Dynamist Blog

The Diversity of Think Tanks

In response to my posting and Dan Drezner's link and original posting, Fabio Rojas (a sometime contributor to Marginal Revolution) emails us both with a outside scholar's view of the landscape:

I think Virginia Postrel only gets one side of the story correct when she writes about think tanks. Of course, Postrel is correct in saying that many think tanks are media driven entities. They do specialize in producing ideologically driven "research" designed for op-eds, TV, and donors. However, you and Postrel focus on the most visible types of think tanks. The world of "think tanks" is extremely diverse, ranging from the Rand Corporation to the Cato Institute. Like any industry, think tanks — defined as intellectual organizations trying to develop policy proposals for politicians and bureaucrats — are a complex group. Here's my take on things:

1. Highly partisan & media-oriented think tanks — These are large, high profile organizations that have strong partisan and ideological identifications. Their goal is to support intellectuals whowill promote a particular agenda or ideology. They depend on private donor and occasional pubic grants, but aim to selectively distill academic and government research into items that can be easily disseminated into the mass media. If they are large enough, they might support some original research, like Brookings. These organizations produce very little that is taken seriously by practitioners and academics.

2. Industry or Public Sector ThinkTanks — These are organizations that adopt a rational, scientific stance towards pubic policy or industry issues. Their job is to serve their sector by conducting serious studies on behalf of a benefactor using accepted research techniques, or occasionally supporting basic science. Some of these organizations actually avoid publicity, as it might compromise their ability to conduct research on sensitive topics. The Rand Corporation is a good example. Some are industry specific — think of the American Bar Foundation. Since these organizations don't depend on publicity, but on reputable research, they are much more likely to have individuals with close ties to academia and reputable government agencies or private laboratories.

3> Broker Think Tank — This is a fairly obscure sector most people don't know about. Individuals, universities, corporations, interest groups, and other think tanks produce so much knowledge and ideas that it is impossible for political elites and partisan think tank people to sort through it all. There are think tanks that specialize in sorting through complex policy debates and give a succinct summary to politicians and their aids. Some of the smaller "neocon" think tanks fit this mold — they commission reports and books where policy intellectuals compress years of debate into an easy to read format for other conservatives. These folks rarely make it to the op-ed page or Fox News, but they write articles in policy journals and opinion journals. You might say broker think tanks support "policy" intellectuals who provide the academic ammunition for more visible fights in the media, and for more refined discussion in movement forums.

To answer Dan's question — what's the value added? Media oriented think tanks specialize in publicity for ideas — as long as they easily fit into a particular political agenda. Sector think tanks specialize in producing knowledge for consumption among professionals. The brokers are the intellectual middle men & women of the policy world. With respect to Virginia Postrel's post, yes, the partisan think tanks are so dominated by media that they barely produce any thing that might be considered a contribution to knowledge, but remember there is a vast network of other think tanks that do many other things.

Maybe my brain has been warped by too many years in the think tank world, but I think this is an important discussion to have--and one that's unlikely to occur publicly except on blogs. Tyler Cowen has posted some thoughts. More to come here, as well.

Kelo Politics, Cont'd

In California, all the bills to restrict eminent domain, even mildly, have quietly died. Dan Walters, the state's leading political columnist, reports:

Predictably, local government and redevelopment officials reacted with alarm that eminent domain could be severely restricted. The California Redevelopment Association and other advocates geared up to kill the measures and in the closing days of the legislative session, Democratic leaders ginned up a strategy to cool off the anti-eminent domain fervor. They unveiled legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on the seizure of private homes (but not commercial property), and authorize a study of the practice, thus giving their members a chance, or so it seemed, to side with the anti-eminent domain sentiment without doing any real damage to redevelopment agencies.

Quietly, however, the moratorium bills were themselves put on the shelf as the session ended - with Democrats blaming Republicans. "With every vote, they tried to derail this prudent response," said Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, who carried one of the moratorium bills.

Kehoe's finger-pointing, however, was more than a little disingenuous since the stalled bills required only simple majority votes and thus needed no Republicans to go along. Clearly, this was a Democratic action, not a Republican one, perhaps just a feint to pretend to do something about eminent domain without actually doing anything to upset the apple cart.

