    Long story short, if nothing else, with companies like Raytheon, GE, General Dynamics, Draper Labs, etc., all based in MA, you’re understating how much influence the Koch family will maintain (and continue to seek) in this new venture. Then again, Koch Industries has been a long-time (albeit low key) player in our nation’s military-industrial-surveillance complex (MISC), with a growing focus upon intelligence-related goods and services in recent years: https://prospect.org/world/charles-koch-cultivates-anti-war-image-koch-industries-profits-defense-contracts/

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Pleased to see your comment.

      The details of the insidious influence of the Kochs and other business interests should be more widely known and shared, not only for this situation but for many other issues.

      I always try to follow the money, dating back to the days when I was an undergraduate..

      1. bobswern

        Thanks, Jerri-Lynn! Yeah, I’ve been preoccupied for a couple of years. (LOL!) But, if I could only visit one blog, it’d be right here! And, yup, “Following the money,” is as reality-based as it gets in this country, isn’t it?

        Thanks for all you do!

      1. bobswern

        Hey, orlbucfan, thanks for the shout out! Doing fine here. Getting older sucks but, as they say, “The alternative is far worse!” LoL! Hope all’s well with you and yours.

  8. Rod

    thanks for the Library of References you have included and been added to–
    Looking for the 50 righteous in all this–ok 10–ok 2–anyone?
    maybe they need to look into the myriad of uses for salt…

  9. John Zelnicker

    The Kochs have done more than any other person or family to follow the recommendations of the Powell Manifesto, or Memo, of 1971. They have not only built free-standing think tanks to promote their ideology, they have serially invaded academia, where they exercise complete control of all aspects of the personnel, programs, and output of their “Centers” and “Institutes”.

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