Thursday, 21 August 2014

Hagar and the Horrible

I haven't yet read Hager's book. But reporting on the book tells me, of things relevant to my interests:
  • WhaleOil often posted pieces written by corporates (or their intermediaries) attacking their enemies, without attribution, and for pay. 
  • Some of Whale's attacks on Doug Sellman's nanny-state anti-alcohol advocacy (and assorted other food, beverage and tobacco health lobbyists/researchers), and Whale's own nanny-state anti-RTD advocacy, were paid pieces commissioned via Carrick Graham.
James Dann quipped:

Assuming that all of the stuff that Hager put up about Whale's "Infomercial" posts, as summarised by others, is correct, the most damning is the one on RTDs. Whale had had a bit of a reputation for not liking nanny-state interventions or those academics who spend a lot of time pushing policies restricting our access to those substances - and especially where they're doing it on government grants. The anti-RTD posts were off-key. Either Slater was less consistent than I'd have expected, or something else was up.

I expect that the other bits were inframarginal, in that they were consistent with what I'd have expected Whale would have said anyway if he'd written them himself. The payments there perhaps don't reflect well on some of the sponsors, but I doubt they changed what Whale was going to say anyway on those kinds of topics.

Whale apparently had to be paid to note that Doug Sellman's blaming of excessive alcohol advertising for drunks' stealing alcohol-based hand-sanitizer was batty. I'll say it for free: it's a bit nuts to blame alcohol advertising for drunks stealing and drinking alcohol-based hand-sanitizer. We occasionally hear stories about folks stealing a lamb or two for home slaughter and consumption. Should we blame BBQ Culture? NZ Beef & Lamb advertising? No. It's also a bit odd to cast Sellman's blaming of excessive advertising as "evidence-based", as I cannot imagine any study exists looking at theft of and consumption of hand sanitizer as it varies with the intensity of alcohol advertising. It's assertion. I'm also asserting that it is really rather implausible that ads for Woodstock or whatever else are to blame for kids' stealing hand sanitizer. I've previously asserted that, contra Sellman, Woodstock ads are hardly likely to cause middle-aged women to think it's ok to have affairs with their sons' friends. While Sellman does do some evidence-based work, he also engages in a lot of advocacy that's not nearly as rigorous.

For the record, here at Offsetting:
  • You will never find a post written by somebody other than the post's listed author. I'll sometimes blockquote from anonymous correspondents, or from named correspondents, but I don't put others' copy up on my name. 
  • I have never taken pay for a post. I've not been offered pay for posts either, other than the spam ones everybody gets for link-exchange things. So I guess I can't say I've successfully resisted serious temptation either. Anybody willing to offer me a million bucks for a post is welcome to try though; I would require payment in advance of discussions.
  • I sometimes get tips for material for posts, or for things I should OIA, from all kinds of places. Ministries, industry, NGOs. I don't want to out what are sometimes whistleblowers and sometimes other insiders. If the topic looks fun I'll have a look at it and will post something on it if I think it's blogworthy and if I have time to get around to it. Those often have "A correspondent points me to...". I recognize that every single one of these correspondents has his or her own game going on and treat things accordingly.
  • I disclose where relevant. As summary of past and current things, little of which should be any kind of surprise:
    • I wrote a report on the social costs of alcohol for NABIC, the Australian alcohol industry group;
    • I presented some of that report's findings for NABIC in Oz;
    • After I'd done a similar report for free in NZ in 2009, the Brewers flew me up to Beervana to talk about my results and gave me a free ticket to the event. It was really pretty fun. More fun than insinuations from the antis that I'd been secretly paid to write that report.
    • The Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand supported my work at Canterbury from December 2013-June 2014 through a deal with the University where I spent about a day a week providing them advice on reports and articles about which they wanted analysis, doing a bit more work on alcohol's social costs for a one-day workshop in Oz, and laying the groundwork for some longer-term projects that, alas, ended with my leaving Canterbury.
    • Because I felt bad that I hadn't gotten as much done as I'd hoped to with the project's truncation, and partially because the topic's inherently interesting, I did a bit of analysis on advertising and sponsorship regs to present at the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship, mostly pointing to and explaining Jon Nelson's very nice metastudy on advertising. I wasn't paid to do that work, but I wasn't out of pocket for the same-day flight to Auckland to present. The "I felt bad about it" only covered that I spent time on it, not the content of the analysis.
    • In the interregnum between finishing at Canterbury and starting at NZI (and evenings for a bit before finishing at Canty), I did some expert witness work on the effects of on-licence closing times for the local alcohol hearings at Tasman; I'm likely to present at the Wellington LAP hearings as well in a month or so. The Hospitality Industry Association had me do that work, but it's expert witness stuff under court guidelines: my assessment of the evidence, rather than advocacy. I think that the evidence being put up by the police in favour of heavily restricted closing times is pretty biased and missing any of the lit that suggests closing times has very little or no effect on bad outcomes; some of the evidence put up in favour of there being substantial benefits from early closing times also has some ...issues. But I've not been blogging about it because it seems unwise to put up all my findings here when the Police lawyer's been trawling the blog for ad hominem attacks; putting up all the bits of analysis while the hearings haven't yet finished seems ill-advised. I don't think the overall body of evidence is consistent with strong reliable benefits from reduced closing times: there's way too many findings of no effect. I'll post on it when it's all done, but with disclosure that it was part of that expert witness work. I tweeted from the hearings but haven't posted on them. I'd also provided a bit of advice to Independent Liquor on evidence around RTDs.
    • I might pick up other side consultancy work from time to time where time constraints permit and where a project looks fun, but if I blog on that topic, I'll note that I've done funded work on it. 
    • I think that's it. Other minor bits and pieces like getting a bottle of wine as honorarium for giving a talk here and there aren't really worth going through.
    • Oh, I now work for the New Zealand Initiative, a Wellington think-tank whose members are listed on their website. I don't have to clear blog posts here with them or anything like that though. The most you might notice would be that I start bugging you to attend NZI functions here in Wellington, or blogging more on the research coming from NZI as I'll have far more of a hand in it.
I think that's about it. Feel free to hate my views, conclusions, and methods if you like, but know that they're my views, conclusions, and methods.

