Saturday, May 29, 2004

LINUX: The Astroturf de Tocqueville Institute


Last year I wrote about how Tech Central Station was an astroturf operation, published by a public relations company to provide supposedly independant support for the PR companies clients. The Alexis de Tocqueville Institute (ADTI) is another astroturf operation.

As part of the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Philip Morris (PM) agreed to release millions of documents about their operations. These detail how ADTI was hired by PM to conduct a public relations campaign against the Clinton health plan in 1994. ADTI provided PM with regular progress reports to prove that PM was getting value for its money, so they also let us see how these campaigns are conducted.

The Clinton plan included an increase in taxes on cigarettes from 24c per pack to 99c. Understandably, PM was not in favour of this, so a Philip Morris executive suggested an astroturf campaign, writing to one of his people:

Having just read the Washington Post with a series of provocative articles about Canada cutting taxes, CBO estimating higher costs AND job loss from the Clinton plan and then our old favourite, former president current homebuilder, Jimmy Carter explaining why higher taxes will help tobacco farmers, it occurred to me that we ought to turn a few of our better letter writers loose to blitz the targeted states with letters to the editor about Clinton, Carter and Canada…

If you want some astroturfing done, who you gonna call? The Alexis de Tocqueville Institute:

David N & I think the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute is perfect for this kind of thing. We are working with them on a proposal.

And here is their proposal:

Our three key executives, Cesar Conda, Bruce Bartlett and myself, will run this campaign and we will devote the full energies of our operation and its consultants to this task. We plan to activate our key Advisory Board Members, including Jack Kemp, Robert Kasten, Dick Armey, Michael Boskin and others to mount a public awareness campaign immediately (see enclosed list of Center on Regulation and Economic Growth participants).

As you can see from our press in recent months, we are in a position to deliver. We would like to request $60,000, or $30,000 a month, to implement this program.

And over the next two months ADTI ran a PR campaign against the Clinton plan. For the benefit of PM they documented all their activities. You can see all the documents here, but some of the highlights are:

ADTI fellow Bruce Bartlett wrote an issue memorandum that formed the basis of their campaign, writing “the effect of the plan would be to increase federal taxes by over 27 percent”. ADTI arranged for this claim to repeated over and over again on radio and in print. Now the cigarette tax increase that PM was trying to prevent was only an increase in federal taxes of 0.5%. Since the Clinton plan made health insurance compulsory Bartlett counted all health insurance payments as tax increases. The plan was also expected to reduce insurance costs and hence increase wages (since employers could afford to pay more). Bartlett counted the additional tax revenue from the increased wages as a tax increase. I think the average worker who heard about this 27% tax increase would feel that it meant they would be paying 27% more taxes rather than that their wages would go up and their employer would have to provide health insurance for them.

ADTI arranged for their “27% tax increase” message to be sent to hundreds of radio talk shows, to appear in a Washington Times news story and to be sent by a Congressman to all other members of Congress. The Washington Times published a Bartlett op-ed but apparently “27% tax increase” wasn’t enough of a headline for them, so they gave it the headline “How to quadruple federal revenue”. (Bartlett’s op-ed actually says “Federal revenues, however, would not quadruple”.)

Look at this letter from ADTI to Robert Caldwell, the Editorial Page Editor at the San Diego Union Tribune and an ADTI operative advisory board member:

Congresswoman Lynn Schenk is one of 5 key swing Democratic health care votes in the Energy and Commerce Committee. There is reason to believe she is looking for reasons to vote against Clinton, and there is reason to believe that she can be spooked on the tax issue, especially after her 1993 Budget vote.
An editorial from the most important paper in her district urging her to do the right thing for the right reason would obviously have a huge impact, and could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Nowhere in their campaign did ADTI mention that they were hired by PM to oppose the tobacco tax increase. Instead they presented themselves as a “bipartisan” economic think tank that was merely presenting an analysis of the Clinton plan. “Bipartisan” here would seem to mean that they are for sale to either side.

ADTI has been in the news this week because their president, Ken Brown has published a book where he claims that Linus Torvalds created Linux by copying from Minix. Stephen Shankland writes:

According to the study, it’s safe to argue that Tanenbaum, who had years of OS experience and who had seen the Unix source code, could create Minix in three years. “However, it is highly questionable that Linus, still just a student, with virtually no operating systems development experience, could do the same, especially in one-sixth of the time,” says the study, which was written by Ken Brown, president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

“Why are the most brilliant business minds in the history of PC technology, with hundreds of millions of dollars in capital, licensing Unix source code, if it is as simple as writing it from scratch with little help or experience?” the study asks. “Is it possible that building a Unix operating system really only takes a few months–and, oh by the way, you don’t even need the source code to do it?”

Brown’s argument works by ignoring the difference between version 0.01 of Linux which was only 10,000 lines of code and current versions of Linux which contain millions of lines of code. Linux version 0.01 was well within the capabilities of a good programmer in six months, but was by no stretch of the imagination something that could replace a Unix system. Current versions of Linux can replace Unix systems, but have taken a decade to develop with contributions from thousands of people.

Could Brown have made an honest mistake? Well, he actually talked to Tanenbaum, who Brown claimed Torvalds copied Linux from, and Tanenbaum told him in no uncertain terms that Linux was not copied from Minix. And Brown hired someone to compare Linux with Minix, who found no evidence of copying. It is clear that Brown’s mistake was not an honest one.

So why would Brown do such a thing? Well, ADTI gets funding from Microsoft:

Several tank officials and analysts, who spoke to UPI on the condition of anonymity, said that the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a small Arlington, Va.- based think tank that promotes free-market principles, receives a significant portion of its funding from the Microsoft Corp. The sources said that the think tank essentially lobbies in favor of issues important to Microsoft through op-ed pieces and policy briefs by tank officials.

It seems likely that, just as their attack on the Clinton health plan was commisioned by Philip Morris, their attack on Linux was commisioned by Microsoft.

More links on Brown’s book: Eric S Raymond’s review:

I haven’t seen a book quite so egregiously shoddy and dishonest since Michael Bellesisles’s Arming America.

Martin Pool’s review

* Nearly every paragraph makes an unsubstantiated assertion. Brown seems to feel that just inserting “it is clear that”, “ironically”, “clearly”, or “it is widely known” is an adequate substitute for cited evidence. Ironically, it clearly is not.
* Experts are asked misleading or hypothetical questions to elicit quotes that are used out of context. I think ADTI is not honest enough to ask straight questions because the answers would not suit them.
* Brown says he can’t believe that Linus wrote Linux, because… well, he just can’t believe it. Nothing more. He does not cite even a single line of Linux source that was copied from any other system, despite that all the data needed to check this is available to him. If he found even one line, his paper might be credible. But he does not.

Pamela Jones’ Groklaw has more on the story here, here, here and here. ADTI promise a response here, but it’s still “under construction”.

21:39 | /computers | 4 comments | link
The ADTI-Philip Morris file

This is a list of the documents that detail the astroturf campaign conducted by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute (ADTI) on behalf of Philip Morris (PM) against the Clinton health plan in 1994. They were obtained by a search for “fname: anti-tax” in the Philip Morris documents archive.


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