Dynamist Blog

Cheap Books

For the two or three regular readers who haven't already bought The Substance of Style, let me note that the supercheap paperback version now selling on Amazon is exactly the same as the regular paperback version except for a "bargain book" sticker on the back. I wouldn't give it as a gift, but for your own reading--or your students!--it's fine. I've seen the books because I ordered 10 for my own supplies.

"Quickie Analyses and Quotes for the Post"

Reader Joseph Britt, who recently joined Pejman Yousefzadeh's new ChequerBoard group blog, emails some think tank thoughts:

Just a note to say that I read your comments on think tanks the other day, the replies to them on Drezner and other sites, and your replies to the replies. I think you are absolutely right on the substance, and agree that this is a useful conversation to have.

About three years ago when the farm bill was going through Congress I noticed the same kind of thing from the major conservative think tanks that I had noticed years before when I worked in agriculture policy in Congress myself. Heritage and Cato would come up with some quickie analyses and quotes for the Post after the legislation cleared committee, by which time farm bills are pretty much set in concrete; a few Congressmen entirely unacquainted with the subject would quote them in one-minute floor statements; and the legislation would breeze through to enactment as if the think tanks didn't exist. I thought to myself, here I've been gone from Washington for a good decade, and nothing has changed.

For my money -- and I'll grant this was some time ago -- the "think tank" that churned out the most consistently useful papers was the Congressional Research Service. All the others produced such a high ratio of chaff to wheat that, like you, I was strongly tempted to ignore anything they sent me.

The chaff-to-wheat ratio raises an important point. Think tankers can always point to some good work. But what percentage of their output are they actually proud of? What percentage makes a difference, if not in changing immediate policy then in raising new, sophisticated arguments, answering new objections, and swaying public opinion? What percentage is interesting? What percentage will people who really know the issues take seriously?

These are all important, if subjective, judgments that people in think tanks are well-qualified to make (and do make, at least in their own heads). Unfortunately, they are not the criteria rewarded by supporters who, as far as I can tell from their complete lack of response, have absolutely no interest in this discussion.

Real Cuts

I'm all for taking pork out of the federal budget, with or without Katrina, but the big money is elsewhere. How about delaying the Medicare prescription drug benefit? (Canceling it is too much to hope for.) I know that pharmacies have been spending big bucks to promote it, but it's not exactly an enthusiatically anticipated program.

Another potential source of bucks, on the revenue side, is the zillions of acres of western land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Particularly around Las Vegas, which is rapidly running out of land for people, its market value would be quite high. (How high?--ed. That would require research. Do I look like a think tank?) But, of course, the western mining and grazing interests who enjoy subsidized rights today would object mightily to privatization. And while some environmental groups might love a chance to buy and preserve western land, in places like Las Vegas where the land is really valuable, we could expect them to squawk about the evils of sprawl, development, and human habitation.

Finding Pork and Saying "Never Mind"

porkbusterssm.jpgIn honor InstaPundit and N.Z. Bear's Porkbusters campaign, I went looking for local pork that could be zeroed out to fund hurricane recovery. It was certainly easy to find: Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson put out a press release bragging about $60 million for local projects in the highway bill. (I'm highly skeptical that Rep. Johnson, a Democrat, had much to do with actually obtaining the pork.) As I've said many times on this blog, I'd love to have gorgeous Calatrava-designed bridges over the Trinity River, but I just can't see why people in the rest of the country should pay for them.

I was going to note that even the Dallas Morning News recognized the porkbarrel nature of those bridges in an editorial yesterday, suggesting that funding might at least be delayed to help pay for Katrina recovery. But in today's paper, the editorial board took that back. Today's mea culpa said the bridges "and the Trinity Project will be a huge economic engine for the revitalization of downtown, which supplies the oxygen for much of the rest of North Texas. They are critical to resolving this area's transportation challenges and to enhancing our most important waterway." Of course, even if that argument is true, it has nothing to do with the national interest. I guess Belo higher-ups, conscious of the value of their downtown real estate, objected.

Think Tank Forums

One good thing think tanks do is offer forums for authors and other public intellectuals, like this Cato event next Wednesday, with Ron Bailey and others discussing his new book, Liberation Biology. Of course, the value of the think tank forum depends almost entirely on whether it grabs the attention of C-Span and other media. Even a large think tank auditorium only holds 100 or so people.

