Let’s be honest and call them troll tanks

trollingSo, the Taxpayers’ Alliance have finally found the point at which they say something so outrageous that they actually have to apologise for it. There’s an even more shocking claim at the start of that report, however, when it refers to the TPA as a ‘think tank’, which future lexicographers may well come to regard as the point at which that term lost all meaning. Whereas a think tank used to conjure up images of dour and serious policy wonks lost in deep contemplation about the future of the country, now it appears to refer to anyone with an opinion and a non-personal website. (I’m still accepting donations to the Straw Man Institute, by the way)

Describing the TPA and their ilk as think tanks is a real misnomer, as those who work there are being paid to actively not think. There’s no pretence of objective investigation and enquiry going on, merely a process centred around mass-generation of Freedom of Information requests, the results of which are then splattered into a spreadsheet, attached to a press-release and hawked mercilessly around the lazier corners of the press. There’s no attempt to generate independent or original thought, they’re merely a conduit for providing PR to serve their donors’ needs by generating headlines favourable to their causes.

Their role is nothing more than trolling on a grand scale, derailing any attempt to have serious discussions about government, politics and society by shouting ‘but what about the rich people, eh?’ into any discussion. There is a role for genuine think tanks in political discussion, but that role is continually weakened by their association with what are nothing more than shills for whoever’s willing to pay them that week. When groups like the TPA get called ‘think tanks’ it denigrates and weakens the output of any organisation given that title, implying that they’re all nothing more than cheap PR flacks, eager to tell you exactly what you want to hear.

To try and solve this I recommend that any organisation that clearly doesn’t care about thinking should be referred to solely as a ‘troll tank’ (though some may perhaps be better referred to as ‘troll factories’ given how much their alumni crop up across the media). It’s a much better description of what they do and their role in debate, and might just lead to people understanding that they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Worth Reading 78: Last chance for a revolution in a minute

The old yoke – The legacy of 1066 and speculation over whether the ‘green man’ seen in many English churches originated as an act of subtle rebellion against the Normans.
Men of aspiration – BenSix on the Pootercrats. “They are would-be intellectuals and sycophants: the hangers-on of men with bigger wallets; better friends and grander dreams for the advancement of their interests or ideologies. They sit on the advisory councils of think-tanks with swanky websites and portentous titles. They write columns that present ambitions of the powerful as if they are nothing more than splendid ideas. They jet off to conferences and might, if they’re lucky, have the chance to sit behind the jugs of water and say a few words.”
James Delingpole – not very good – One thing he is very good at, though, is as an example of logical fallacies, as Five Chinese Crackers explains.
Too late for two degrees? – A PWC report (pdf) on how we’re nowhere near making the level of cuts in carbon emissions needed to restrict warming to an average of 2 degrees C.
“Beecroft by the back door”: a practical guide to using the government’s “shares for rights” scheme to totally screw over your employees – Does exactly what it says on the tin, and points out just one way how ‘rights for shares’ can easily be abused.

Career opportunities

With almost ten years of blogging experience behind me (and just typing that makes me feel old) I think it’s time that I found some ways to cash in all the time I’ve wasted on it to make a quick buck. Sorry, what I meant to say there was ‘utilise my extensive cross-platform social media communication skills to monetise my experience and provide a variety of value-added activities to my valued clients’.

The problem, of course, is that I’m not shameless enough to even attempt some of the con tricks that others use as a business model. As a councillor, I’m regularly bombarded with invitations to conferences on important policy issues, all of which appear to be the opportunity to spend several hundred pounds to sit in the poorly ventilated ‘conference suite’ of a mid-market London hotel while someone reads out a PowerPoint presentation of easily downloadable information at you, as the precursor to a limp ‘discussion of current challenges’ (aka ‘tell us what other issues we might be able to sell you a conference on’). If I was savvy and soulless enough, I wouldn’t be complaining about these, but creating my own company to do the same.

Rather than set up a company to do this, I could do it in the name of a think tank instead. That way, not only could I establish spurious conferences, I could publish reports and discussion papers on topics that were in no way determined by whoever wanted to sponsor me, and with robustly independent conclusions that just happened to coincide with their needs. I could even give something back to the next generation by creating a Junior Associate programme that would teach them all the skills they needed to be effective policy professionals, including the best search terms to put into Google, important errors to avoid when copy-and-pasting and just how much you can get away with charging people for admittance into this exclusive programme.

Has anyone founded the Michael Stone Institute yet? A few years ago, myself and another blogger (whose identity I’ll protect unless they’re happy for it to be revealed) did discuss creating a spoof ‘Straw Man Institute‘ with the promise that we’d ‘make the arguments no one else will’. We thought there’d be a ready market amongst commentators and other blowhards. ‘SMI (a noted liberal think tank)’ would happily have provided reports on why everyone in Britain should be forced to be gay Muslims for Peter Hitchens to bloviate against.

I think the project foundered on two problems. First, we didn’t have the enthusiasm to carry it on beyond the initial idea, and second, the market was far too skewed by existing companies. There’s no point in advertising yourselves as being willing to make the arguments that no one else will, when there are plenty of people willing to do that and actually mean what they say, often for free. When we’re living in a world where Demos not only has a ‘Progressive Conservatism Project’ but its director can write what amounts to ‘Iain Duncan Smith must destroy the welfare state in order to save it’, what hope is there for a mild and humble parodist to make a living?

In a world where an internet get-rich-quick mogul can make it into the Cabinet, I suppose I need to rebrand myself as an expert in hashtag virality. I can do you a quick seminar for £350, maybe even £250 if you want to use our special early bird booking rate.

Worth Reading 70: After the fall

In which I write the piece on thinktanks Dsquared promised – Alex Harrowell offers an interesting perspective on where think tanks fit into the political and economic ecosystem.
Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate – Very interesting theory and the wider point about literacy in other fictional universes is worth noting.
The Utopia of “Everyman” Toryism – A Very Public Sociologist on how Toryism has destroyed its own base.
Fool me once… – “The pattern is clear. Conservatives get the Liberal Democrats to sign up to something unpalatable and in return promise to deliver something favoured by the Liberal Democrats at a later date. The Liberal Democrats in Government dutifully act as lobby fodder for the Conservative agenda on welfare reform, NHS reform, whatever, whatever – frequently going against the wishes of their own party membership. Then when the time comes to reciprocate the Tories welch on the deal.”
‘Slut dropping’ and ‘Pimps and Hoes’ – the sexual politics of freshers’ week – Things have changed a lot since I was at university, and not in a good way.