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Friday, April 16, 2010

"The End of the Think Tank"

Full day today -- here's a quick post between appointments with a few comments at the end:

The End Of The Think Tank, by Bruce Bartlett, Commentary, Forbes: We hear the term "think tank" quite often, but it's doubtful that very many people know what it means. They may not need to because the term is increasingly devoid of meaning. At least in Washington, think tanks are becoming so political that they are more like lobbyists than academic institutions.
The original think tank was probably the Brookings Institution, established as a degree-granting graduate school in the 1920s. Eventually it evolved into the quintessential think tank, a sort of university without students; all research, no teaching.
Brookings has always had a moderately liberal perspective, and after World War II some businessmen decided that there was need for a conservative counterpart to it and established the American Enterprise Institute.
Brookings has always had an extremely high quality of researchers... AEI tried to match the quality of Brookings' staff, but ... in the 1950s and 1960s there just weren't as many top-level academics of a conservative persuasion.
This began to change in the 1970s as stagflation made many conservative economic ideas, such as monetarism, more academically respectable. There was also increasing demand for conservative ideas among policymakers. But they were frustrated by the slow, plodding style of AEI and Brookings, which tended to publish their research in books that often took years to complete.
One of those frustrated policymakers was Ed Feulner, a Republican staffer in the House of Representatives. After a particularly grueling fight over some issue that Republicans lost, Feulner's frustration boiled over when he got a really excellent book from some think tank filled ... that would have been extremely useful in the just-ended legislative fight. But because it didn't come out until the fight was over it was completely useless...
Feulner resolved to fill the gap between the think tanks of that era and the fast-changing needs of Congress. The idea was to have an institution that wouldn't take years to study an issue to death and not deliver its research until it was too late, but that would produce its research on a much faster schedule, in time to influence congressional debate.
From Feulner's vision the Heritage Foundation was established in 1973. Rather than fill its staff with aging Ph.D.s, he hired people with master's degrees... Their job wasn't to do original research, but to take the research that had already been done by conservative academics, summarize it and apply it to the specific legislative issues Congress was considering. Instead of writing books of several hundred pages, Heritage studies were typically 10 pages or less. ... I know there were occasions when I wrote a quick one-pager on some hot topic and it was in congressional offices the same day. In the Internet era we take such speed for granted, but in the 1970s and 1980s Heritage was operating at light speed, while AEI and Brookings were still using horses and buggies, so to speak.
In the 1990s other think tanks began to catch up, and now all of them produce research far more quickly and with more focus on hot political issues. The increasing impact of think tanks brought in new money as corporations realized that think tank studies were highly effective ways of influencing legislation. ...
Unfortunately, the additional money brought increased donor pressure to produce bottom line results--getting bills passed or defeated--and had a corrupting effect on the think tanks. New ones came into existence that were little more lobbying operations with tax-exempt status. .. Not surprisingly, the executives of such organizations are paid more like lobbyists than academics. ... As bottom line pressure increased at think tanks, many found themselves becoming ever more closely aligned with politicians and political parties. ...
As the think tanks became more political and donations from extreme partisans became a bigger source of revenue there was increased pressure on their staff to conform to the party line. Usually this took the form of self-censorship, as a former Heritage staffer recently told me. He understood that the organization was closely aligned with the Republican Party so he just avoided ever saying anything publicly critical of Republicans. No one needed to tell him to do so; it was part of the corporate culture that was simply understood.
But lately the partisan pressure seems to have ratcheted up. David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, appears to have been fired by AEI for being publicly critical of Republican strategy on health care. ...
The blurring of the lines between policy research and political advocacy at Washington think tanks took another step shortly after the Frum affair became public when Heritage announced the establishment of an explicitly political arm called Heritage Action for America. As Heritage President Ed Feulner explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on April 12, the new organization will be free from the legal limits on partisan political activity imposed on nonprofits and able to spend as much money as it would like to support or defeat legislation through lobbying, advertising and other methods that go well beyond the think tank's usual stock-in-trade.

With the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision having loosened the restraints on corporate political activity, it's likely that we will see other think tanks adopt the Heritage model as they did in the 1970s. The problem is that the pressure on researchers to conform to partisan political objectives is going to become even more intense, and if they are going to be expected to function as de facto lobbyists they are going to expect to be paid like lobbyists, which will ratchet up pressure to raise money from those with a purely bottom-line perspective. I fear that honesty and truth will get more and more lost in the process.

I think these organizations -- think tanks -- have done great damage to economics. We hurt ourselves enough with the events leading up to the financial crisis, but there has also been a blurring of lines between academic research and think tank research -- some of which is simply not honest -- that has made it appear that there are divisions within the profession that simply do not exist, or that there is stronger support for some ideas than actually exists. The main problem, I think, is the he said - she said presentation of academic work in the media alongside the papers that think tanks put out as though there is an equivalence (or a similarly structured debate on, say, CNN). Much of the think tank work (but not all) is junk and no such equivalence exists, but the work is often given equal footing in the press. One of the reasons I started this blog was the frustration of hearing what economists "believe" (e.g. "tax cuts pay for themselves"), when those beliefs were anything but widely held. But you wouldn't know that reading the paper or watching the news. (I should probably go back and clean up what I just wrote, but out of time so I'll have to leave as is and hope it makes some sense...)

Update: Please see Bruce Bartlett's response: Mark Thoma on Think Tank Politicization.

    Posted by on Friday, April 16, 2010 at 09:58 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (31)


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