A Troubling Lack of Self-Objectivity
Very few legislators craft the bills that they sponsor. The ideas in the bills are usually not their own. Instead, think tanks or similar associations funded by various interests generate support for issues and help craft (or completely write) bills. The idea of concerned citizens sitting down with "their" representative and explaining some problem they have which is addressed by the legislator then crafting a bill themselves is a rare thing (some of us hope to change that). ALEC is the most prominent national example. But there are state versions of these things too, and this story concerns two of the biggest on what is considered "the right" in Arkansas, and some of the biggest names.
Dan Greenberg runs "Advance Arkansas" which is a think-tank for Arkansas public policy that focuses on economic freedom issues. Mr. Greenberg also writes for and runs the website "The Arkansas Project", which gives political voice and commentary on many issues related to those that Advance Arkansas is for or against. In other words, these operations are Dan Greenburg's instruments for advancing public policy as he sees fit. Joe Maynard and Brenda-Vassaur-Taylor run an outfit called Conduit for Commerce which is much like Advance Arkansas. They too have an associated organization which gives political commentary on issues relevant to their think tank- Conduit for Action. The Paul Harrell Program, on which I have sometimes been a guest, is a part of that commentary effort.
Up until a couple of years ago, Conduit and AA worked together on certain things. And when I mean "together" part of what I mean is that the founders of Conduit paid Mr. Greenberg and AA to produce material. That was as recently as 2015. I did not have to FOIA anyone for this interesting tidbit- Mrs. Vassaur-Taylor told me they paid Mr. Greenberg $20,000 to do a legislative scorecard in 2013. That is a heck of a lot of money for a scorecard.
They were not completely satisfied with his work- for example he refused to weight bills. That meant that a bill which spent a billion dollars to restrict our freedom in a big way may get a "-1", and a largely symbolic bill which saved us $52 could get a "+1". Using that scoring system a legislator could make up for voting for Obamacare in Arkansas by voting for the second bill. They thought that a more fair method would be to subtract more for a bill that was not only negative, but negative over a broad area in a big way. Sounds reasonable to me. They also, at some point, wound up splitting with him over his approach to "tort reform".
At any rate, they recently issued their own scorecard and did it their own way. They were not paying Dan Greenberg anymore. They were not going along with Dan Greenberg on the approach he had (which was basically the nursing-home industry's approach) on tort reform. Dan Greenberg then co-wrote an extremely critical article slamming Conduit's scorecard for their alleged poor methodology and lack of transparency. He failed to mention that a few years before they were paying him a very substantial amount of money to do a scorecard. He failed to mention that they were basically now a competitor for credibility in the niche market of those who care about economic freedom issues. He failed to mention some other very glaring conflicts of interest which I will document in short order.
It is ironic that he did not disclose any of those potential conflicts because the main thing he slammed them on was "transparency". He said concerning the negative scores of some legislators "nobody has any idea what it means, really, because Conduit’s methodology is completely invisible". Well, some of the details were invisible, but a lot of the main criteria were easily visible, or at least discernible. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what a negative score meant. He said it was "pointless" to rely on the scores in their ranking system. Also "As it stands now, we don’t see much difference between Conduit’s rankings and the random results that you’d get if you called each legislator’s name and then picked a number out of a bingo basket."
I really thought that went too far. I thought he was just bad-mouthing the competition, and very oriented to the nursing-home industry's idea of tort reform for biased reasons. So I went on the radio and said so.
I followed that up with an article, and we went through a dreary session of comments back and forth. I admit that I did not understand the scale of the scoring correctly, but after talking with Vassaur-Taylor I had almost everything about the methodology right. I don't need to know the scale in order to obtain relative values. If you understand the basis of a process having a total grasp of the minutia of the process is not essential to obtaining value from it. But if you want to know how Dan Greenberg works, it is like this: He finds some area where we do not have perfect knowledge or something is said with less than perfect precision, then he greatly exaggerates the significance of that uncertainty or imprecision. He acts as if it invalidates everything you are saying and establishes everything he is saying. That's his m.o.
For an example, his strong statements about how useless conduit's ratings system was were hinged in part on the argument that a few committee votes were counted in the scoring, so that not all legislators had the chance to participate in every vote. He put it like this...