Reinventing Upholstery Fabric

Like my earlier feature on American leather, my latest NYT feature looks at how a new company used innovative technology and sophisticated marketing to grow and flourish in a struggling industry. By improving the look and feel of upholstery in hospitals and high-traffic public places, Hi-Tex Inc.'s Crypton fabric technology both furthers and helps satisfy today's aesthetic imperative. My story looks at some of the operational challenges behind the good looks.

If I were writing the story as an economics column, rather than a small business feature, I would have taken a different tack. This is a classic tale of vertical integration, raising interesting Coase-Williamson questions. Why, for instance, does a company need to own the factory and machines in order to pick the people who'll run them? Does it matter that these people are employees? Or, as I suspect, simply that they take pride in their work?

Think Tanks Cont'd

Dan Drezner has more, including an on-target comment about TV booking from Bruce Bartlett. Arnold Kling weighs in here, with numerous reader comments. Tim Sandefur, like other readers, defends think tanks on the grounds that they're no worse, and perhaps better, than "intellectuals in government institutions, or in overwhelmingly government-supported universities."

I'm not asking think tanks to be universities. I'm asking them to do what they say they're trying to do. Think tanks--or at least the kind we're talking about--say they're about changing minds and affecting policy. To that end, think tank research should be able to pass scholarly scrutiny, if only because the arguments won't otherwise convince anyone but the already convinced. For the same reason, think tanks should seek not simply to repeat the same arguments but to advance the debate by responding to new critiques and new circumstances.

The problem is that think tanks face enormous incentives to do the easy job of making their supporters (moral or financial) feel good, rather than the hard job of persuading the unpersuaded or figuring out how to move policy, rather than simply to complain about it.

Take a recent example, Cato's news release purporting to offer "$62 billion in spending cuts that would offset Katrina relief in the short-term and create savings to reduce the federal deficit over the long-term." The release was great p.r., even garnering an Instalanche. It made a terrific soundbite: Tom DeLay is wrong. It's easy to find $62 billion of waste in the budget.

Unfortunately, anyone who looks at the release, even someone like me who agrees with the cuts, can tell the release is not serious. For starters, all the important details are missing. How exactly do you propose cutting farm subsidies in half? Ditto NASA? What specific programs are you going to zero out? Or how are you going to restructure allocations? How are you going to manage the politics? Do you have some reverse logroll in mind? How do you propose to cut the Army Corps of Engineers budget at a time when people are complaining about too little money for shoring up levees? These are not easy cuts, made even more justifiable by the Katrina crisis. They are a standard libertarian wish list in a new context. The release does nothing convince the typical reader that these programs are wasteful. It's just a publicity stunt--and an effective one--that makes ideological supporters feel good but does nothing to change short-term policy or long-term attitudes.

I'm not against think tanks. To the contrary, I believe they can fill a role no other institution fills. I appreciate the hard work and talent of the people who staff think tanks. My quarrel is less with them than with their short-sighted supporters. When faced with Dan Drezner's original question of why these organizations don't take on the difficult issues of the day, I come back to the same answer: because they need money to fund that research and donors, especially individuals, don't want to pay for it.

I am particularly skeptical of the one-stop-ideological shop, funded by individuals who care mostly about hearing their beliefs repeated in public. These organizations have almost no incentive to take on new or difficult questions or to work on the hard, unglamorous, long-term process of moving specialist opinion. (Unlike many think tank critics, I do not think corporate and foundation donors are usually a big problem, for the simple reason that their specialized program officers tend to be far more sophisticated about the state of debate and don't want their side to lose by making unpersuasive arguments.) I have more confidence in the effectiveness of organizations that focus on a specific discipline or policy area, because they tend to attract staffers with independent reputations in their field and to reward them for tackling the hot questions of the day, even if they don't know the answers in advance. Or maybe I just don't know enough about specialized organizations to see their problems.

As for the critique that there are many kinds of think tanks, not just the portmanteau ideological variety discussed in Dan's original post, all I can say is that Vogue is undeniably part of the mainstream media, but nobody thinks we're talking about fashion magazines when we examine news coverage.

