Opinion

Felix Salmon

NYT vs Pirrong and Irwin: David Kocieniewski responds

By Felix Salmon
January 8, 2014

At the end of December, I wrote about the non-scandal of Scott Irwin and Craig Pirrong, a response to a hit-piece in the NYT by David Kocieniewski. Later that week, Kocieniewski offered to answer questions about his article, so I provided some. Here are my questions, along with Kocieniewski’s answer:

Q: Concerning “Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward,” I would love Mr. Kocieniewski to respond to criticisms of his piece by myself, Craig Pirrong and others, including, but not limited to:

-Why does Mr. Kocieniewski believe that the money flowing to the University of Illinois business school is a reward for research by Scott Irwin, when Mr. Irwin doesn’t teach at the business school?

-Does Mr. Kocieniewski believe that Irwin has violated the A.E.A. code of ethics? If not, does he believe that the A.E.A. code of ethics doesn’t go far enough? What would he like it to say?

-Does Mr. Kocieniewski believe that Mr. Pirrong is anything other than a straight shooter when it comes to his own opinions? Does he believe that Mr. Pirrong’s opinions are shaped by the money he’s getting from consulting contracts?

-Mr. Kocieniewski says that “major financial companies have funded magazines and websites to promote academics with friendly points of view.” Which companies? Which magazines? Which websites?

-Would Mr. Kocieniewski agree with Mr. Pirrong that most of Mr. Pirrong’s consulting engagements “have been adverse to commodity traders and banks?”

-Mr. Kocieniewski says that Mr. Pirrong has written “a flurry of influential letters to federal agencies.” How many is a flurry?

More generally, does Mr. Kocieniewski believe that Mr. Irwin and Mr. Pirrong are especially worthy of being singled out in this article and in this manner? Or was this just a case of finding a couple of professors at public universities which could be FOIAed? — Felix Salmon, Reuters columnist, New York

A: Despite the disclosure requirements of the American Economic Association and the University of Houston, Mr. Pirrong did not release details of his paid consulting work with 11 different clients until The New York Times filed repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Among the businesses paying him were the world’s largest commodities exchange, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and one of the largest commodity trading houses, Trafigura.

Mr. Pirrong was also a paid consultant of a Wall Street group, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, which is funded by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other major traders, at the time the association was quoting his research extensively in a lawsuit that for two years blocked attempts to regulate speculation.

Mr. Pirrong declined to answer questions about how much he was paid or the nature of some of his consulting work. The article nonetheless cited one instance in which his findings went against the interests of the Wall Street affiliated group that had funded his research.

Mr. Irwin, as the article notes, did report his financial ties in his disclosure form with the University of Illinois. In describing the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s dealings with the University of Illinois, the article also pointed out that Mr. Irwin’s only direct request for money from the C.M.E. was denied.

Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act nonetheless show a close relationship between the exchange’s public relations and research departments and the university’s academics — helping Mr. Irwin get his opinion pieces placed in newspapers, trying to schedule him to testify at congressional hearings and, when that failed, using his research to shape its executives’ testimony.

The university development office was also involved in scheduling Mr. Irwin to speak at the C.M.E. at the same time its fund-raisers were soliciting donations from the exchange for the business school, the emails show. Last fall, the C.M.E. also named Mr. Irwin to its Agricultural Markets Advisory Council, the emails show. Mr. Irwin subsequently said that he, like other academics on the committee, is paid a $10,000 annual stipend.

Finally, while friends and colleagues of Mr. Pirrong and Mr. Irwin may complain that they are being singled out for scrutiny, public records show just the opposite. Since this debate began more than five years ago, there have been many media references to the financial ties of those who have argued that speculation is responsible for price increases — whether they were academics performing industry funded research or hedge fund managers whose holdings in autos and airlines would benefit from regulation that might reduce oil prices. By reporting where the financial interests of Mr. Pirrong, Mr. Irwin and the universities that employ them intersect with those of speculators, the article gives readers additional information that they may wish to consider when weighing the professors’ public statements. — David Kocieniewski

The failure of Kocieniewski to answer any of my specific questions more or less speaks for itself; I won’t belabor it, except to note the irony involved in him complaining about Pirrong doing the exact same thing.

I will push back against the “friends and colleagues” line, however: I, for one, am a friend of neither Pirrong nor Irwin. To my knowledge, I have never met either of them. And I don’t think that, say, Thomas Sowell has, either.

