In L. Frank Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the wizard turns out to be a big phony — just an eccentric old guy sitting behind a curtain, using his booming voice to spew nonsense in a vain effort to fool people.
But now, a century after Baum's fictional Oz, a real-life incarnation of the phony wizard has been discovered, hiding behind not one but two curtains. He's recently been booming out his nonsense in full-page newspaper ads that are hyperbolic screeds against economists who favor raising the minimum wage to something workers can actually live on.
The ads direct readers to a website named MinimumWage.com, implying that it's the site of independent, unbiased, nonradical economists. But, no — it's not a group of economists at all, just a curtain. What's hiding behind it? An outfit that goes by the name of the Employment Policies Institute, which sounds rock solid, but it, too, is just another curtain.
The Employment Policies Institute, which is run by this wizard, gets millions of dollars in tax-exempt donations from fast-food chains and other corporate interests trying to kill the wage increase, and then funnels that money into the wizard's for-profit PR firm, which also, coincidentally, represents the restaurant industry.
The Employment Policies Institute's ad in newspapers was meant to alert the public and policymakers that an impressive group of some 650 economists, all of whom are supporting an increase in America's minimum wage, includes many economists who are "radical researchers." The institute's message in this ad is that no one should listen to, much less respect, this group of economists.
But wait — "many" in the group are radical? How many? The ads only list eight and offer only innuendo as "proof" of their radicalism.
So, to make its weak case, the institute has cited several "academic" reports that assail the wage increase on multiple fronts. But the man behind the curtain refuses to disclose the names of the corporate giants funding him, and he also never mentions that more than half of the economists whose papers he cites are paid by him. One, Joseph Sabia, has been given a quarter-million dollars in eight grants from the wizard's institute. In addition, an independent analysis of one of Sabia's reports found that the data was skewed to make it seem that a New York wage hike would have a negative impact on employment, which simply was not true.
Who is the wizard behind the curtain of the Employment Policies Institute? Richard Berman. Go to 1090 Vermont Ave. in Washington, the address of this "institute," and you won't find any economists or any other employees, for the institute has none. But you will find the old wizard sitting there — manipulating statistics, twisting logic and spewing out economic nonsense. A 71-year-old PR and advertising hatchet man named, he's paid by various corporations to set up official-sounding front groups that advance their political agenda.
The Employment Policies Institute (which is headed by Berman according to tax filings and has no employees, according to the New York Times) is a phony Astroturf front for the big restaurant chains. They want to keep profiting by paying poverty wages to their workers, so they've hired Berman to trash any and all who support raising America's wage floor.
The "institute" provides a varnish of academic legitimacy for unvarnished corporate greed. As the watchdog group PRWatch says of Berman's flimflam, "They are little more than phony experts on retainer."
— Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JimHightower, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.