Finally, on a positive note, I think the Manhattan Institute does a good job of funding smart, intellectually curious people and turning them loose to do in-depth research on topics they care about. But then, as its name suggests, this think tank isn't in Washington.

For Marginal Revolution Readers

If you came here from the MR post about think tanks, please be aware that there are now five (not three) items below on the subject.

Think Tanks from the Inside

Heritage Foundation economist Tim Kane writes:

I have been a big fan of yours for some time (even stayed up late to see your appearance on Dennis Miller a few months ago). I'm sure you are already getting lots of response to your think tank riff, but I have to pile on. You made some good points, but you overstretched and oversimplified. Don't get me wrong: you don't owe anyone an apology -- and in fact I think this is a fascinating, worthwhile discussion.

As a think tank scholar from the Heritage Foundation - probably the singular example of the institution you are describing - it is difficult to compose a response without the feeling that it will come across as reflexively defensive. Your critique boils down to whether think tanks could be better by doing "better" research. I wonder. First, I suspect that think tanks in general like to have a mix of scholars and screamers (in different ratios). From personal experience, I can attest that Heirtage prides itself on getting the facts right, not on spinning. I'd like to point to some of my own research, but gosh that feels awfully self-serving. And while you're right that good people leave ... is it fair to assume that they're replaced by lesser people? Would you prefer a world where all the analysts at Heritage stayed forever? Turnover is dynamic, Virgina, and no one should have to remind you of that!

The real issue is that think tank analysts - unlike most university scholars - put a premium on policy formation. So does the media, and so does Congress, but they have very different incentives. And who watches the watchmen? It is challenging enough to shame Congress away from its instinct for comfy incumbency, but harder still to puncture the myths of the MSM. And it would be nice if academic institutions took on that role, but they don't. Period. (even if you were patient enough to wait for a generation for good research to become conventional wisdom). Watching the watchmen is the role of think tanks.

For example, the MSM continues to peddle the myth that enlistees in the Army are underprivileged. There are no facts to back this claim, but it goes out unchallenged simply because it was asserted and never disproven. Where are the academic studies on this one (or isn't that a tenurable topic, perhaps)? You see, there are holes in the academic community as well, and gaps on what it studies due to its own institutional limitations. But I can tell you that we are about to publish a major study on troop demographics, and guess what? The MSM is dead wrong. Not only is the Army not disproportionately underprivileged, it is in fact disproportionately overprivileged.

Will I go on TV and radio to promote the finding? Absolutely. Especially if our excellent media team comes to work next month. But understand that I could never get media attention as a young academic, all by myself. I wrote op-eds as an assistant professor, and I didn't have the capacity to get them to the right editors anywhere. A few weeks after I joined Heritage, thanks to the media relations team, I was published in the New York Times. The Foundation is a force multiplier, true, but the NYT published the op-ed only because it was based on solid and compelling research.

One way to think about think tanks is from the perspective of a young scholar who faces the choice: (1) academic career or (2) policy career. For me at least, I didn't have confidence that I would be happy at Big Megaversity economics dept., let alone Southwestern State Smalltown College -- writing dry papers for dusty journals (and there are many). I loved teaching, and I loved policy talking points ... two things that don't matter for tenure. And I didn't have confidence that those institutions reward activism, and may even punish it. Drezner should know this, given his musing about blogging and tenure. So that's the choice.

It seems quite an error to suggest the think tanks are hollow of genuine scholarship, when they seem to be rather inspiring as one of the few institutions where free inquiry is still rewarded. And you shouldn't presume the academics own the moral high ground on thoughtful research. I mean, isn't it funny that Krugman skewered policy scholars (entrepreneurs, he called them) in a book a few years ago, and now is one of the most intellectually dishonest ideologues in the arena?

I will have further thoughts later, but now I must go do some real work.

"Sick and Abandoned" By Whom?

In this column about New Orleans, the author tells the story of Methodist Hospital. The private sector is full of heroes, and tries to offer timely, practical relief. The government screws things up: "Incredibly, when the out-of-state corporate owners of the hospital responded to the flooding by sending emergency relief supplies, they were confiscated at the airport by FEMA and sent elsewhere."

A greedy corporation is more caring and efficient than the government? Has Bob Herbert become some kind of libertarian fundamentalist?

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