I likely need to get around to reading Hager's book. I'm curious whether we'll get an iPredict contract on whether Collins survives to the election. The covariance between that stock and PM.National would be interesting, as would some Granger causality tests.


  1. Like your last paragraph. Speaking as someone who tends to vote national I can say that I will be ore likely to do so if I thought Collins was about to get the sack (or the High Commissioners post in the Falklands). And pleased to read that your blogging will continue in your new role

  2. "I'm curious whether we'll get an iPredict contract on whether Collins survives to the election."
    NZ minister to depart in 2014 is a fairly good proxy for that, currently sitting at 45% after going to about 70% yesterday.

  3. Nice post Eric and I'm also pleased you'll continue blogging while at NZI.

    One whale-related quibble though: I doubt that "the other bits were inframarginal". Even if there were no specific payments attached, he was doing them favours that made future payments more likely.

  4. John: You are right that such posts make future payments more likely, but that is a very dangerous line of reasoning, isn't it, as any sincerely held view expressed in a blog could be impugned as merely seeking future payment. I have never received payment from the electricity industry for any of my posts defending them against accusations of overcharging, and I am sure you haven't received any from MEU for your posts reaching a different conclusion. Should we dismiss each others views, however, on the possibility that we might be shilling for future payouts? I can see that evidence that WO received payment for some posts maybe suggests less reason for giving the benefit of the doubt, but for the most part (the extraordinary RTD one apart), there is a fairly consistent world view in WO's posts (whatever you might think of them), and so hard to see that he was saying something he would disagree with but for the expectation of future payment.

  5. Actually, I meant something altogether different by "inframarginal", or rather more consistent with the last bit of Seamus's comment.

    Imagine all the paid posts about troughers and the like. Would Whale have said the same for free? Very likely. The wording would have differed if he'd written it rather than somebody else, and that he was putting up others' copy on his byline is terrible (but how different from the thousands of newspaper articles that slap a journo byline on a press release from industry or govt?), but the payment didn't change the general thrust of what he would have said in a no-payment world. Or at least that's my read. Other than the RTD case.

  6. Just on electricity Seamus, I don't accuse the industry of over-charging as such. I accuse them of resisting more efficient industry structures, under which competition would be more effective. Lower prices would follow but as an outcome of effectively competition. And no - there's no money in this argument.

  7. Thanks for that Eric. You may well be right. And it's breakfast time here, so I'm going to stop trying to guess what WO thinks.

  8. Oh and for the avoidance of doubt I wasn't thinking of NZ Power when I referred to "more efficient industry structures". There are better options.

  9. Points taken, John. I used "over-charging" loosely, but I meant the same thing: a market structure that results in prices being (significantly) greater than a theoretical benchmark of perfect competition. And yes, not only is NZ Power are poor option for inducing more competition (if that is, in fact needed), but also it is not even motivated by an allegation of price being set in excess of LRMC: rather its motivation is redistribution of Riccardian rents.

  10. My benchmark is the status quo Seamus. We could do much better that we are, without NZ Power. If you use perfect competition as the standard you'd be regulating everything in sight. But OTOH, the longer people keep defending a poor system the more likely it is that someone will show up with a sledgehammer.