This week, the hero of the Democratic Party’s liberal activists — Elizabeth Warren — forced the resignation of Robert Litan, a distinguished scholar from the center-left Brookings Institution. Her actions deserve attention because they suggest the tactics she might employ if she were to become the Democratic presidential nominee — or the president. Her hardball moves also underline just how intolerant of opposing views many liberals now are. Litan, who had been affiliated with Brookings for more than 40 years, is no conservative, but his failure to sign on to the Warren crusade against financial institutions turned him into a casualty. Previously, Warren had blocked investment banker Antonio Weiss from becoming a top Treasury official and Larry Summers from becoming Federal Reserve chairman. She has real power. But is she misusing it?
In the Litan case, Warren and her allies are angry about the growing opposition to a proposed Obama Labor Department rule that would increase disclosure requirements for financial advisers. In fact, that opposition now includes half of all House Democrats and virtually all Republicans in Congress. Ninety-six House Democrats signed a letter this month calling on President Obama to make major changes in the rule. “We continue to hear from constituents, academics, providers, and investors that there are specific provisions of the Rule that may cause market disruptions and limit the ability of segments of the market to reasonably access advice,” the lawmakers’ letter said.
The “Warrenistas” believe that consumers are being led astray by financial advisers who don’t always disclose they might be earning a profit from Wall Street institutions by selling clients their financial-advice packages. The firms respond that plenty of regulations already protect consumers, and they argue further that the new rule would decrease the financial advice available to low-income clients, who bring in much less income for financial firms than wealthy clients do. Litan, a former associate director of Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget, co-authored a study that reached negative conclusions about the rule’s probable effects, and in July he testified before Congress about his findings: “The benefits of the rule do not outweigh its costs. In fact, during a future market downturn, we estimate the rule could cost investors as much as $80 billion.”
Senator Warren has a lot personally invested in the rule. She and President Obama launched the idea at a high-profile event at the main office of the American Association of Retired Persons in March, only to see opposition quickly mount. Bills in both the House and Senate are aimed at blocking the rule from taking effect. The Hill reports that “should Democrats get onboard with those measures, it will make it next to impossible for the administration to implement the regulation before Obama leaves office.”
#share#So Warren struck back, but not by responding to the substantive criticisms that Litan and others have made. Instead, she wrote to Brookings president Strobe Talbott and raised conflict-of-interest charges against Litan. She noted that he had been paid $38,000 for the study by the Capital Group, a mutual-fund investment company, and that the group had provided feedback on the initial study before it was published. “The funding sources of some Brookings-affiliated researchers call into question the independence of their research and its conclusions,” Warren complained. Litan’s disclosure of his relationship with the Capital Group was “vague,” she charged — a preposterous statement given that it appeared as part of the original study and on the first page of his prepared congressional testimony; it was also cited as part of Litan’s bio for his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
Indeed, if anyone has been “vague” in providing information about their professional activities, it was Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren who, in 2012, played hide-and-seek with reporters for months when they asked for the names of her corporate legal clients and documentation for her dubious assertions during her academic career that she was an American Indian.
Within hours of the Washington Post’s report on the Warren letter to Brookings, the think tank caved, announcing Litan’s departure. Brookings minions say that Litan’s real sin is that he violated an internal rule by identifying himself as a Brookings scholar during his July testimony before Congress. But the rule was new then, and after Litan realized he had run afoul of it, he apologized. Brookings did nothing about his misstep until it received the letter from Warren.
“I’m very disappointed in the outcome,” Litan told reporters this week. “I stand by everything I wrote in that report.” The irony is that in 2010, Litan supported Warren’s call for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which then became part of the Dodd-Frank law. But he happens to believe in “smart” regulation rather than “dumb” regulation, and such views are apparently beyond the pale inside the Beltway.
But the issue is bigger than a rumpus about regulation. As the Wall Street Journal noted this week: “The Warren agenda is to force liberal intellectuals to report that government is an unalloyed good, business is bad, and corporate sponsorship is corrupt.” Increasingly, liberals are trying to intimidate scholars who disagree with them and even drive them out of their jobs. For people who have spent decades railing about the imminent return of “McCarthyism,” the irony of liberals’ current tactics is rich.
Policy analysts at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank, told me that the scholars with whom it works are under constant attack for taking a skeptical view of global warming. Here is just a sample of cases in their files:
Willie Soon: A distinguished scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Soon was accused this year of taking money from energy companies to support his work on global warming and then not disclosing it. But all grants to the Center go through the institution, which enters into agreements with the funders and then takes a 40 percent cut. The remainder helps support Soon’s research. One might ask why Soon sought private grants. The simple answer is that the U.S. government refuses to support any research that challenges the global-warming orthodoxy.
George Taylor: He was the “state climatologist” of Oregon and a member of the Oregon State University faculty. Then, in 2007, he publicly declared his skepticism that human activity was the prime cause of global warming. He was hounded into retirement from OSU and removed as the state climatologist.
David Legates: Once the “state climatologist” of Delaware, Legates was falsely accused of taking “industry money” to promote his non-alarmist views on climate change. He stepped down in 2011, telling a legislative committee that he “was removed as co-Director of the Delaware Environmental Observing System (an observational network I had spent nearly a decade to develop), as faculty advisor to the Student Chapter of the American Meteorological Society, and from all my committee assignments within my department.”
Will Happer, the director of research at the Department of Energy and a professor of physics at Princeton University, was fired from his government position after expressing doubts about environmental extremism.
In contrast, liberal backers of global-warming alarmism are left alone. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first popularized the issue in the 1980s, frequently failed to report speaking income from outside groups and flouted internal ethics rule without any serious sanction — even from those who opposed his views during the George W. Bush administration.
“Radicals in high positions are abusing their power to ruin the lives and careers of all who don’t ascribe to their views,” says Jim Lively, a senior official at the Heartland Institute. “It is bad enough when those abuses come from power-hungry bureaucrats in government. But it is especially vile when it comes from powerful positions in academia and think tanks — which are supposed to be ‘safe spaces’ for freedom of thought. They do these things because they think they can get away with it. So far, they have been proven right, but it has to stop.”
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.