Ironically, the only eminent domain-related bill to reach Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk was a measure that allows the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, which operates the Cache Creek Casino in Yolo County, to join a joint powers consortium with local governments and the University of California to manage the 17,300-acre Conaway Ranch. While the county would purchase the land - or acquire it through eminent domain - the Rumsey Band has agreed to help finance the transaction.

Whether the tribe's interest in the Conaway Ranch is just an expression of civic involvement, or it has some other, more commercial interest is yet to be discovered. But allowing a casino-owning tribe to even indirectly participate in an eminent domain action sets a potentially worrisome precedent.

Somehow I'm not surprised.

A Think Tank Counterexample

From Will Wilkinson:

In the nine months I've been at Cato I've written a piece on evolutionary psychology & capitalism; a long paper that is, I believe, the only work on social security to discuss at length Rawlsian standards of public reason; a review of Douglass North's latest book, focusing on his philosophy of mind; and now I'm working on a long methodological critique of work that attempts to bend happiness research toward paternalist conclusions. Now, I don't know which donors in particular are demanding my somewhat recondite products, but my supervisors seem to think that they're worthwhile, even if over the head of most donors and not exactly talk-radio fodder. Yes, I have written some op-eds, in which I attempted to advance some serious points. To my chagrin, no one has asked me to be on TV. But I spend most of my time reading the latest research on happiness and behavioral economics, and writing what I hope will be an original and intellectually rigorous paper. I spent much of my time at Mercatus synthesizing the views of Nobel Prize winners into reports on institutions and economic development for USAID subcontractors.

Will was hired at Cato by Brink Lindsey, whose work I greatly admire, as part of an initiative to build long-term (i.e., non-news cycle) intellectual research there. One of the good things about think tanks is that they do have nooks and crannies for this sort of work. I wish there were more incentive for them to brag about it.

And Now for All the Caveats

Obviously, some interesting work goes on in think tanks. And obviously some donors support that work. But there's a reason that the largest, most financially successful, most often quoted organizations--including the ones Dan Drezner focused on--are notable for their small ratio of original thinking, or even scholarship-based popularization, to recycled soundbites. That's what funders and the media reward. That's what makes a think tank a winner.

What's really sad is that the system obscures the interesting work that does go on in think tanks, including the high-profile ones. Good work suffers from the think tank stigma, which then leads good people to leave think tanks or not to go to them in the first place, which leads to a higher proportion of bad work, and so on.

What's Wrong with Think Tanks?

Dan Drezner wonders why think tanks do such lousy, superficial work when they could be addressing important questions, in part by translating academic research.

Well, Dan, let me tell you the way of the world. For the most part, think tank donors (especially individuals, as opposed to foundations or corporations) are completely uninterested in original research and unable to evaluate its quality. On the whole, individuals give to think tanks for the same reason they give to religious organizations--to demonstrate commitment to a belief system and to support the people they believe will spread the word. They want to hear the same messages over and over and over again, and they financially reward those who give them what they want. While generally nice, generous people, donors are on the whole indifferent to originality, bored by wonky policy proposals, and annoyed by any think tank employee who challenges their political cathechisms. Boards of trustees tend to reward executives not for doing or supporting important work but for raising money.

Since you can't do the work without money anyway, think tankers who want to do good, significant work eventually either flee or give in to the system's preference for superficiality. Making the system even worse are media bookers who want predictable, preferably partisan views. Dan worries about op-eds. Op-eds are philosophy tomes compared to TV, and as Nicole Kidman aptly observed in To Die For, you're nobody in America if you're not on TV. That goes double for public policy circles.

Think tanks, unlike universities, are supposed to influence public policy, not to produce knowledge for its own sake. Donors and boards want hard evidence that their money is working, that it's influencing the public debate. The easiest, flashiest way to measure that influence--especially since 501(c)3 think tanks aren't allowed to lobby--is to count media appearances. (Most media counts don't even differentiate by the quality of the appearance, except perhaps in raw audience numbers.) Even successful books reach few readers, compared to a TV appearance. And the best way to sell political books is, of course, to get on TV, preferably with an easily digested, highly partisan message.

I should also mention that, outside of a few foreign policy shops, there is a huge intellectual stigma attached to association with a think tank. Too many people, including reviewers, don't read what you actually write. They read what they imagine the work from that think tank will say. And that's in the happy event that your work actually gets reviewed, rather than tossed unread on the trash heap as more think tank crap. I say that as a tosser as well as a tossee.