It’s also worth mulling over the idea that Kocieniewski’s article was merely designed to provide “additional information” for readers who might have noticed that the 21st paragraph of a Financial Times article in August 2011 drew a passing connection between an academic, Kenneth Singleton of Stanford, and the Air Transport Association of America. I’m sure that both of those readers appreciated the new light that Mr Kocieniewski shed on this issue from his platform on the front page of the NYT. Still, I can’t quite understand how public records could possibly demonstrate that Pirrong and Irwin were not being singled out for scrutiny, as Kocieniewski avers. After all, Kocieniewski himself was the person singling them out. It’s rather worrying that he now seems to deny that he was doing any such thing.

Comments
9 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Is Felix really trying to argue that money has no influence in research in academia? That money has no influence generally? That these two academics are saintly?

Remember, the NYT did not cast Irwin and Pirrong as venal and mendacious–that was Felix’s straw-man argument. The NYT piece merely pointed out that those that produce research that is beneficial to some business interest are often able to reap some financial rewards. Is that so shocking?

I would like to see Felix address Pirrong’s denialist views on climate change in this context– can Felix see that such views might be beneficial to some business interest? If so, does he have a problem with Pirrong reaping some financial reward from these views?

Posted by Trollmes | Report as abusive
 

Sorry, I gotta go with Kocieniewski on this one.

Not only is there a systematic pattern of payments for Scott Irwin and Craig Pirrong, it appears to involve the school at all levels.

Even if they did not get money from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (and Kocieniewski shows that they did), it is clear that the school is heavily funded by the CME and its members, and the consequences of disrupting that gravy train, even if they were not a member of the Business School.

Additionally, suggesting that somehow the Business School, and the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics are somehow completely separate entities is an attempt to draw a distinction without a difference.

Furthermore the question as to whether, “Irwin has violated the A.E.A. code of ethics,” is a straw man, since no claim was made in the article that they violated that code of ethics.

Also, when you ask, “Does Mr. Kocieniewski believe that Mr. Pirrong is anything other than a straight shooter when it comes to his own opinions? Does he believe that Mr. Pirrong’s opinions are shaped by the money he’s getting from consulting contracts?” You are being patently unfair.

Kocieniewski cannot know what is inside of either Mr. Pirrong’s or Mr. Irwin’s head.

Instead, he is suggesting, to quote Upton Sinclair, “”It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Are Pirrong or Irving consciously lying? I don’t know, but probably not.

That being said, they tightly enmeshed in a web of payments to these academics and their institutions that likely colors their opinions in extremely significant ways.

The more general, and more important, issue than the specific ethics of Pirrong and Irving is whether the commercialization of our universities since the passage of the Bayh–Dole act.

Posted by Matthew_Saroff | Report as abusive
 

Felix:

Thanks for this, and for your earlier post.

I will respond to Kocieniewski more fully in due course, but 4 things stand out.

1. He is typically deceptive in invoking the AEA disclosure policy. This relates to articles submitted to journals. I submitted no article relating to speculation or commodities generally to any journal that received financial support from anyone. So the AEA policy is not relevant and Kocieniewski is dishonest in insinuating it is. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t know what the policy is, and doesn’t care.

2. I responded to FOIA requests in a timely fashion based on communications received from the University’s General Counsel’s office.

3. My opinions on speculation were well known and public before I had any relationship with Trafigura. That relationship dates from . . . September, 2013. To continuously make that connection is outrageous and scurrilous. And I don’t know whether DK is a liar, or just ignorant, but “one of the largest commodity trading houses” is a hedger, not a speculator, and hence is a seller of futures. Mr. Kocieniewski’s piece insinuates that speculative buying drove up prices. See the problem here?

4. Mr. Kocieniewski mentions that these issues became matters of controversy “more than five years ago.” I am on the record, publicly, regarding this issue as of August, 2006, i.e,. more than 7 years ago.

This is just starting to get fun. Don’t clear the place on your mantle for the Pulitzer yet, David.

Posted by cpirrong | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Salmon,

Not only do I agree with the comment above — with the Thomas Sowell caveat that government itself can become a special interest funding and occasionally manipulating academic research — but I have to add some troubling omissions from this broad discussion.

First of all, if we’re going to discuss whether financial ties to the TBTF banks played a role in influencing Prof. Pirrong’s views, or whether he had certain ‘freshwater’, ‘light touch regulation’ views beforehand and the money simply followed, it would be relevant to include not just his views in his narrow field of expertise. It’s necessary to look at where Pirrong stands on the broader questions of market manipulation. Why is it, for example, that Pirrong is willing to acknowledge manipulation or the strong likelihood of market manipulation in aluminium warehousing, but adamantly refuses to discuss manipulation of precious metals (gold and silver)? Why does he insist in posts like this:

http://streetwiseprofessor.com/?p=7950

…that market manipulation is generally extremely rare or hard to pull off, because for every short mathematically there must be a long, even in commodities like gold bullion or crude oil for which it is difficult to take physical delivery in comparison to the ease of electronically trading paper futures (I have, for one never seen Pirrong directly answer this question, but he does mention gold in the post)?

