Open Letter to Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio

National Public Radio wrong about Mackinac Center study

Editor’s Note: The author made several attempts to contact Steve Inskeep and to request a follow-up story that might provide a fairer treatment of the Mackinac Center’s right-to-work study. We received no response.

April 6, 2015

Mr. Steve Inskeep

In a March 27 on-air exchange with David Wessel of the Brookings Institution on the impact of right-to-work laws, you focused on a “single phrase that was mentioned in a news story earlier this week” (transcript here). This phrase was sourced in the NPR story to a 2013 study coauthored by Dr. Michael Hicks and myself.

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Unfortunately, your conversation proceeded to completely mischaracterize this study.

The “single phrase” was this: “Actually, since World War II, income and job growth have increased faster in right-to-work states.”

Wessel initially confirmed this observation with his own look at the data over the last two years. But he then falsely insinuated that our study simplistically asserted causal relationships between RTW and economic outcomes with no effort to control for other factors that may drive economic growth.

David Wessel: “But those correlations do not prove that right-to-work laws are the reason or even a reason that some states added more jobs than others.”

No kidding!

Wessel inferred that several bulleted observations in our opening discussion (see page four) amounted to us claiming conclusive evidence of causation. But even a casual look at our study would reveal these observations as part of the narrative introducing the RTW impact questions the study’s statistical model sought to test.

To be explicit, we sought to test these questions while controlling for “the other things going on,” in Wessel’s words.

Yet the idea that other factors may explain all or part of these economic phenomena was presented by Wessel as if this is a new concept and criticism. Perhaps he skimmed past the section of our study called “The Research Challenges of Right-to-Work,” where among other things we wrote:

A study which examines the role of right-to-work absent such issues as tax policy, weather and other variables that may impact a state’s aggregate economic performance will be unable to tease out the influence of right-to-work laws specifically.

Nevertheless, neither Mr. Wessel nor yourself bothered to mention any of this, much less the carefully constructed model we designed specifically to control for those other variables.

Adding insult to injury you asked Mr. Wessel if there is any “impartial scholarship” on right-to-work laws, as if Dr. Hicks and I had failed to produce as much. This offense was compounded by his throwing the misleading “conservative” label at us.

In answering that question Wessel pointed to two other studies — but neglected to mention both were highlighted in our study’s literature review.

In addition, our empirical research was peer reviewed twice. The second review was done by economists for an academic journal in which our model and its findings are soon to be published.

One would hope that an NPR interview of a Brookings scholar about (alleged) omitted variables would not actually omit important variables itself.

I am disappointed in your coverage and treatment of our right-to-work study. It deserved better and so did your listeners.


Michael LaFaive
Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative

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