In short, think tanks are well into their decadent phase. They're giving their donors what they want--simple sound bites--but they aren't producing many new ideas.

Go to the main blog page for more on this subject.

"Nano Is the New Turbo"

"I believe we're now going to see 'nano' applied to everything from cigars to Civics," blogs Diego Rodriguez of MetaCool (and IDEO).

Huge Koizumi Victory (and Random Disaster Musings)

I get my Japan news supplement from Sean Kinsell's blog. He has lots on the Japanese reaction to Katrina, too--much of it concerned with earthquake preparedness. Here's a sample:

In Japan, what we're told is this: A disaster may render you unreachable. It may cut you off from communication networks and utilities. The appropriate government agencies (starting at the neighborhood level and moving upward depending on the magnitude of the damage) will respond as quickly as they can, but you may be on your own for days until they do. Prepare supplies. Learn escape routes. Then learn alternate escape routes. Know what your region's points of vulnerability are. Get to know your neighbors (especially the elderly or infirm) so you can help each other out and account for each other. Follow directions if you're told to evacuate. Stay put if you aren't. Participate in the earthquake preparation drills in your neighborhood.

If that's the attitude of people in collectivist, obedient, welfare-state Japan, it is beyond the wit of man why any American should be sitting around entertaining the idea that Washington should be the first (or second or fifteenth) entity to step in and keep the nasty wind and rain and shaky-shaky from hurting you. Sheesh.

They say the same thing about being cut off in L.A., but in a less organized fashion (no earthquake drills). Of course, in an earthquake, you have no warning--not a couple of days to get out of town (assuming you have transportation, of course). And there's always that question of where to store the earthquake supplies, since the house could collapse on them, making them inaccessible.

Kelo Backlash, Cont'd

As an unintended consequences of Proposition 13, California city governments depend heavily on sales taxes, rather than property taxes. That gives them a strong incentive to favor retailers over other businesses and over housing (especially new homes) in zoning. It also creates a serious temptation to use eminent domain to help lure retailers. So California is an interesting place to watch the Kelo backlash building.

This Modesto Bee article reports on the left-right congressional alliance against the property-taking establishment:

Conservative Tracy Rep. Richard Pombo has joined some of the House of Representatives' most liberal firebrands in an effort to curb state and local eminent domain powers.

The strange-bedfellows alliance pits valley ranchers and property owners against cities and counties....

Pombo and at least 40 other House members are backing legislation meant to deter state and local governments from using the eminent domain powers extended by the court. The bill would not overturn the Kelo decision. Instead, the bill would cut off federal funds to any state or local agency that uses eminent domain for private commercial development.

Meanwhile in the San Diego area, local shenanigans are feeding the backlash, as the Union Tribune editorializes:

First came a report on the San Diego Model School Development Agency's push to seize and demolish 188 homes in the thriving City Heights neighborhood to build up to 509 town houses, condos and apartments more to its liking. The 30-acre site is far from the decaying neighborhood normally targeted in redevelopment, but blithe agency bureaucrats from the Soviet school of central planning--knowing they could call the area "blighted" if they chose--didn't care.

Then came yesterday's jaw-dropping story about National City's plan to use its powers of eminent domain to force the Daily family to sell a parcel the family leases to the Mossy family for one of its thriving car dealerships. After the two sides couldn't agree on a sales price, Mossy representatives made plain they would move their Nissan dealership--and the $1 million in annual sales and property taxes it generates for National City--unless the city helped close the deal. The City Council promptly caved in to Mossy's unsavory hardball tactics and, in its role as the city redevelopment board, began looking into seizing the land--after a mysterious epiphany in which members suddenly realized the site suffered from a heretofore undetected case of "visual blight."

What these stories have in common is a challenge to the argument made by eminent domain advocates: that California already protects property from Kelo-type seizures by requiring cities to find an area "blighted" first. Blight is a bit too easy to declare and, besides, one person's blight is another person's neighborhood. If an area is truly blighted, one might think property would be cheap enough to acquire profitably without local government's help. But then, of course, a developer might do something like build apartment buildings that don't generate big local taxes.

ArchivedDeep Glamour Blog ›

Blog Feed

Articles Feed