Could it be that the Prof. only sees market manipulation when it involves the firms he’s testifying on behalf of, but never when it doesn’t? Or is it ideological bias, whereby if Professor Pirrong conceded that gold was manipulated by central banks as an indisputable matter of historic record (as the Fed acknowledged doing after the 1987 market crash in coordination with the Bank of Japan, or unquestionably did during the Great Depression) he would concede an inch and then a mile to the hated ‘Paulbots’ and ‘goldbugs’ he regards as heretics from authentic classical liberalism? See this:

http://streetwiseprofessor.com/?p=5898

Second, I’m surprised that Pirrong’s history of bizarre, fanatically Establishmentarian statements have ever entered into the discussions here or at any other outlet profiling him. For example, Pirrong wrote a blog rant during the 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses comparing Texas Congressman Ron Paul and his supporters to the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Godwin’s law, anyone? To this day Pirrong insists he was only joking, but read the piece for yourself and decide.

http://streetwiseprofessor.com/?p=6121#c omment-88199

And how did Mr. Kocieniewski miss Pirrong’s rant about the financial gossip blog ZeroHedge, where he insisted that the top 1,000 most trafficked site in the U.S. is a front for the Bulgarian (and/or) Russian KGB designed to undermine confidence in America’s financial markets and political system? The libertarians = the new communists talking point is a very troubling one, and Prof. Pirrong’s role in spreading it also deserves examination to see if it is linked to his business relationships. Ditto for Pirrong’s outspoken defense of the National Security Agency since the NSA scandal broke. Are there any financial relationships there, with Palantir, or other software firms with known contracting ties to the NSA?

I thought Mr. K’s piece, while Pirrong and his supporters can claim it was unfair, was very circumspect and carefully worded, and perhaps had to omit the above for brevity’s sake.

Posted by Watchman101 | Report as abusive
 

Dear FS
You appear to have Chomskyitis: when shown to be at least partially wrong and inaccurate, you respond with ever longer comments, increasingly focused on minutia that becomes less and less related to the OP

I appreciate reading your 2018 defense of this piece, which will probably be 20,000 words long

One thing you are missing: quoting the “worlds leading expert in….” is a favorite NC tactic

Posted by ezra567 | Report as abusive
 

Too cutesy. Reminds me of the UofT hackademic who asked his funders what results they were hoping for in his study of how adopted children raised by gay parents fared. The fact that his laughable methodology resulted in those hopes being realized could’ve been coincidence but that’s not the way to bet.

Funding transparency is probably the best solution to hackademics selling their souls and to the extent Mr. K’s piece increased transparency, it’s probably good. Less good would be publicly impugning the integrity of the named gentlemen without sufficient evidence to justify singling them out in this instance. If Mr. K has better evidence than correlation that they aren’t giving their honest opinions, he would’ve probably cited it by now so . . .

Posted by OdinofAzgard | Report as abusive
 

Excellent post Felix.

I’m glad you’ve written this second post about DK’s shoddy piece.

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive
 

“1. He is typically deceptive in invoking the AEA disclosure policy. This relates to articles submitted to journals. I submitted no article relating to speculation or commodities generally to any journal that received financial support from anyone. So the AEA policy is not relevant and Kocieniewski is dishonest in insinuating it is. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t know what the policy is, and doesn’t care.” – Pirrong

Well, no. From the American Economic Association Disclosure Policy –

(7) “The AEA urges its members and other economists to apply the above principles in other publications: scholarly journals, op–ed pieces, newspaper and magazine columns, radio and television commentaries, as well as in testimony before federal and state legislative committees and other agencies.”

Pirrong’s response appears to be carelessly wrong or dishonest.

Posted by OdinofAzgard | Report as abusive
 

“1. He is typically deceptive in invoking the AEA disclosure policy. This relates to articles submitted to journals. I submitted no article relating to speculation or commodities generally to any journal that received financial support from anyone. So the AEA policy is not relevant and Kocieniewski is dishonest in insinuating it is. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t know what the policy is, and doesn’t care.” – Pirrong

Well, no. From the American Economic Association Disclosure Policy –

(7) “The AEA urges its members and other economists to apply the above principles in other publications: scholarly journals, op–ed pieces, newspaper and magazine columns, radio and television commentaries, as well as in testimony before federal and state legislative committees and other agencies.”

Pirrong’s response appears to be stupidly and carelessly wrong or stupidly dishonest.

Posted by OdinofAzgard | Report as abusive
 

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