"If we told some legislators to run a hundred-yard dash and other legislators to run a marathon, and we gave them all one score that was based on how long it took for each one to cross the finish line, even a child could see that just judging them all on this one statistic would be unfair. Everybody has to be judged by the same yardstick – if we’re going to give everyone one meaningful rating. "The truth is they got ranked on 30 floor votes and three committee votes in the senate. Not all of them had a chance to vote on the three committee votes (for good or bad) but that hardly amounts to the difference between a 100 yard dash and a marathon. It does not invalidate the rankings, particularly when comparing two legislators who were not on those committees, or were both on them, or who had a wide gap in their scores. Any lack of precision on the rankings from the decision was compensated for by the increased usefulness of using key committee votes as a rating of overall value, IMHO. Comparing that to the difference between a 100 yard dash and a marathon is hyperbole but this is what Dan Greenberg does. He finds some minor lack of precision and blows it all out of proportion and acts like this distinction (that does not really make much of a difference) is somehow disqualifying. He nitpicks the lack of perfect transparency in others, but exempts himself from anywhere near that same amount of scrutiny.
He then wrote a second piece on Conduit's scorecard controversy, the tone of which made it sound like Conduit started the fight when in fact he did. I am going to give an extended quote from that one so that you can marvel at how this guy operates....
Instead, she replied “Dan is paid by the people who want the tort reform bill passed, and his wife does work for the nursing home association PACs, and that is what it is. And so he has an interest in writing an article like that.”
Now, I am sure that Brenda knows perfectly well that none of that is true. I am paid – indirectly, I guess – by hundreds of AAI donors, some of whom support tort reform and some of whom don’t. (I admit that, in the past, I have helped draft some proposed tort reform amendments, and I was honored to do so.) My wife doesn’t work for any political action committees at all. My position on tort reform hasn’t changed; every two years, we publish our Action Plan for Arkansas; in 2013, 2015, and 2017 we published almost identical tort reform recommendations in that book. In fact, before its recent move to the left on tort reform, Conduit cosponsored the 2015 edition of our book that contained our tort reform recommendations.This is a carefully crafted statement worthy of Slick Willy Bill Clinton himself. First, he says he is paid by "hundreds of AAI donors" with various views on the issue- implying that he is not paid by those specifically pushing tort "reform". He then says he was honored to "helped draft some proposed tort reform amendments". Does that mean he did a little volunteer work? One might think so from the phrasing. But it turns out that "honor" was not his only reward. He got paid almost $30,000 by the sponsors. Maybe more, that is just what I can find. Yep. Here is a picture from one of the filings for the group pushing the amendment that was struck down by the courts for confusing or deceptive title language late in 2016....it is their expenses and it shows Dan Greenberg gets over $18,000 in that reporting period alone...
click to get larger viewAlso, he didn't just "help draft" the proposed amendments. He was their lead attorney! Here is shot from a letter from the Attorney General concerning the proposed amendment. It is addressed to him!
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on the site).
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This is not Conduit picking on a wife who has no skin in this game. This is like a miniature version of Bill and Hillary Clinton where they are both making money from the same people and it is connected to what they are advocating for in terms of public policy. The idea that he can just brush off the suggestion that he should disclose that he has a potential conflict of interest here is outrageous. He should have disclosed. Especially if he demands transparency of others.
Not only that, Greenberg is still at it. He put up an article today singing the praises of his version of tort reform. Earlier his site put up an article which chastised a Democrat-Gazette reporter for her coverage of what his site called the "non-scandal" associated with nursing home owner Micheal Morton! I think you would have a hard time finding someone in this state to write defenses of Micheal Morton unless they (or their boss) are paid by or related to Micheal Morton.
I absolutely don't think Dan Greenberg is in position to be neutral on this issue and he is not being neutral on it. Further, he refuses to disclose, or maybe even see, how compromised his position is on it. He and his wife are serving as agents of nursing home interests. She is at least doing it openly because she works directly for a firm which counts them as clients. He is peddling his advocacy as neutral public policy.
Though the amendment he drafted was thrown off the ballot for deceptive/confusing language, the vast influence of this lobby has given us SJR8- which should be on your ballot next year. It is a referred ballot amendment from the legislature and it has a lot in common with the one Greenberg helped write. That is, it is bad tort reform as opposed to good tort reform. To understand why it is bad tort reform, here is an audio of me on the Paul Harrell Program talking about it.
I don't say to put your trust in any group, Conduit or Advance Arkansas. We all go astray and we all need correction from time to time. Some of us know that, others insist on very high standards for others while oblivious to their own failings. It is not falling into error that I object to the most, its the troubling lack of self-objectivity.